Calcium is known as an essential mineral for maintaining healthy and strong bones, but did you know it plays an essential role in your heart’s health, too?
“Calcium, which has an electrical charge, plays a crucial role in how the cells in our heart interact with each other,” explained Dr. Abhishek Singh, the medical director of the Heart Success Program at Atlantic Health System. “The electrical cells communicate with each other and coordinate the timing of each muscle cell to contract, which ultimately makes our heart beat and pump blood.”
It helps your overall health, too. “Adequate calcium is necessary for good health, for our bones (99% of body calcium is found in the bones), organs (heart is an organ), muscle contractions (the heart is a muscle), blood clotting and nerve impulse transmission,” explained registered dietitian nutritionist Geeta Sikand, director of nutrition at the Preventive Cardiology Program at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine.
But this mineral isn’t created naturally, so it’s important people get calcium through their diet. “Our bodies do not produce calcium, so we need to get it from our food sources,” explained registered dietitian Michelle Routhenstein, the preventive cardiology dietitian at EntirelyNourished. “We need to eat enough calcium through food to maintain the appropriate amount of calcium in our body.”
You may be wondering what actually happens when your body doesn’t get enough of this mineral. “If calcium is not provided from the diet, it can lead to calcium being leached out from the bone into the blood vessels, which can cause calcification in the arteries,” Routhenstein explained.
“Too little calcium can lead to low blood pressure (hypotension), cardiac rhythm disorders and heart failure.”
Sikand added, “Calcium deficiency can reduce bone strength and lead to osteoporosis, which is characterized by fragile bones and an increased risk of falling.”
There’s also a connection between osteoporosis and heart disease. “Osteoporosis is linked to cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, and we want to make sure we are consuming sufficient calcium (along with many other bone-supporting minerals) to prevent and manage both osteoporosis and heart disease effectively,” Routhenstein said.
And if you need another reason to ensure you get sufficient calcium, Singh added, “Too little calcium can lead to low blood pressure (hypotension), cardiac rhythm disorders and heart failure.”
How to make sure you get enough calcium.
You’ll need to pay attention to your diet and familiarize yourself with foods high in calcium, because your body won’t give off any obvious signs that you’re lacking this mineral. “The only way to know if you are getting enough is by calculating how much you are consuming,” Routhenstein said. “An easy way to pinpoint it is to assess how many servings of calcium-rich food you are consuming on a regular basis.”
Sikand recommends referring to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FoodData Central to find out the nutrient content and amount of calcium in different foods.
If you’re wondering what the recommended daily calcium intake is, it depends on your age and gender. The National Institutes of Health has guidelines on how much calcium you should aim to consume per day. The daily goal for adults between the ages of 19 and 50 is 1,000 mg. If you’re 51-70 years old, women are recommended to consume 1,200 mg while men should aim for 1,000 mg. If you’re over 70, calcium intake increases to a goal of 1,200 mg per day. Children’s calcium needs are different depending on their age, but kids between 9 and 18 should generally aim for 1,300 mg per day.
Dairy products such as cheese, milk and yogurt are foods rich in calcium. “Some good sources of calcium include kefir and low-fat dairy because not only do they include calcium, they are also rich in vitamin D, magnesium and vitamin K2, which help facilitate calcium into the bone,” Routhenstein said.
Singh added that dairy products, as well as fortified plant-based milks like almond milk, are not only high in calcium but also have important nutrients including vitamins A, E and D.
But milk-based foods aren’t the only way to get calcium. “Leafy greens are also a good source of calcium and have a large source of other nutrients such as fiber, iron, magnesium and potassium,” Singh said.
What’s better: calcium-rich foods or calcium supplements?
If you’re not a fan of foods high in calcium but you’re aware that you need more calcium in your diet, calcium supplements may seem like an easy solution. But scientific research on calcium supplements shows they are likely not the best answer, nor is their use simple or straightforward. Some experts shared that a frequent question from patients is: Are calcium supplements harmful to my heart?
“There have been studies linking calcium supplements with higher risks for heart disease,” Sikand said. “Recent evidence shows there is potential for harm with calcium supplements, particularly at higher doses (>1200 mg/day), [so the] benefit-to-risk ratio should be carefully considered by your health care provider.”
However, there may be circumstances when a person may need to take calcium supplements. “Some individuals may benefit from calcium supplementation for bone health, but still be exposed to a potentially slightly elevated risk for heart attacks and strokes,” Sikand explained.
Before you make any decisions about supplements, Singh reiterates you should heed common health advice: “The most important thing for patients to know is that before deciding to add any type of supplement to their diet, they should consult their health care provider.”
He’s quick to point out that this may be a common and frequent recommendation, but it’s important to follow. “Each patient has a different story. What could be helpful for one patient based on their wellness journey could be harmful to another, and vice versa,” he added.