Should We Take Calcium Supplements?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Calcium Supplements, Exercise, Food and Health, Healthy Lifestyle

Clearing Up The Calcium Confusion

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

should we take calcium supplementsShould we take calcium supplements?  You have every right to be confused about calcium supplementation. There have been a lot of conflicting headlines in recent months.

It has seemed like a no-brainer for years that calcium supplementation could help post-menopausal women and men over 50 avoid the debilitating effects of osteoporosis.

After all:

  • >99% of adults fail to get the USDA recommended 2.5-3 servings/day of dairy products.
  • 67% of women ages 19-50 and 90% of women over 50 fail to meet the RDA recommendations for calcium intake from diet alone.
  • Men do a little better (but only because we consume more food). 40% of men ages 19-50 and 80% of men over 50 fail to meet the RDA recommendations for calcium intake from diet alone.
  • Inadequate calcium intake over a lifetime is considered a major risk factor for osteoporosis.
  • Osteoporosis is serious business. It doesn’t just cause bone fractures. It can result in chronic pain, disability, long term nursing home care, and even death.

It’s no wonder that some experts have predicted that supplementation with calcium and vitamin D could save over $1 billion per year in health care cost savings. It is also why health professionals have recommended calcium supplementation for years, especially for postmenopausal women and men over 50.

However, recent headlines have claimed that calcium supplementation doesn’t really increase bone density or prevent osteoporosis (more about that later). Other headlines have suggested that calcium supplementation is actually bad for you. It may increase your risk of heart disease.

That’s why the general public, and even many doctors, are confused.  Should we take calcium supplements?  Everyone wants to know the answer to two questions:

  • Do calcium supplements work?
  • Are calcium supplements safe?

I will start with the second question first.

Are Calcium Supplements Safe?

are calcium supplements safeI have discussed the issue of calcium supplements and heart disease risk in a previous issue of Health Tips From the Professor. Briefly, the initial studies suggesting that calcium supplementation might increase the risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular disease were good studies, but they were small, short-term studies.

The initial studies raised an important question, so the scientific community stepped up to the plate and conducted larger, longer term studies to test the hypothesis. Both of those studies concluded that calcium supplementation posed no heart health risks.

Now a third major study on the subject has just been published (Raffield et al, Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Disease, doi: 10.1016/j.numecd.2016.07.007). The study followed 6236 men and women ages 45-84 for an average of 10.3 years. The subjects were from four different race/ethnicity groups and came from 6 different locations in the United States. More importantly, there were 208 heart attacks and 641 diagnoses of cardiovascular disease during the study, so the sample size was large enough to accurately determine the relationship between calcium supplementation and heart disease.

The results were pretty straight forward:

  • The authors concluded: “[This study] does not support a substantial association of calcium supplement use with negative cardiovascular outcomes.” If you would like the plain-speak version of their conclusion, they were saying that they saw no increase in either heart attacks or overall cardiovascular disease in people taking calcium supplements.
  • If anything, they saw a slight decrease in heart attack risk in those taking calcium supplements, but this was not statistically significant.

In summary, the weight of evidence is pretty clear. Three major studies have now come to the same conclusion: Calcium supplementation does not increase the risk of either heart attacks or cardiovascular disease.

Of course, once information has been placed on the internet, it tends to stay there for a very long time – even if subsequent studies have proven it to be wrong. So the myth that calcium supplementation increases heart attack risk will probably be with us for a while.

So, should we take calcium supplements?  Let’s first investigate a little further.

 

Do Calcium Supplements Work?

do calcium supplements workAs I mention above, recent headlines have also suggested that calcium supplementation does not increase bone density, so it is unlikely to protect against osteoporosis. I analyzed the study behind those headlines in great detail in two previous issues of Health Tips From the Professor.

In Part 1 Calcium Supplements Prevent Bone Fractures  I pointed out the multiple weaknesses in the study that make it impossible to draw a meaningful conclusion from the data.

 

In Part 2 Preventing Osteoporosis  I discussed the conclusion that the study should have come to, namely: Adequate calcium intake is absolutely essential for strong bones, but calcium intake is only one component of a bone healthy lifestyle.

The bottom line is that calcium supplementation will be of little use if:

  • You aren’t getting adequate amounts of vitamin D and all of the other nutrients needed for bone formation from diet and supplementation.
  • You aren’t getting enough exercise to stimulate bone formation.
  • You are consuming bone dissolving foods or taking bone dissolving drugs.

Conversely, none of the other aspects of a bone healthy lifestyle matter if you aren’t getting enough calcium from diet and supplementation.

The bottom line is that you need to get adequate calcium and have a bone healthy lifestyle to build strong bones and prevent osteoporosis, and calcium supplementation is often essential to make sure you are getting adequate calcium.

 

Should We Take Calcium Supplements?

should we take calcium supplements nowShould we take calcium supplements?  If you are one of the millions of Americans who aren’t meeting the RDA guidelines for calcium from diet alone, the answer is an unqualified yes.  Calcium supplementation is safe, and it is cheap.  Osteoporosis is preventable, and it is not a disease to be trifled with.

However, you also need to be aware that calcium supplementation alone is unlikely to be effective unless you follow a bone healthy lifestyle of diet, exercise and appropriate supplementation to make sure you are getting all of the nutrients needed for bone formation.

Of course, it is always possible to get too much of a good thing. The RDA for calcium is 1,000 – 1,200 mg/day. The suggested upper limit (UL) for calcium is 2,000 – 3,000 mg/day.  I would aim closer to the RDA than the UL unless higher intakes are recommended by your health care professional.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • 80% of men and 90% percent of women over 50 do not get enough calcium from their diet.
  • Consequently, doctors have consistently recommended calcium supplementation to prevent osteoporosis, and 50% of men and 60% of women over 60 currently consume calcium supplements on a regular basis.
  • Some small, short term studies suggested that calcium supplementation might increase the risk of heart disease, and warnings about calcium supplementation have been widely circulated on the internet. This hypothesis has been evaluated by three larger, longer term studies that have all concluded that calcium supplementation does not increase heart disease risk.
  • A recent study claimed that calcium supplementation was ineffective at increasing bone density, and that report has also been widely circulated. However, there are multiple weaknesses in the study that make it impossible to draw a meaningful conclusion from the data.
  • If you are one of the millions of Americans who aren’t meeting the RDA guidelines for calcium from diet alone, you should consider calcium supplementation.  It is safe.  It is effective when combined with a bone healthy lifestyle of diet, exercise, and appropriate supplementation.  Finally, it is cheap. Osteoporosis is preventable, and it is not a disease to be trifled with.
  • Of course, it is always possible to get too much of a good thing. The RDA for calcium is 1,000 – 1,200 mg/day. The suggested upper limit (UL) for calcium is 2,000 – 3,000 mg/day. I would aim closer to the RDA than the UL unless higher intakes are recommended by your health care professional.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (6)

  • Jennifer

    |

    Calcium supplements were the wrong thing for me, I recently learned. I am hyperparathyroid, due to a tumor on one or more parathyroid glands. The calcium level in my blood had risen to 12.5 due to the malfunction of the parathyroid gland that regulates calcium in the bones, and more. I had osteoporosis—so all the more reason to take calcium? Wrong. For years, I faithfully took calcium, until this year. For years, doctors mused over my high blood calcium levels, above 10. However, due to thinning bones, every one recommended calcium supplements. Now that the tumor and malfunction is discovered, I halted all calcium and I’m preparing for surgery to remove the tumor(s) on my parathyroid gland(s), the only cure. One should not assume that thin bones are the only marker to take calcium.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Jennifer,
      You are correct in saying that calcium supplements won’t help if you are hyperparathyroid. However, I must wonder how your doctor’s missed that diagnosis. With thinning bones and high blood calcium levels, they should have tested you for hyperparathyroidism – not muse about it.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Jeanie Porter

    |

    Dr. Chaney, I would like additional information on where magnesium fits into the calcium/osteoporosis equation and in what ratio it should be included. Also, the same for strontium – how important is it for bone health and in what ratio?
    Thank you. Jeanie Porter

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Jeanie,
      You should certainly aim for RDA intake of magnesium (300-310 mg/day for women and 400-420 mg/day for men. I have seen recommendations for a 2:1 ratio of calcium to magnesium. What many people neglect to say is that holds only up to RDA levels of calcium (which would correspond to 400-500 mg/day of magnesium. It is also important to know that excess magnesium can cause diarrhea. If you are taking a magnesium supplement, you get one that is sustained release.
      Strontium is more complicated. There is a form, strontium ranelate, that is prescribed to help increase bone density in women with osteoporosis in Europe. However, it has not been approved for use in this country, and the strontium supplements used in this country are unrelated to strontium ranelate. Unfortunately, there has been very little research on strontium supplements in this country. In short, strontium supplements may help increase bone density, but we have no idea what kind or how much would be beneficial.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Ruth wood

    |

    Hello Dr. Chaney.
    I’m interested in information regarding the effect of calcium supplementation on development of kidney stones.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Ruth,
      Some forms of kidney stones do contain calcium, but if your calcium intake is less than 4,000 mg/day, the kidney stones are probably not caused by excess calcium. Kidney stones are more likely caused by inadequate water intake, too little magnesium, too little B6, too much vitamin D, or hormone imbalances. If you are getting adequate water, magnesium, and B vitamins and still suffer from recurrent kidney stones, you should probably get a full workup by your physician.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Should We Use Supplements For Cardiovascular Health?

Posted July 10, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Are You Just Wasting Your Money On Supplements?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

supplements for cardiovascular health wast moneyYou’ve seen the headlines. “Recent Study Finds Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.”  You are being told that supplements are of no benefit to you. They are a waste of money. You should follow a healthy diet instead. Is all of this true?

If I were like most bloggers, I would give you a simple yes or no answer that would be only partially correct. Instead, I am going to put the study behind these headlines into perspective. I am going to give you a deeper understanding of supplementation, so you can make better choices for your health.

 Should we use supplements for cardiovascular health?

In today’s article I will give you a brief overview of the subject. Here are the topics I will cover today:

  • Is this fake news?
  • Did the study ask the right questions?
  • Is this a question of “Garbage In – Garbage Out?
  • Reducing Heart Disease Risk. What you need to know.

All these topics are covered in much more detail (with references) in my book “Slaying The Supplement Myths”, which will be published this fall.

 

How Was This Study Done?

supplements for cardiovascular healthThis study (D.J.A. Jenkins et al, Journal of the American College Of Cardiology, 71: 2540-2584, 2018 ) was a meta-analysis. Simply put, that means the authors combined the results of many previous studies into a single database to increase the statistical power of their conclusions. This study included 127 randomized control trials published between 2012 and December 2017. These were all studies that included supplementation and looked at cardiovascular end points, cancer end points or overall mortality.

Before looking at the results, it is instructive to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the study. Rather than giving you my interpretation, let me summarize what the authors said about strengths and weaknesses of their own study.

The strengths are obvious. Randomized control trials are considered the gold standard of evidence-based medicine, but they have their weaknesses. Here is what the authors said about the limitations of their study:

  • “Randomized control trials are of shorter duration, whereas longer duration studies might be required to fully capture chronic disease risk.”
  • “Dose-response data were not usually available [from the randomized control studies included in their analysis]. However, larger studies would allow the effect of dose to be assessed.”

There are some other limitations of this study, which I will point out below.

Is This Fake News?

supplements for cardiovascular health fake newsWhen I talk about “fake news” I am referring to the headlines, not to the study behind the headlines. The headlines were definitive: “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.” However, when you read the study the reality is quite different:

  • In contrast to the negative headlines, the study reported:
    • Folic acid supplementation decreased stroke risk by 20% and overall heart disease risk by 17%.
    • B complex supplements containing folic acid, B6, and B12 decreased stroke risk by 10%.
    • That’s a big deal, but somehow the headlines forgot to mention it.
  • The supplements that had no significant effect on heart disease risk (multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C) were ones that would not be expected to lower heart disease risk. There was little evidence from previous studies of decreased risk. Furthermore, there is no plausible mechanism for supposing they might decrease heart disease risk.
  • The study did not include vitamin E or omega-3 supplements, which are the ones most likely to prove effective in decreasing heart disease risk when the studies are done properly (see below).

Did The Study Ask The Right Question?

Most of the studies included in this meta-analysis were asking whether a supplement decreased heart disease risk or mortality for everyone. Simply put, the studies started with a group of generally healthy Americans and asked whether supplementation had a significant effect on disease risk for everyone in that population.

That is the wrong question. We should not expect supplementation to benefit everyone equally. Instead, we should be asking who is most likely to benefit from supplementation and design our clinical studies to test whether those people benefit from supplementation.

supplements for cardiovascular health diagramI have created the graphic on the right as a guide to help answer the question of “Who is most likely to benefit from supplementation?”. Let me summarize each of the points using folic acid as the example.

 

Poor Diet: It only makes sense that those people who are deficient in folate from foods are the most likely to benefit from folic acid supplementation. Think about it for a minute. Would you really expect people who are already getting plenty of folate from their diet to obtain additional benefits from folic acid supplementation?

The NIH estimates that around 20% of US women of childbearing age are deficient in folic acid. For other segments of our population, dietary folate insufficiency ranges from 5-10%. Yet, most studies of folic acid supplementation lump everyone together – even though 80-95% of the US population is already getting enough folate through foods, food fortification, and supplementation. It is no wonder most studies fail to find a beneficial effect of folic acid supplementation.

The authors of the meta-analysis I discussed above said that the beneficial effects of folic acid they saw might have been influenced by a very large Chinese study, because a much higher percentage of Chinese are deficient in folic acid. They went on to say that the Chinese study needed to be repeated in this country.

In fact, the US study has already been done. A large study called “The Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation (HOPE)” study reported that folic acid supplementation did not reduce heart disease risk in the whole population. However, when the study focused on the subgroup of subjects who were folate-deficient at the beginning of the study, folic acid supplementation significantly decreased their risk of heart attack and cardiovascular death.  This would seem to suggest using supplements for cardiovascular health is a good idea.

Increased Need: There are many factors that increase the need for certain nutrients. However, for the sake of simplicity, let’s only focus on medications. Medications that interfere with folic acid metabolism include anticonvulsants, metformin (used to treat diabetes), methotrexate and sulfasalazine (used to treat severe inflammation), birth control pills, and some diuretics. Use of these medications is not a concern when the diet is adequate. However, when you combine medication use with a folate-deficient diet, health risks are increased and supplementation with folic acid is more likely to be beneficial.

Genetic Predisposition: The best known genetic defect affecting folic acid metabolism is MTHFR. MTHFR deficiency does not mean you have a specific need for methylfolate. However, it does increase your need for folic acid. Again, this is not a concern when the diet is adequate. However, when you combine MTHFR deficiency with a folate-deficient diet, health risks are increased and supplementation with folic acid is more likely to be beneficial. I cover this topic in great detail in my upcoming book, “Slaying The Supplement Myths”. In the meantime, you might wish to view my video, “The Truth About Methyl Folate.”

Diseases: An underlying disease or predisposition to disease often increases the need for one or more nutrients that help reduce disease risk. The best examples of this are two major studies on the effect of vitamin E on heart disease risk in women. Both studies found no effect of vitamin E on heart disease risk in the whole population. However, one study reported that vitamin E reduced heart disease risk in the subgroup of women who were post-menopausal (when the risk of heart disease skyrockets). The other study found that vitamin E reduced heart attack risk in the subgroup of women who had pre-existing heart disease at the beginning of the study.

Finally, if you look at the diagram closely, you will notice a red circle in the middle. When two or three of these factors overlap, that is the “sweet spot” where supplementation is almost certain to make a difference and it may be a good idea to use supplements for cardiovascular health.

Is This A Question Of “Garbage In, Garbage Out”?

supplements for cardiovascular health garbage in outUnfortunately, most clinical studies focus on the “Does everyone benefit from supplementation question?” rather than the “Who benefits from supplementation?” question.

In addition, most clinical studies of supplementation are based on the drug model. They are studying supplementation with a single vitamin or mineral, as if it were a drug. That’s unfortunate, because vitamins and minerals work together synergistically. What we need are more studies of holistic supplementation approaches.

Until these two things change, most supplement studies are doomed to failure. They are doomed to give negative results. In addition, meta-analyses based on these faulty supplement studies will fall victim to what computer programmers refer to as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. If the data going into the analysis is faulty, the data coming out of the study will be equally faulty. It won’t be worth the paper it is written on. If you are looking for personal guidance on supplementation, this study falls into that category.

 

Should We Use Supplements For Cardiovascular Health?

 

If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for everyone, this meta-analysis is clear. Folic acid may decrease the risk of stroke and heart disease. A B complex supplement may decrease the risk of stroke. All the other supplements they included in their analysis did not decrease heart disease risk, but the analysis did not include vitamin E and/or omega-3s.

However, if you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for you, this study provides no guidance. It did not ask the right questions.

I would be remiss, however, if I failed to point out that we know healthy diets can decrease heart disease risk. In the words of the authors: “The recent science-based report of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, also concerned with [heart disease] risk reduction, recommended 3 dietary patterns: 1) a healthy American diet low in saturated fat, trans fat, and meat, but high in fruits and vegetables; 2) a Mediterranean diet; and 3) a vegetarian diet. These diets, with their accompanying recommendations, continue the move towards more plant-based diets…” I cover the effect of diet on heart disease risk in detail in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”.

 

The Bottom Line

 

You have probably seen the recent headlines proclaiming: “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.” The study behind the headlines was a meta-analysis of 127 randomized control trials looking at the effect of supplementation on heart disease risk and mortality.

  • The headlines qualify as “fake news” because:
    • The study found that folic acid decreased stroke and heart disease risk, and B vitamins decreased stroke risk. Somehow the headlines forgot to mention that.
    • The study found that multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C had no effect on heart disease risk. These are nutrients that were unlikely to decrease heart disease risk to begin with.
    • The study did not include vitamin E and omega-3s. These are nutrients that are likely to decrease heart disease risk when the studies are done properly.
  • The authors of the study stated that a major weakness of their study was that that randomized control studies included in their analysis were short term, whereas longer duration studies might be required to fully capture chronic disease risk.
  • The study behind the headlines is of little use for you as an individual because it asked the wrong question.
  • Most clinical studies focus on the “Does everyone benefit from supplementation question?” That is the wrong question. Instead we need more clinical studies focused on the “Who benefits from supplementation?” question. I discuss that question in more detail in the article above.
  • In addition, most clinical studies of supplementation are based on the drug model. They are studying supplementation with a single vitamin or mineral, as if it were a drug. That’s unfortunate, because vitamins and minerals work together synergistically. What we need are more studies of holistic supplementation approaches.
  • Until these two things change, most supplement studies are doomed to failure. They are doomed to give negative results. In addition, meta-analyses based on these faulty supplement studies will fall victim to what computer programmers refer to as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. If the data going into the analysis is faulty, the data coming out of the study will be equally faulty. It won’t be worth the paper it is written on. If you are looking for personal guidance on supplementation, this study falls into that category.
  • If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for everyone, this study is clear. Folic acid may decrease the risk of stroke and heart disease. A B-complex supplement may decrease the risk of stroke. All the other supplements they included in their analysis did not decrease heart disease risk, but they did not include vitamin E and/or omega-3s in their analysis.
  • If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for you, this study provides no guidance. It did not ask the right questions.
  • However, we do know that healthy, plant-based diets can decrease heart disease risk. I cover heart healthy diets in detail in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths.”

 

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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