Archives

Calcium Supplements: After the Scary Story

Calcium supplement use may raise heart attack risk

Did you catch this headline? Last week all the media outlets reported the results of a German nutrition study that tracked 24,000 people over an 11-year period. Participants who took calcium supplements had almost double the heart attacks of those who didn’t take calcium. The authors concluded that we should ditch the supplements and meet our calcium needs from food sources. While that is generally a very good approach with most nutrients (a handful of supplements can’t atone for a junky diet!), there’s some missing information here: How much calcium were the un-supplemented participants getting from their diets? How much of what forms of calcium were the others taking, and how much were they also getting from their diets? What were their bodies able to absorb?

More important, were they taking vitamin K2? As I mentioned before, it’s responsible for directing calcium to our bones, and away from our arteries. Although bacteria in our intestines can convert some vitamin K1 (the renowned blood-clotter) into K2, even if we ate several cups of leafy greens a day, without a good serving of Japanese natto or a supplement, we’d still be deficient. If the calcium-popping participants weren’t also taking K2 then it’s not surprising their arteries were overloaded.

And what were the participants’ vitamin D levels? There’s an important partnership between vitamin D and vitamin K2; too little of one prevents the other from doing its best work. If the supplementing group had vitamin D levels in any way typical of people in Germany’s northern latitude – their calcium may well have wandered into their hearts.

And what were they all eating? Adding calcium supplements to a highly-processed diet might well have compounded other issues.

In the absence of definitive answers, how is a diligent bone-lover to respond? It was just months ago that my own doctor advised me to take 1500 mg per day of calcium supplements, with no discussion of how I eat or any other supplement than magnesium; I don’t feel at all inclined to go back and ask for her updated advice, especially since she also insisted I take bisphosphonate drugs!

The approach that makes sense to me is to continue with a non-processed  diet, based largely on a wide variety of fresh vegetables, with some meat, fish, nuts, fruit, eggs, yogurt, cheese, healthy fats, and non-gluten grains. Consistent with the COMB study I mentioned before I also take K2, D, magnesium, and fish oil. (That report recommended strontium citrate, which I took for a month. However, I figured out it was the cause of some daily headaches that developed, so stopped. I’ll try strontium again soon, as other support nutrients may be better balanced now.) I also take silica, boron, a multi-mineral supplement that includes 500 mg calcium,  a vitamin B complex, and vitamin C.

When new information comes out it can be hard to make sense of it. Personally, after reflecting on this news I don’t find it too scary after all.

A new reputation for prunes

I was 10 years old when I first encountered prunes. It was breakfast time at Girl Guide camp, and no one could leave the table without a mandatory serving of the sweet stewed fruit. Why were the girls groaning and giggling? With a food this delicious, why did there have to be a rule?  It seems I’d come from a family where bowels moved on schedule without drama, so I hadn’t yet heard about the laxative effect of prunes.

Now prunes are becoming known for a new superpower: Reversing osteoporosis. Here’s what one study found:

In a clinical study of 58 women, eating 100 grams of dried plums per day improved bone formation markers after only three months, compared to a control group served 75g of dried apples.

via Reverse Osteoporosis with Prunes.

It seems the first benefit to bones is from the high boron content of prunes. This stimulates the bone-building cells, the osteoblasts, and increases calcium absorption so less is lost in urine. It also helps convert vitamin D into the active form that helps direct the calcium into the bones. Then the polyphenols in prunes have an anti-inflammatory effect, inhibiting the osteoclasts, which are the clean-up cells that can be overactive in osteoporosis. More bone building and less bone removal? Higher density.

So the study I referenced above found that 100 grams of prunes per day would have a major impact on bone density. From what I learned at camp, that level of consumption would not be wise for someone like me, and on that point I won’t elaborate. However, it isn’t hard to fit a few prunes into my diet. These days I use them as a reward to cover the nasty taste of my daily silicon drops.

One concern about prunes is that they are slightly acid-forming in the body, and too much acid has a negative impact on bone density. As part of a diet balanced by alkaline foods, though, a few prunes can really encourage bone health.

Milk to the rescue? A well-funded myth.

As I reeled under the news of my low bone density, I grappled with guilt: If only I’d drunk more milk. Now, I used to have some each day, and during my pregnancies I meticulously counted four glasses a day, without fail. Cheese and unsweetened live yogurt have always been favourite foods, too. Yet, I’d internalised the media message: weak bones = too little milk, so on news of my osteoporosis I concluded I just hadn’t done enough. My fault.

But then I discovered a confusing piece of news: countries with the highest dairy consumption also have the most osteoporosis! Yes, despite milk’s legendary calcium content, those who drink the most have the weakest bones. So what’s with that???

Our bodies are about 1-2% calcium, mostly stored in our bones and teeth. Milk contains lots of calcium, and we can absorb about 32% of the calcium from dairy products, which is fairly good. As it turns out, though, our bones need more than just calcium. For one, they must have magnesium; too little of this mineral alters the way the body metabolizes calcium, and the hormones that regulate calcium. But calcium and magnesium compete for the same absorption channels in the body, so too much of one will lead to a deficiency of the other; with our dairy-rich western diet, that loser is invariably magnesium, already in short supply. Magnesium’s deficiency will keep the body from using the calcium that shut it out  in the first place! 

Another major problem concerns the acid-base balance inside us. We’ve all heard of the problems of acid rain: if precipitation is too acidic – usually from industrial waste released into the air – when it hits the ground it leaches minerals out of the rock. Scientists have called this “osteoporosis of the lakes”, because it is so similar to a process in the body that can leach minerals out of our bones. In our bodies, this acid/base (pH) balance is affected by the foods we eat. I’ll explain more about this later, as it’s a very big topic. But in short, most fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds leave an alkaline residue in the body, while meat, grains, and dairy products acidify the body. In this delicate balance, the typical western diet leaves us very vulnerable.

So in response to my diagnosis, I have reduced my milk consumption, reduced grain intake, and increased magnesium sources, such as nuts.

Who ever convinced us to entrust a single food group with the health of our bones in the first place? I haven’t uncovered the definitive answer to that, but I can guess it’s someone who benefits from the dairy industry’s success. It certainly isn’t the consumers.