You’ve likely heard the media furor around a recent finding that use of calcium supplements is associated with a higher risk of heart attack, based on a study published in the British Medical Journal a month or so ago. Many people I’ve heard from are surprised and alarmed by this news — but unfortunately, it’s not news to me. In my 2000 book, Better Bones, Better Body, on p. 248, I wrote, “Over and over we are told to consume adequate calcium. What we are not told, however, is that we also need… other bone building nutrients. They also forget to tell us that it can actually be harmful to consume high levels of calcium without its companion nutrients.”
Calcium doesn’t magically travel straight from your yogurt to your bones, as some advertisers would have you believe (I discuss this in my article The calcium myth). Instead, it needs companion nutrients that help with absorption, utilization, and regulation of calcium in not only the bones, but also the blood, organs, and other tissues. The fact that vitamin D is crucial for calcium absorption is becoming better recognized by researchers and the public alike thanks to an avalanche of research on vitamin D, but another vitamin — vitamin K — is, in my opinion, the “next big breakthrough” for bone (and overall) health. You see, vitamin K (specifically K2 in the form of MK-7) has a very critical role to play in binding calcium to the tissues that need it, particularly the bones. And if vitamin K is present and doing its job, calcium meant for the bones and teeth doesn’t wind up being calcified in the arteries, setting the stage for heart disease.
But heart disease is not the only health problem that arises with excess calcium — it’s just the most frightening possibility out there. High calcium intake interferes with the absorption or utilization of other nutrients, including manganese, magnesium, iron, zinc, and phosphorus (most of which, by no coincidence, are key minerals involved in keeping bone strong and flexible). And calcium and magnesium work in concert so that increasing your calcium levels without simultaneously increasing magnesium can promote calcium deposits in the joints or kidneys, leading to arthritis and kidney stones! In a nutshell, supplementing with high levels of calcium alone tips the scales not toward better, healthier bones and bodies, but away from them.
Fortunately, rebalancing those scales is easy! We need to recognize, first of all, that we don’t really need the very high calcium intakes that we’re constantly told will strengthen our bones, and second, that we’d fare better with a comprehensive nutritional approach to osteoporosis and overall health that includes, at the very minimum, vitamin D, magnesium, and above all vitamin K2 to balance the body’s absorption, metabolism, and utilization of calcium.
Also, there is a large body of scientific research on vitamin K and the prevention of arterial calcification.Should you be interested in knowing more, take a look at my article, “Vitamin K: the overlooked bone builder and heart protector.”
Bolland, M.J., Avenell, A., Baron, J.A., et al. 2010. Effect of calcium supplements on risk of myocardial infarction and cardiovascular events: Meta-analysis. BMJ;341:c3691.
Cleland, J.G.F., Witte, K., Steel, S. 2010. Calcium supplements in people with osteoporosis. BMJ;341:c3856.