The Benefits and Risks of Calcium Supplements

Last week I received a call that my grandmother had had a stroke. On the way to the hospital I received another call that it was not a stroke, it was severe dehydration. Once I arrived at the hospital I was told the real problem was actually calcium overload. My grandmother had too much calcium circulating in her body and it resulted in dehydration, kidney failure, and muscle weakness. All of this could happen from adding milk to her morning coffee?

Calcium is available in pill form, chews, enhanced foods, and good ol’ fashioned dairy products. It can be used to treat or prevent disease. Bones and teeth are ‘made’ of calcium. Getting the right amount of calcium is particularly important for women and for older people, as our bones begin to weaken with age. It is also important for regulating blood pressure, heart rate, and chemical processes in the body. When the body can’t find calcium it needs, it ‘steals’ it from the bones. This causes weak bones and conditions such as osteoporosis.

Making the Choice and Planning Well
If you chose to take a supplement it is important to keep in mind that it will not be the only form of calcium you are getting. Consider your typical diet when deciding how much calcium to take. For example, if you are lactose intolerant you may need to get more calcium from a supplement. If you eat calcium fortified foods (such as enriched breads or cereals) you will need less calcium from a supplement because you are getting more from your food.

How Much Calcium Should You Take?
The recommended daily intake of calcium varies by age, with people between the ages of 9 and 18 needing around 1300 mg/day, people 19 to 50 years old needing 1000 mg/day, and people over 50 needing 1200 mg/day. People with health problems, such as established osteoporosis, may take more if recommended by their physician. For example, my grandmother suffers from osteoporosis so she was on an increased dosage. This meant she had to watch her diet much more carefully.

What Risk is Involved?
It is very important that you stay within normal limits of calcium intake. If you consume more than 2500 mg/day you risk kidney malfunction, dehydration, and heart attack among other problems. Symptoms of calcium overdose include kidney stones, feeling tired, muscle weakness, nausea, frequent urge to urinate, confusion, change in bowel movements, headaches, and dehydration. The overdose can result in heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure if not treated soon. Calcium overdose is known by many names: calcium poisoning, calcium overload, and hypercalcemia.

Recovery from basic calcium toxicity will take a few days. (This is if you caught the overdose in time and suffered no further problems) During this time you will be hospitalized and given many intravenous (IV) fluids, electrolytes, and vitamins. Blood tests will be performed regularly to track your progress. My grandmother did not suffer severe symptoms and get treatment until 3 days after her overdose, but she was able to recover completely after 4 days of hospitalization and fluids.

It is important to become educated about any medication you take, including vitamins and supplements. Calcium supplements, like any medicine, can be both beneficial and dangerous to your health. Calcium can also change or cancel-out other medications. Tell your doctor or pharmacist you are taking calcium if you have been prescribed any other medication.

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