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What is calcium?

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in your body, with 99 percent stored in your bones. One percent is in your blood, muscle and other body tissues. 

“Getting the right amount of calcium is essential for good bone health and optimal functioning of your cardiovascular, muscular and nervous systems,” said Trevor Prashad, DO, Catholic Health Primary Care Physician. “Since your body cannot make calcium, you must get it from the foods you eat or a supplement.”


How does calcium help my body?

Calcium helps to:

  • Reduce the risk for osteoporosis 
  • Regulate heart rhythms
  • Increase blood flow
  • Improve blood clotting
  • Reduce high blood pressure
  • Contract muscles
  • Reduce the risk of developing kidney stones

The nervous system needs calcium for muscles to move and for nerves to carry messages between the brain and the rest of your body. 


How much calcium do I need?

“Your calcium needs depend on factors like age, gender and diet,” said Dr. Prashad.

In the United States, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommend the following daily calcium intake:

  • Children 9 to 18 years old: 1,300 mg
  • Adults 19 to 50 years old: 1,000 mg
  • Adult men 51 to 70 years old: 1,000 mg
  • Adult women 51 to 70 years old: 1,200 mg
  • Adults 71 years and older: 1,200 mg
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding adults: 1,000 mg

Your body requires vitamin D to help absorb calcium. Choose foods that are high in both minerals to improve absorption. Sun exposure can also help by raising the amount of vitamin D in your body. 

Specific diets or health conditions can make it harder to get enough calcium, such as:

  • Following a vegan diet
  • Being lactose intolerant 
  • Having inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease, which decreases the ability to absorb calcium 

How do I get enough calcium from food?

The following foods can help you get the amount of calcium you need daily:

  • Dairy products, including cow’s milk, yogurt and cheese
  • Fish with soft bones, including sardines and salmon
  • Leafy, dark green vegetables, including spinach and broccoli
  • Calcium-fortified foods and beverages, such as non-dairy milk and cereal
  • Soy products such as tofu

“Talk to your primary care physician if you have dietary restrictions or health conditions that limit certain foods,” said Dr. Prashad. “They can refer you to a dietitian who will help you create a well-balanced diet that includes the recommended amount of calcium.” 


Do I need a calcium supplement?

“Calcium supplements can help if you have a calcium deficiency and cannot get enough calcium from food,” said Dr. Prashad. “Some medications and health conditions do not mix well with calcium supplements, so talk to your doctor before taking any supplements.”

Dr. Prashad explained that your doctor will also know the correct dose for you and the best time to take the supplement. Some supplements are absorbed best right after a meal when you have a high level of stomach acid. Also, your body can absorb calcium the best when taken in 500-milligram doses or smaller. 

“We often recommend to patients that they split a supplement dose and take 500 mg in the morning and 500 mg in the evening,” he said.

Some people take over-the-counter (OTC) products like antacids that contain calcium. “Talk to your doctor first since some OTC products may not be suitable for long-term use,” said Dr. Prashad. 


What are the risks of getting too much or too little calcium?

Children who do not get enough calcium may not reach their full adult height. 

“Women of menopausal age should talk to their doctor about a bone density test,” said Dr. Prashad. “The test can help to determine if you are losing bone mass and density. If you are not already taking a calcium supplement, you may need one if the test shows you are at high risk for developing osteoporosis.”

He also noted the importance of keeping up with your annual exam, so you and your doctor can evaluate your daily calcium needs as you age.


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