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What is calcium deficiency?

calcium
In this article, we’ll look at the role that calcium plays in your body. How you can improve your intake and hopefully avoid calcium deficiency altogether.

Maybe you have been told you or a family has a calcium deficiency. Maybe you are here because you have concerns about your calcium levels or looking for calcium supplements.

Whatever your reason, we have you covered.

In this article, we’ll look at the role that calcium plays in your body. How you can improve your intake and hopefully avoid calcium deficiency altogether.

We’ll also discuss iron deficiency, its symptoms and how it may affect you.

What is calcium?

Calcium is a mineral that plays many important roles in your body, which include:1

  • Helping build your bones
  • Keeping your teeth healthy
  • Regulating your muscle contractions, including your heartbeat
  • Helping your blood clot normally

How much calcium do I need?

The NHS states that adults aged between 19-64 need 700mg of calcium a day, which should be achievable from a daily diet alone.2

A more accurate measure, depending on your age and health can be found in the table below:3

Group Age (years) Calcium (mg) per day
Infants Under 1 525
Children

1 - 3

4 - 6

7 - 10

350

450

550

Adolescents 11 - 18

800 (girls)

1000 (boys)

Breastfeeding mums   1250
Women past the menopause   1200
Coeliac Disease Adults 1000 - 1500
Osteoporosis Adults 1000
Inflammatory Bowel disease

Adults

Post-menopausal women 

Men over 55

1000

1200

1200

     

 

Best sources of calcium

Foods high in calcium include:

  • Milk, cheese and other dairy products
  • Green leafy vegetables, such as curly kale, okra but not spinach as your body cannot digest it properly
  • Soya drinks with added calcium
  • Bread and other foods made with fortified flour
  • Fish – such as sardines and pilchards

Summary

  • Calcium plays a pivotal role in your body. Namely with your teeth and bones.
  • The NHS advises that adults aged between 19-64 need 700mg a day.
  • You should be able to obtain the desired amount of calcium through your diet. Foods that contain a high amount of calcium include milk, cheese and other dairy products.

What can happen if your calcium level is too low?

Calcium is a vital mineral that your body needs to build strong bones and teeth. 99% of the calcium in your body is stored in your teeth and bones and it’s responsible for many functions in your body.

It’s unlikely that you’ll know when your calcium levels are low, but when you don’t have enough calcium, your body will begin to use the calcium in your teeth and bones.

In many cases, the first symptom of you running low on calcium can be the loss of a tooth or an unexpected fracture.

In severe or more acute cases this can lead you to develop disorders such as:

  • Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a health condition that weakens your bones, making them fragile and more likely to break.

This can develop over a number of years and is mainly diagnosed when a sudden impact or fall can cause bones to break or fracture.5

  • Osteopenia

In the stages before osteoporosis you may be shown to have a lower bone density than the average for your age, this is known as osteopenia and will normally be diagnosed with a bone scan in its early stages.6

  • Hypocalcaemia

Hypoparathyroidism is a rare condition where your parathyroid glands produce too little parathyroid hormone.

This can make blood calcium levels fall, which is known as hypocalcaemia and phosphorus levels in your blood rise, which is known as hyperphosphatemia, which can cause various symptoms including muscle cramps, pain and twitching.7

Treatment for hyperparathyroidism usually involves taking a calcium supplement, often for life. This helps restore calcium and phosphorous levels.

Summary

  • Low calcium levels can lead to complications. Low calcium and phosphorus levels can often be supplement by your GP or health advisor.

What causes calcium deficiency?

As you age your risk of calcium deficiency increases. This could be down to a number of factors, which includes:8

  • Low calcium intake over longer periods, particularly in childhood
  • A decreased absorption of calcium due to medication
  • Dietary intolerance to calcium-rich foods
  • Hormonal changes, particularly in women
  • Certain genetic factors

What are the symptoms to look out for?

The NHS notes that there are 8 symptoms connected to calcium deficiency, these include:

  1. A tingling sensation, known as paraesthesia in your fingertips, toes and lips
  2. Twitching feeling in your facial muscles
  3. Muscle pains or cramps, particularly in your legs, feet or tummy
  4. Tiredness
  5. A change in mood, feeling irritable, anxious or depressed
  6. Dry and/or rough skin
  7. Your hair may feel coarse and break easily, which can lead to hair loss
  8. Your fingernails may break easily

Why is calcium deficiency bad?

Without calcium, your body will not be able to function in the right way. Your bones and teeth can become weak, and your general health will suffer as a result.

Why do our bodies need calcium?

Your body needs calcium to maintain strong bones and to carry out many important functions.

The body also needs calcium for muscles to move and for nerves to carry messages between the brain and every body part.

How can I raise my calcium level?

You can raise your calcium level by increasing the amount of calcium you have in your diet. You can do this by adding more calcium to your diet.

You can do this by consuming calcium-rich foods or through a supplement, which we’ll go into in more detail below.

What if my calcium levels are too high?

If the calcium levels in your blood get too high, it can lead to problems without treatment.

This is known as hyperparathyroidism – a condition where the parathyroid glands, which are located in the neck near the thyroid gland produce too much parathyroid hormone.

There are four small glands that make this hormone and each help manage the calcium levels your body needs.

But when too much is made, this is where you may get hyperparathyroidism.

Symptoms of hyperparathyroidism

High calcium levels may affect people in different ways. Some people will have mild or no symptoms, while others have many.

Symptoms may not always relate to the calcium level in your blood. For example, people with a slightly raised calcium level may have few or no symptoms at all.

This may lead to a diagnosis being missed or delayed as symptoms are non-existent, vague or they may be considered to be caused by another condition.

The signs to look out for in high calcium levels include:

  • Depression
  • Tiredness
  • Feeling thirsty
  • Peeing a lot
  • Feeling sick
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle weakness
  • Constipation
  • Tummy pain
  • Loss of concentration
  • Mild confusion

What is the fastest way to cure calcium deficiency?

In minor circumstances, much like the above, you can avoid calcium deficiency through a calcium-rich diet and calcium supplements.

However, in more serious cases treating calcium deficiency looks to relieve symptoms and bring calcium levels back to normal.

Your recommended range of calcium will be advised by your doctor and will be dependent on your circumstances.

Normally calcium ranges are around 2.2 to 2.6 millimoles per litre (mmol/L). Yet calcium deficiency treatment may look for you to keep levels at a slightly lower range of around 1.8 to 2.25mmol/L, for example.10

If this is the case, you’ll be advised to take calcium carbonate and vitamin D supplements to help restore your levels.

Usually, these will need to be taken throughout your life. It’s also likely that you’ll need regular blood tests.

How to get more calcium from your diet

If you have a calcium deficiency or experience some calcium deficiency symptoms, it’s recommended that you follow a high-calcium, low phosphorus diet.11

To do this, you can include the following calcium-rich foods:

  • Milk, cheese and dairy products
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Okra
  • Soya beans
  • Tofu
  • Soya drinks
  • Nuts
  • Bread and other products made with fortified flour
  • Bony fish such as sardines and pilchards

Phosphorus can be found in:

  • Red meat
  • Dairy
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Bread
  • Rice
  • Oats

Changing your lifestyle

Additionally, you can help maintain healthy levels of calcium by making certain lifestyle changes that can help your bones keep fit and strong, these include:

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Exercising regularly
  • Reducing your alcohol and tobacco intake

Should I have a calcium test?

Normally your GP or healthcare professional will order you to have a calcium blood test if you are experiencing any of the symptoms of high or low calcium levels.

What happens during a calcium blood test?

Like most blood tests, a health professional will take a blood sample from a vein in your arm using a small needle.

Once the needle is inserted, a small amount of blood will be collected into a test tube. You may feel a little sting, but nothing more as the needle goes in. They usually take about five minutes.

Are there any risks to the test?

No, there are no risks to having a calcium test. The worst you might experience is a small pain or slight bruising to your arm, but nothing more.

When to start taking a calcium supplement

We understand that, for some people, it can be a challenge to fit more calcium into their diet or make lifestyle changes that allow for more calcium.

For this reason, it may be that you consider a calcium supplement. To begin with, you could try keeping a five-day calcium diary to see if you need to add a supplement.

This can help you see just how much calcium you are getting before taking the plunge.

If you do decide you would like to introduce a calcium supplement, you want to consider the following three steps:

What to consider when taking a calcium supplement

1

Take your calcium supplement with meals rather than by itself. Calcium needs the acid from your stomach to break it down properly.

You should avoid taking calcium supplements with high fibre meals though, this is because fibre can bind with calcium and reduce the amount available in your body.

2

Your body is not able to absorb more than 500 to 600mg of calcium at a time. If you exceed this dose, it will be lost through urine.​​​​​​​

3

If you are taking iron supplements, you should avoid using them with calcium supplements as they interfere with other absorption levels.

Summary of calcium deficiency

  • Calcium helps your bones and teeth, but it also supports many functions in your body. Without it your body won’t be able to operate to its fullest.
  • You should be able to obtain enough calcium from your diet, however this may not be suitable for everyone.
  • Low levels of calcium can lead complications such as: Osteoporosis, a health condition related to the weakening of the bones. Osteopenia, the stages before osteoporosis will show a lower bone density than normal, or hypocalcaemia which is a rare condition which sees a fall in your calcium blood levels.
  • Alternatively, your calcium levels may be too high. In which case this is called hyperparathyroidism. This can lead to further complications if not diagnosed properly.

If you have any concerns about your calcium intake or are unsure whether a supplement would suit you, you should speak with your GP or a health professional.

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Last updated: 28 February 2022

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