Monday Medical: Milking calcium for all its worth

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We've all heard the message: Calcium is good for us. So why are most of us ignoring this message? The body does not make calcium. We must get it through diet or supplements. Calcium is crucial not only to building strong bones and teeth but for contraction of blood vessels, nerves and muscles, regulation of blood pressure and many other functions.

The vast majority of Americans do not get enough calcium through diet. The primary dietary source of calcium is dairy foods such as milk, yogurt and cheese. Some adults avoid these foods because they are relatively high in fat and calories or because they just "don't taste good." Children and adolescents substitute soft drinks and fatty snacks.

By ignoring the calcium message, we are taking a gamble on our long-term health. Throughout life, bones go through constant change. Small amounts of old bones get broken down, and new bones are formed through the deposition of calcium. When peak bone mass is reached at about age 30, breakdown and deposition of bone remain roughly equal for a couple of decades. At about age 50, breakdown may start to exceed new bone formation.

When inadequate stores of calcium are available, the body digs into the bones to obtain the calcium needed to maintain typical nerve, muscle and blood vessel function. This can cause osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis literally means "porous bones." Postmenopausal women are most at risk because of a decline in calcium absorption that occurs as a result of reduced estrogen production. Of the 10 million Americans with osteoporosis, 80 percent are women. Older men also are vulnerable to deteriorating bone mass and the resulting risk of fractures of the hip, vertebrae, wrist, pelvis, ribs and other bones.

Calcium isn't just for bones, however. It can help reduce high blood pressure and reduce the risk of colon cancer. Research shows that low levels of calcium in the diet tend to promote the storage of fat, though a large intake of calcium leads to increased burning of fat. Calcium also has been associated with reduced severity of premenstrual syndrome, lower incidence of kidney stones and improved metabolism.

It's best to increase your calcium intake through a variety of foods. Low-fat dairy products and fortified orange juice have other nutrients that help ensure maximum absorption. Other dietary sources of calcium include kale, Chinese cabbage, broccoli, beans, tofu and canned sardines and salmon.

Those who cannot ingest enough calcium through food sources often turn to supplements. Henry Fabian, M.D., medical director of the Spine Center of Steamboat Springs, recommends supplements that include Vitamin D to help improve absorption of calcium.

In a recent "Taking Care of Me" talk on spine care, Fabian advised taking a supplement that has no more than 500 milligrams of calcium per pill. He also mentioned that a high-fiber meal may interfere with the body's ability to absorb calcium. The best time to take a calcium supplement, he said, is before going to bed.

It is estimated that the average American gets only about 600 milligrams a day, less than half of what is required for healthy living. That could explain why the diagnosis of osteoporosis has increased seven-fold during the past decade.

Postmenopausal women, men older than 50, younger women and teenagers should be equally aware of the importance of building strong bones to reach optimal bone mass.

For more about calcium, check out Today's Health News on Yampa Valley Medical Center's Web site, www.yvmc.org.

Christine McKelvie is public relations director

of Yampa Valley Medical Center

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