From childhood to aging adults, calcium plays an important role in the body’s development

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. It is found naturally in some foods and added to others.

According to the National Institutes of Health, calcium is required for the contraction and relaxation of blood vessels, as well as muscle function, nerve transmission, communication between cells and hormonal secretion. Only one percent of the body’s calcium is needed to complete these functions; the other 99 percent is stored within the body’s bones and teeth as a supportive mineral.

Although calcium is indeed necessary for everyday bodily functions, many Americans don’t get an adequate amount from the foods they eat. Children and adolescents need more calcium daily than young and middle-aged adults. As they age, women need more calcium each day than their male counterparts. Estrogen plays a key role in bone health for both men and women and, after menopause, estrogen levels in women fall significantly. This leads women to be more susceptible to osteoporosis and bone deterioration.

Recommended calcium intake

Age Male Female
1-3 years 700 mg 700 mg
4-8 years 1,000 mg 1,000 mg
9-18 years 1,300 mg 1,300 mg
19-50 years 1,000 mg 1,000 mg
51-70 years 1,000 mg 1,000 mg
71+ years 1,200 mg 1,200 mg

Chart: National Institutes of Health

Aging influences how much calcium is needed — bone undergoes continuous remodeling during a lifetime, constantly absorbing (through a process called resorption) and depositing calcium. With age, this balance changes. Children and adolescents’ bone formation rates exceed their resorption of calcium, meaning they require more calcium in order to maintain their bodies’ processes. On the other end of the spectrum, aging adults’ bone breakdown rates exceed the formation rate of new bone, which can result in bone loss and increased risk for osteoporosis.

Calcium absorption is dependent on having the proper amount of vitamin D in the body because the two work together in supporting bone health. Vitamin D is found in only a few foods and is also made by the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight. However, many people don’t get enough vitamin D, so some calcium supplements include vitamin D.

Calcium is readily available in many foods, including milk, cheese, yogurt, green leafy vegetables, sardines, salmon, and calcium-enriched foods such as cereals, breads and fruit juices. Even with these viable options, it can be difficult to get enough calcium from food, creating a need for supplementation in order to maintain healthy levels.

There are two main forms of calcium in supplements: carbonate and citrate. Calcium carbonate is commonly available and inexpensive. It relies on stomach acid for absorption, and it is most efficiently used when taken with food. Calcium citrate can be taken with or without food and is easier to digest, making it an appealing option for individuals with sensitive stomachs.

Duffy MacKay, N.D., Senior Vice President, Scientific and Regulatory Affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor and was co-owner and practitioner of a family-owned New Hampshire complementary and alternative medicine private practice for seven years. Dr. MacKay earned his B.S. in Marine Sciences from the University of California, Santa Cruz and his N.D. from the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, OR. He is licensed in the state of New Hampshire.