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As the most plentiful mineral in the body, calcium plays a key role in the development and maintenance of bones and teeth. Calcium enables the contraction of muscles, including the function of the body's most important muscle, the heart. It is also essential for normal blood clotting, proper nerve impulse transmission, and the appropriate support of connective tissue.
Almost every segment of the population—women, children, teenagers, men, unborn babies, and the elderly—benefit from calcium in their daily diet. The mineral is an important dietary supplement for those who are undergoing significant periods of bone growth, such as in childhood, during pregnancy, and while breast-feeding.
Calcium is an effective weapon for the aging population as they combat osteoporosis. A condition that simply means "porous bones," osteoporosis attacks bones when they are their most vulnerable. As the body ages, bones lose more calcium, and it becomes vital to supplement the diet with calcium in order to encourage bone growth and prevent or slow down the process of osteoporosis.
While the body relies on the presence of calcium for many of its everyday functions, the number of reasons
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is another condition women face that may be alleviated by the use of calcium supplements. Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) concluded that those women who took 1,200 mg of calcium per day reduced their overall PMS symptoms by more than 50%. In the study, calcium supple-mentation led to the reduction of psychological PMS symptoms (such as mood swings) by 45%, food cravings by 54%, and bloating and water retention by 36%.
A 1999 study reported that researchers have found that increasing the amount of daily calcium consumed by women may reduce their risk of stroke. Those women in the Nurses' Health Study who took more than 400 mg of calcium daily were at the lowest risk for a stroke, while those who consumed more than 600 mg each day did not have an increased benefit. Researchers believe that the risk of stroke is reduced by calcium from decreased cholesterol levels, or by stopping the formation of blood clots that cause strokes.
For elderly postmenopausal women, the prevention of osteoporosis becomes critical. In order to maintain bone mass during this time, a study conducted in 1999 concluded that a low-dose hormone replacement therapy (HRT) combined with calcium and vitamin D supple-mentation is an effective therapeutic option for prevention of osteoporosis. Estriol, which is used in HRT, appears to be helpful in controlling menopausal symptoms. Results from research regarding this use of estriol on bone density have been contradictory, according to the Alternative Medicine Review, with the results showing the most effectiveness coming from Japanese studies.
Calcium alone is frequently prescribed with estrogen at the beginning of menopause to treat or prevent osteoporosis. This therapy is recommended to guard against the increased loss of calcium in the bones due to increasing age. As bones lose more calcium they become dense and brittle, and more vulnerable to the attack of osteoporosis. This condition is most common in people over 70, and in women after menopause, where it may increase the risk of broken hips, ribs, and pelvis, and the weakening of other bones. Increased physical exercise is also important for bone strengthening.
On the other hand, although calcium supplementation is useful in lowering the risk of osteoporosis in Western women, more research is needed to determine why the rates of osteoporosis are low in some Eastern societies with low-calcium diets. There is evidence that osteoporosis, like coronary artery disease, is primarily a problem in Western societies. In addition, accumulating evidence that a diet high in fruits and vegetables helps to prevent fractures suggests that the level of calcium in the diet is not the only nutritional factor involved in osteoporosis.
Calcium has been shown to be beneficial to the colon. Among those people taking calcium supplements, research points to a modest reduction in the recurrence of polyps in their colons. Colon polyps are benign tumors that often turn cancerous. Researchers think that calcium binds to carcinogens, preventing abnormal cell growth.
Stemming from its active role in building bone density throughout the body, calcium may prove particularly beneficial for strengthening of the jawbone. Dental researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo report that calcium supplementation may prevent periodontal disease as it builds a strong jawbone. Periodontal, or gum, disease is an infection caused by bacteria that deposits in pockets between the teeth and gums, and is the leading cause of tooth loss in the United States. As the infection progresses, the jawbone that holds a tooth in place is eventually destroyed, causing the tooth to loosen and fall out. The researchers contend that calcium's overall bone-building role would equal a stronger jawbone that would better fight off gum disease.
While supplements of calcium can be found in many forms, research has shown a promising benefit if it is obtained from dairy foods, rather than supplements or leafy greens—calcium in the form of dairy may actually prevent weight gain. Those in the study who consumed at least 1,000 mg of calcium a day (equaling about 3 cups, or 750 ml of skim milk), gained 6–7 lb (2.7–3.2 kg) less over two years than those with low-calcium diets. Researchers of Purdue University speculate that calcium probably prevents weight gain by increasing the breakdown of body fat and decreasing its formation. It is important to note, however, that dairy products should be consumed in moderation, as other research conducted has indicated that dairy products are not necessarily a good source of absorbable calcium. In addition, other studies indicate that women are often reluctant to increase
Calcium is proving essential to those children around the world who are stricken by rickets. Rickets is a deficiency condition in children that affects developing cartilage and newly formed bone throughout the body, causing severe deformities. Often thought to be a result of the inadequate intake of vitamin D from dietary sources or lack of exposure to sunlight, research reported in 2000 has found that children with rickets respond well to calcium supplementation. While rickets is still rare in most developed countries, it is becoming more common in the United States due to lower milk consumption by children; and it remains a problem in many other parts of the world. Researchers conclude that effective treatment for the condition is calcium supplementation alone, or in combination with vitamin D. Osteomalacia, or the adult form of rickets, also responds to calcium supplementation.
Evidence is accumulating in the United States that women are not the only group at risk for insufficient dietary levels of calcium. Children and adolescents are also at risk, according to a 2001 report from the National Institutes of Health. Researchers found that "only 13.5% of girls and 36.3% of boys ages 12 to 19 in the United States get the recommended daily amount (RDA) of calcium, placing them at serious risk for osteoporosis and other bone diseases" in their adult years. The report listed increased consumption of soft drinks and decreased consumption of milk as contributing to the problem.
Author Info: Beth Kapes, Rebecca J. Frey PhD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005
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