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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.

How Much Vitamin D Do We Need for Bone Health? continued...

"Most of us think that the traditional recommendations for vitamin D are inadequate," says Schousboe. "For anyone at risk of bone loss, I'd recommend at least 800 IU of vitamin D3 a day and more of D2."

The National Osteoporosis Foundation now recommends 800 to 1,000 IU of vitamin D3a day for all adults over age 50.

However, be careful. Never go above the recommended limits of vitamin D unless your doctor tells you too. Taking too much vitamin D -- above 2,000 IU a day -- can be toxic.

Of course, you can't figure out if you have a deficiency of vitamin D on your own. So talk with your doctor. If your risk of osteoporosis seems high, he or she might want to do a special blood test to check your vitamin D levels.

What Should I Look for in Supplements for Bone Health?

Given the vast selection, choosing a supplement for bone health can be confusing. Again, the best advice is to start with your doctor. He or she may recommend a specific type of calcium for bone health. Here are a few other things to consider when choosing and using a supplement.

  • Is it a brand name you recognize? Most brand name supplements should be fine, osteoporosis experts say. You can also look for the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) label, which indicates that the product has met the USP's purity requirements.

  • What type of calcium is it? If you look on the ingredients of calcium supplements you might see different types, like calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Does the variety you get make a big difference? Probably not much, although vitamin experts aren't sure.

    There is some evidence that calcium citrate might be more helpful for people who have low levels of stomach acid (because they take medicines for gastric reflux or other conditions.) Theoretically, calcium citrate might reduce the risk of kidney stones, Schousboe says, but he stresses that there's no real evidence to prove this so far.
  • Is the calcium supplement easily absorbed? Any good calcium supplements for bone health should be easy for your body to absorb. But supplements that are liquid or chewable are often the easiest to take in, since they're broken down before you swallow them.

  • Should you take your calcium supplement with food? Generally, calcium carbonate should be taken with food, while calcium citrate can be taken with or without food. Taking some calcium supplements on an empty stomach may increase the risk of kidney stones, Schousboe says.  

  • Does your calcium supplement cause side effects? Some people find that calcium supplements can cause side effects like gas or constipation. You may be able to control these problems by taking your supplement with more water, or upping the fiber in your diet. If this doesn't help, try a different supplement.

  • Does your calcium supplement contain other ingredients? Many calcium supplements for bone health also include other vitamins and minerals, like vitamin D. Is it better to get your vitamin D in the same pill as your calcium? It doesn't make any difference. Just keep track of what you're getting. If you're taking multiple supplements and aren't careful enough, you could get excessive doses of vitamin D.

  • Will you need more than one supplement a day? In general, vitamin experts recommend taking no more than 500 milligrams of calcium at once. Why? Your body can only absorb so much calcium at one time. Going over 500 milligrams at once won't give you the full benefits of the calcium.

    So for instance, if you need to take 1,000 milligrams, your doctor might recommend splitting up the dose into 500 milligrams twice a day.

As for other distinctions among calcium supplements, they don't really matter. Although some manufacturers claim that coral calcium -- made from exotic fossilized coral reefs -- has benefits over other formulas, the experts are unconvinced.

"Many of us just think it's a clever marketing ploy and nothing more," says Schousboe. "But if people feel better taking coral calcium, that's fine. What's important is that they get enough calcium. If they waste a little money doing it, that's OK."

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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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