The Calcium Story: Part II

A few years ago I wrote a piece entitled “The Calcium Story” that can be found in Newsletters. It dealt with how much calcium we need and how we can get it, especially in a dairy-free diet. Although a great deal of new information has surfaced since I wrote it, readers will still find it informative.

This article follows up on that older one and discusses what happens to calcium inside the body. Although doctors frequently recommend taking 1,000 or even 1,500 mg of calcium, how can we tell if the calcium we take actually goes to strengthen bones and doesn’t instead do something completely different, and possibly even harmful?

Let’s consider some facts: a majority of women past the age of forty or fifty today are being diagnosed with osteopenia, if not full-blown osteoporosis, and a growing number of men are found to have the same problem. This means that, in an aging population, bones are losing calcium at an alarming rate.

As we lose bone density, many of us also struggle on a daily basis with osteo-arthritis, a painful condition characterized by a buildup of calcium forming bone spurs in joint spaces.

Meanwhile, cardiac bypass has become one of the most common surgeries. The reason this surgery is performed is that calcium builds up in the arteries surrounding the heart obstructing blood flow. Even though cholesterol is usually blamed for heart disease, it is calcium that actually clogs the arteries, with cholesterol only acting as the glue that holds it in place.

When you go to the dentist and have tartar scraped off your teeth every six months, it is mostly calcium they are removing – excess calcium the body is unable to use and is trying to excrete through the saliva. If your teeth are also eroding along the gum line, as they are in most aging Americans, then you are actually losing calcium where it is needed while too much of it is accumulating in areas where it serves no useful purpose.

It is important to understand that this is not only a concern for aging adults. Although children do not usually suffer from blockage of the arteries or osteoporosis, this same type of disordered calcium metabolism can affect children and can, for example, cause neurons in the brain to be over-stimulated, triggering hyperactivity or behavioral disorders.

Calcium metabolism can quickly turn into a very complex topic that far exceeds the confines of this newsletter. A comprehensive and fully referenced review of calcium metabolism and its effects on health can be found is in Volume 13, Number 4 of Health Realities Journal, which can be ordered by calling 1.800.414.3438. For time and space constraints, references found in that article will not be repeated here.

This article will focus on the basics while including plenty of practical tips to help you address any problems.

First and foremost it is important to understand that calcium plays critical roles throughout the body and its relevance to health goes far beyond making strong bones. In fact, every neuron in the brain, every muscle cell in the body (including the heart) and generally every cell in the body needs calcium to be activated and perform its task. For muscle cells this task is to contract; for neurons to transmit nerve impulses; for cells in the liver to detoxify the body; and so on. Every cell needs calcium, and without it all electrical activity of the body, and hence life itself, would stop.

For this purpose the fluids that bathe the body’s cells maintain a steady supply of electrically charged calcium, also called free or ionized calcium. When an impulse reaches a cell, tiny channels in the cell membrane known as “calcium channels” open up, allowing calcium to flow into the cell and activate it.

Blood calcium, which only accounts for 1% of total calcium in the body (most of the rest is in bones), makes up the pool of calcium from which the body draws these all-important ions that basically keep us alive.

However, calcium is highly reactive in its free or ionized form and tends to form compounds that are capable of clogging arteries, triggering inflammation or causing other health problems. To prevent this, the body tries to keep most of the calcium in blood in a buffered or neutralized state by binding it to proteins or other buffers. However, this is not always possible, and the fraction of total blood calcium that is buffered is a direct function of the alkalinity or pH of the body’s tissues.

The body functions best at a pH that is close to neutral, which is 7.0, or slightly above. At this pH most of the calcium in blood is buffered with only enough of it free to supply ongoing needs. This represents an ideal state reflecting optimal calcium metabolism.

However, given today’s toxic environment, poor diet, stress, and other factors, our bodies tend to become acidic. As this happens, the percentage of free calcium goes up as buffers previously bound to calcium are redirected to the more pressing task of neutralizing the growing acidity, because any variation in blood pH could have dire consequences and even endanger life.

As the body continues to struggle to maintain an alkaline blood pH in the presence of growing tissue acidity, it begins to draw more buffers in the form of phosphate found in bones. However, since phosphate and calcium are bound to each other in the bones, this process initiates a steady stream of free calcium leaving the bones and adding to the already high levels of free calcium.

Much of the free calcium generated as a result of acidity is simply lost in urine. The rest causes trouble in two ways. First, it forms salts with a variety of compounds in blood, including oxalate, which will be discussed in a separate article next month. These salts then precipitate out of blood causing kidney stones, arthritis, blockage of arteries, as well as pain and inflammation in any area where they settle.

Second, as we have seen, free calcium is needed to activate neurons, muscle and other cells, but when too much of it settles in tissues it leads to over-stimulation. In the brain this can cause or contribute to a broad range of neurological conditions, including hyperactivity. In the heart and blood vessels it can lead to high blood pressure. In the immune system it can trigger immune disorders, and so forth. Authoritative sources have also linked free calcium excess with chronic fatigue, cancer, and intestinal disorders (see Whitfield, J.F., “Calcium, Cell Cycles, and Cancer,” CRC Press, Inc. 1990).

The key to addressing this situation is to first correct the pH imbalance, then take steps to reverse the accumulation of tissue calcium and encourage calcium deposition in bones. Just taking calcium supplements is not going to help and could in fact be detrimental. I have seen people struggle to just maintain depressed bone density levels, while at the same time taking all the supplements known to help. When they finally corrected their pH the next bone density test showed major gains.

To get started, buy a roll of pH paper called Hydrion available online or from health stores. Then measure the pH of your or your child’s saliva and urine when first getting up in the morning for three consecutive days to get a good average.

If both saliva and urine readings are between 6.5 and 7.0, congratulations, you are doing very well! However, if saliva pH is consistently below 6.5 and urine below 6.0 there is a problem with acidity and excess free calcium.

Regulation of pH in the body is a complex process, but here I will list simple dietary and supplement strategies that can begin to make changes as soon as you implement them. Now that you have the pH paper you will also be able to monitor how different interventions affect you.

Diet has a significant impact on pH. In this area it appears that sugar and refined carbohydrates are the major enemies of alkalinity and should be avoided as much as possible. In the book Calcium Homeostasis, Gregory R. Mundy, MD notes that blood phosphate levels can drop by as much as one third after eating a meal rich in sugar and refined carbohydrates. Remember that phosphate is an important source of alkalinity and that the body will draw it from bones, thus also removing calcium, when levels drop.

Though proponents of vegetarianism have long held that protein is the major source of acidity, this does not appear to be correct considering that proteins are among the primary reserves of alkalinity in blood. On the other hand, excessive intake of protein can be a problem and moderation appears to be the key in this area.

In addition, there are certain proteins that directly increase alkaline reserves in the body and should be consumed regularly (though still in moderation). These include whole eggs and cultured dairy products such as plain yogurt, kefir, or cottage cheese (but not milk). Other foods, including green vegetables, raw nuts and pumpkinseeds are rich sources of phosphate, and also can raise alkalinity.

Although this may seem counterintuitive, certain weak acids, including citric acid in lemons and acetic acid in vinegar, have the ability to raise tissue alkalinity through a complex mechanism. When consumed before meals, they stimulate production of the hormone secretin, which in turn causes the pancreas to release bicarbonate that helps improve digestion and at the same time raises tissue pH. A good strategy is to drink a glass of water containing 2 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice (or vinegar) before every meal and/or at bedtime.

Magnesium taken as a supplement is also very helpful because it protects the body against the harmful effects of excess free calcium, and magnesium citrate might be the most helpful form because it also supplies beneficial citric acid. I recommend taking a capsule with every meal.

Because intestinal health is greatly involved in pH balance of the body, taking beneficial bacteria in supplements called probiotics is also a good idea. This is an area where higher potency may really be better and the product I prefer is the newly released Ther-Biotic powder from Klaire Labs, which supplies 100 billion live friendly bacteria per dose.

A supplement called KO7 provides a source of stabilized oxygen, which has beneficial effects on intestinal health while at the same time raising pH. An alkalizing water filtration system might also be worth considering. The main problem with these systems is expense but they can be quite effective. One such product can be obtained through High Tech Health at I have no financial ties to this company and if you find a more affordable source for this or a similar product please let me know.

While regular hydration is very important to improve pH, it is crucial to avoid distilled water and reverse osmosis water, both of which are highly acidic and therefore have an acidifying effect on the body. For more information on water see the article in my newsletter archives entitled “What you need to know about water” from December 2004.

It may be best to avoid all calcium supplements until pH has been regulated, however a product called “Calcium micro crystalline hydroxy apatite (MCHA)” provides calcium that is properly buffered with phosphate and should not be a problem even in an acidic environment. However, be selective regarding the source, because this type of calcium is sometimes contaminated with lead. I recommend the one from Pure Encapsulations because this company guarantees an organic source and monitors contaminants closely.

Healthy calcium metabolism is dependent on adequate intake of a number of essential nutrients, including vitamin D and the mineral boron. I have written about vitamin D many times in the past and I refer you to those articles in my newsletter archive for more information on this essential nutrient. Boron helps normalize function of the parathyroid glands that are involved in regulating the breakdown and rebuilding of bones. Boron intake of approximately 4-6 mg per day in adults has also been shown to raise healthy estrogen levels in women and testosterone in men, and to have a variety of other beneficial effects, including improving attention span and memory.

Of particular importance is vitamin K in the preferred K2 form. This vitamin has been shown to actually break down calcium deposits in arteries and other tissues through a process called carboxylation. Vitamin K is also needed for the body to deposit calcium in bones and deficiency of this vitamin is common in both adults and children. Optimal adult dose of vitamin K2 has been shown to be 45 mg per day for adults (best taken in three 15 mg doses), and this amount is safe since the body does not store it.

(See Internat J Vit Nutr Res, 1999; 69: 23-26, Atherosclerosis, 1997; 132: 61-7, Fam Pract News 16, July 15, 2002).

In conclusion, it is important to keep in mind that pH regulation in the body is a highly complex process that involves breathing, kidney function, hormones, and other factors that include exposure to toxins and intestinal health. Depending on your individual situation, the simple steps I recommended here may or may not succeed. If they are not enough, it may be necessary for you to work with a nutritionist who can assess your individual case and develop an individualized plan.

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