What’s the link between calcium and heart disease? Calcium is needed for healthy bones and electrolyte balance. It is an essential nutrient, a dietary mineral, which must be consumed because your body can’t make it. But recently, there has been concern that calcium might increase your risk of heart disease.
Here’s what you need to know about this important mineral…
What the Studies Say
Thousands of studies have been conducted concerning the connection between calcium and heart disease risk. Researchers have looked specifically at the incidence of heart attack caused by atherosclerosis (the most common form of heart disease) among people who take calcium supplements. These mineral supplements are often recommended for reducing the risk of osteoporosis, a degenerative condition of the bones that causes them to be brittle and fracture more easily. Bone fractures in the elderly can be deadly. Osteoporosis is most common in women but men can be affected too.
According to the Mayo Clinic, some studies suggest a link between heart attack and calcium supplements. Other results suggest there is a link but only in women. Yet others indicate there is no risk at all. Martha Grogan, a Mayo Clinic physician, concluded by saying, “More research is needed before doctors know the effect calcium supplements may have on your heart attack risk.”‘
What do we do in the meantime? It’s not likely that a lot more research will be done and more studies might not clear up the confusion. However the information below should help you make a decision.
How Calcium Could Contribute to Heart Disease
There is no connection between heart disease and a diet high in calcium-rich foods such as dark, leafy greens. So you should definitely continue to include as many of those in your diet as you can. Yogurt and skim milk are also calcium-rich foods. No increased risk of heart attack has been noted among people who include a lot of those foods in their diet.
Pasteurized processed “cheese” may be another story because of the sodium, the processing, the plastic and many other factors. But generally speaking, calcium from natural foods is not a heart disease contributor.
Calcium supplements are the concern. Calcium is a component of the plaques that are present in the vessel walls in atherosclerosis. The fatty plaques are “calcified” or hardened. Atherosclerosis is sometimes referred to as “hardening of the arteries” and calcium can contribute to the “hardness”. Excessive calcium, especially in the form of supplements, could increase the amount of calcium in the bloodstream and that calcium could get stuck in fatty deposits in the vessels.
There are a lot of different theories about this subject. One thing that researchers agree on is that only single-ingredient calcium supplements pose a threat. Single-ingredient supplements are the cheapest ones. Antacids made from calcium-carbonate pose the same kind of threat and are often promoted as helping you to improve your calcium intake. People could be taking a daily calcium supplement, chewing on calcium-carbonate antacids several times per day and eating calcium rich foods at every meal. It’s easy to see how a person could get too much calcium on a daily basis.
You might be surprised to learn that the person who gets too much calcium may still be at risk for osteoporosis. You’ll learn why in the next section.
How You Can Have Healthy Bones Without Increasing Your Heart Disease Risk
Whole foods contain a variety of nutrients. Vitamin K is an example of a nutrient that is present in many calcium-rich foods. Without vitamin K, calcium is more likely to end up in the arteries and less likely to be deposited in the bones. The vitamin basically “guides” the mineral to the right place. Vitamin D also helps. The increased risk does not appear to be present in people who take calcium and vitamin D or multivitamin and mineral supplements, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Vitamin D is not present in many foods. Our bodies make it from sunshine. The vitamin is found in many fortified foods, such as milk that is fortified with vitamin D. Food manufacturers started adding vitamin D to milk because kids developed rickets, a softening of the bones, even when they got enough calcium. The absence of vitamin D caused the problem.
You can take a supplement and have healthy bones without increasing your heart disease risk, as long as the supplement is well-designed. A well-designed, bone-protecting supplement will contain calcium, magnesium, vitamin D and vitamin K, as well as other trace minerals and nutrients essential for bone health. You can think of a well-designed supplementt as more like a whole food and that’s the way it should be.
So What’s The Bottom Line on Calcium and Heart Disease?
Although more research needs to be conducted as there are conflicting opinions, for most of us this shouldn’t be a major concern. As we mentioned, dietary sources of calcium are not the issue, so you don’t need to watch your calcium intake on a daily basis. However, if you have stomach issues and are regularly chewing antacid tablets, you might want to limit other sources of the mineral just to make sure your body doesn’t have excessive amounts. If you do need to take a supplement, which is a good idea for anyone regardless of whether you have a condition which necessitates it, make sure it is a high quality one with a balance of important minerals, vitamins and other nutrients. We discuss some of these supplements on other pages of our site.