The dangers of calcium supplements

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I was recently asked about an old New York Times article that stated how calcium supplements were shown to increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Since millions of people supplement with calcium each day to prevent osteoporosis, I wanted to address the fact that there are dangers with taking calcium supplements, but these risks can be reduced with other nutrients.

Dangerous alone

As I’ve mentioned before with nutrients like salt and omega-6 fatty acids, a vitamin, mineral, or nutrient isn’t inherently good or bad on it’s own, but it can cause problems when it isn’t taken in balance with it’s compliment (like potassium with sodium or omega-3 to balance omega-6). It’s the same issue with calcium.

We’ve recognized for some time the importance of calcium for building strong bones and regulating your nervous system (which is why the supplements exist in the first place), but many studies have called into question the benefits of supplementing with calcium and vitamin D. These studies have found that it improves bone strength which reduces the risks of fractures later in life, but it can also cause calcification in the arteries which then increases the risks of heart attacks and strokes. While this was pointed out in that New York Times article, they didn’t explain that a calcium deficiency will also cause the same calcification of the arteries.

Your nervous system needs very specific levels of calcium to function properly and it sees your bones as a massive repository of easily accessible calcium that it can tap into whenever levels of dietary calcium are too low. This not only causes the same problematic calcium build up in your blood vessels, but it weakens the bones at the same time. You do need calcium in your diet and ideally it should come from food sources because they often contain two other nutrients, magnesium and vitamin K2, that will help your body shuttle the calcium safely into your bones and keep it out of the walls of your blood vessels.

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Vitamin K2

This is a vitamin that you almost never hear about, but it works synergistically with vitamin D to help shuttle dietary calcium into your bones while keeping it out of your arteries. Studies have shown that supplementing with vitamin K2 can reduce your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by as much as 57 percent.

Food Sources: Vitamin K2 is a fat-soluble vitamin found in certain foods like full-fat dairy from grass-fed cows, eggs, and liver. It’s also found in some fermented foods like natto, sauerkraut, and certain cheeses like brie and gouda. Since vitamin K2 is produced by beneficial bacteria that metabolize it from vitamin K1, some people can also convert it in their large intestines from the more abundant vitamin K1, but this tends to be less efficient and antibiotics have been shown to kill off these helpful bacteria colonies.

Supplement: If you aren’t a fan of these foods, you can supplement with vitamin K2. The exact form you want to find is called MK-7. It’s derived from the fermented soy product natto and you only need to take it once a day. You can find it relatively cheaply on Amazon or in the vitamin aisle of any store.

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Magnesium

Magnesium has also been shown to prevent arterial calcification and aid in the proper absorption of calcium. It’s also been shown to reduce high blood pressure and improve delivery of blood sugar into muscle cells. Type 2 diabetics tend to have low magnesium levels and supplementing with magnesium has been shown to improve their insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control. Calcium supplementation can actually reduce magnesium levels, but getting enough magnesium in your diet actually helps with calcium absorption.

Food Sources: Found in many leafy greens like spinach, nuts, seeds, avocados, beans, and whole grains. Many of these foods are also excellent sources of calcium, so it’s a better way to increase your calcium levels as well.

Supplement: There are various kinds of magnesium supplements but one of the most recommended kind is magnesium citrate. I generally recommend going for the food sources first since too much magnesium in supplement form can have a laxative effect.

Be sure to compliment calcium supplements

In general, I would recommend getting your calcium from food sources. If you don’t like dairy, there are plenty of plant-based sources like broccoli, almonds, avocados, spinach, green beans, onions, asparagus, beans, and oranges. Many of these foods also contain magnesium to prevent the dangers of arterial calcification that can occur with calcium supplements. If you insist on taking calcium supplements, make sure you get adequate magnesium and vitamin K2 to ensure the calcium is actually delivered into your bones instead of your blood vessels.

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