You Should Know

March 2017 Issue




Calcium Supplements and Your Heart

Research suggests you shouldn't overdo calcium supplements.

Calcium’s role in overall health is not up for debate. It’s required for bone strength, muscle function and nerve transmission. Consuming enough may also help keep blood pressure numbers down. The question is, then, how should you get your fill of calcium? For many who are concerned they aren’t getting enough from food, supplementation becomes an attractive option. However, a number of recent studies have raised questions about whether supplements might be doing more harm than good, particularly with respect to heart health. A 2016 study from Johns Hopkins University adds to the argument that, yes, there is reason for caution when popping calcium pills.

Supplement Concerns

In this study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, those taking calcium supplements over a 10-year period had a 22 percent higher risk of plaque buildup in their arteries than those obtaining all their calcium from foods. As calcium-based plaque builds up in the arteries it can impede blood flow and increase heart attack risk. The concern is that a high dose of calcium from a supplement, particularly in older people, doesn’t make it all the way to the skeleton, and the excess is not fully excreted in the urine, so it accumulates in the arteries. On the flipside, calcium from food such as milk and broccoli is believed to be metabolized differently and absorbed into the bloodstream in smaller amounts throughout the day, so there is less chance of it clogging arteries.

But not all research is on board that calcium supplementation is of concern. For instance, a 2016 review of studies, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, refuted the aforementioned results by suggesting there is not enough evidence that calcium intake from food and supplements below the tolerable upper level of intake (2,000-2,500 milligrams/day) should be considered unsafe for heart health.

Bottom Line Advice

Research on the role calcium supplements play in heart health remains fluid, but most experts agree that people should take a food-first approach. In general, adults should get 1,000-1,200 milligrams of calcium a day, according to the Institute of Medicine. You can reach that amount by scattering calcium-rich foods like yogurt, calcium-set tofu, and kale throughout your day. Discuss with your dietitian or doctor the need for supplementation to make up for any potential dietary shortfalls. If you use a supplement, choose one that provides no more than 350 milligrams per tablet, and spread out its use throughout the day to lessen the risk of it being deposited in your arteries.