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Boning Up on Calcium: Supplements for Bone Health

Popping calcium for better bone health? Get the most from that supplement with these tips.

Do I Need Calcium Supplements for Bone Health?

Osteoporosis is often a silent disease -- you don't know your bones are weak until you break one. So what do you do?

Start by seeing your doctor. Together, you can discuss your diet and work out a rough estimate of your calcium intake.

If you're coming up short, then you either need to improve your diet or take a calcium supplement for bone health to bump you up to the recommended level.

"Although some people with osteoporosis get enough calcium from their diets, I think most will wind up needing a calcium supplement," says Schousboe.

Keep in mind that the numbers may not tell the whole story. Even if it looks like you're getting enough calcium, you might not be absorbing enough of this mineral. That can be due to many factors, like smoking, using certain medications, and many health conditions. So make sure to have a frank discussion with your doctor about any other factors that might increase your risk of osteoporosis.

Vitamin D Supplements for Bone Health

While calcium is crucial, taking it alone might not be enough. To actually get calcium into your bones, the body relies on other vitamins, minerals, and hormones.

The most important may be vitamin D. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium from the kidneys and intestines -- calcium that would otherwise pass out of the body as waste. And according to osteoporosis experts, vitamin D deficiency is disturbingly common.

"In the last few years, the focus for osteoporosis experts has really shifted from calcium deficiency to vitamin D deficiency," says Schousboe.

Vitamin D is actually formed naturally in your body as a result of sun exposure. Usually just 10 to 15 minutes of sun a day will get you enough vitamin D. But your body becomes less efficient at making it as you age. Many of us should be using vitamin D supplements.
But which kind of supplements? You might see different types of vitamin D on your drugstore shelves, like "vitamin D2" and "vitamin D3." What's the difference?

"Vitamin D3 seems to be about three times as potent as vitamin D2," says Schousboe.

While Amin agrees that vitamin D3 may be preferable, she notes that not all pharmacies carry vitamin D3 supplements. If you can't get it in your area, sticking with vitamin D2 is OK. "Some vitamin D is better than none," Amin says.

How Much Vitamin D Do We Need for Bone Health?

And how much vitamin D is necessary for good calcium absorption? Alas, the answer isn't simple. The National Institutes of Health still uses the traditional recommendations, which are:

  • 600 IU (international units) for ages 1-70
  • 800 IU for ages 70 or over

But as the widespread deficiencies of vitamin D have become more apparent, some osteoporosis experts think that those levels are not nearly high enough.

Next Article:

Osteoporosis Glossary

  • Bone Mineral Density - A measurement of the amount of calcium and minerals in bone tissue.
  • Calcium - A mineral in (and vital to) your bones. If your body lacks calcium, it takes it from bones.
  • DEXA (dual energy X-ray absorptiometry) - a test used to measure bone mineral density.
  • Osteoporosis - A decrease in bone density, which increase the risk of fractures.
  • Vitamin D - A vitamin that helps your body absorb calcium.
  • View All Terms

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