Calcium Supplements Don't Build Strong Bones

Dear Health Conscious Reader,

Don’t waste your money on calcium supplements.

If you’re taking them hoping to build strong bones and avoid osteoporosis you’ll be let down on both fronts.

Doctors and drug companies push the idea that the best way to treat and prevent osteoporosis is by taking lots of calcium. This simply isn’t true.

Osteoporosis isn’t caused by a lack of calcium.

Studies come to the same conclusion: calcium intake does not prevent fractures due to bone loss.

  • The Harvard Nurses’ Study is one of the most complete and well-conducted studies in science. The study followed 77,761 nurses. For 12 years, researchers examined the association between dietary calcium and bone fractures.

Results showed there was no protection from fractures with any dose of calcium intake. Nurses who had the highest calcium intakes actually had an increased risk of bone fracture.1

  • An Australian study confirms the result of the Harvard Nurses’ Study. This study also looked at the association between calcium and fracture risk. The study looked at lifetime calcium consumption in over 400 elderly participants. The study concluded that calcium consumption in early adulthood actually increased the risk of bone fractures as the person aged.2
  • Doctors in the UK found that calcium and vitamin D did not prevent fractures.3 Their two-year study showed that neither calcium nor vitamin D lowered the number of fractures in women over age seventy.

So, what controls bone loss? Hormones and exercise.

Bone building is hormonal. In women, estrogens are the main regulators of bone health and breakdown. Progesterone controls the rate of new bone deposition. But the most powerful bone builder in both men and women is testosterone. Testosterone is central for achieving maximal bone mass and strength.

Taking calcium supplements will give you a short-term boost in bone density, but that’s it. Over time, your hormones will work against the extra calcium and actually leave your bones more brittle than before.

Consider this: The US has the highest intake of calcium, yet our rates of osteoporosis are the highest in the world. Countries with lower intakes of calcium have lower rates of hip fracture and osteoporosis.4

Maintaining healthy levels of hormones in your body is one way to keep your bones strong.

There is an easy and inexpensive hormone precursor shown to improve the levels of other sex hormones. It’s called DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone). It is involved in the manufacturing of most major sex hormones in the body, like estrogen and testosterone. DHEA treatments are becoming more common.

You can get it over the counter but I don’t advise anyone take DHEA without having their blood levels checked. You will have to ask your doctor to measure it.

Physical inactivity will also lead to weakening of your bones. Your bones need to bear weight in order to become strong. When you do weight bearing activities, you are telling your bones that they must become strong in order to continue these activities.

You do this by encouraging them to push more weight. Challenging your muscles and bones with weight bearing exercises is crucial. Walking, cycling, weight training or playing tennis or golf will help.

In spite of what you hear on TV, calcium supplements have little to do with the strength of your bones. If you want strong bones for life, here are six things you can do right now:

  • Exercise: The best to increase bone density and reduce fractures is body weight exercises (like calisthenics) and resistance training. Make a habit of doing these exercises two or three times a week. Thirty minutes of walking a day will lower your risk of fracture by 30 percent.4

When you exercise, your muscles pull on your bones. This pressure creates a challenge that your body responds to by increasing bone density. This will ensure that you stay mobile and independent.

  • Skip calcium supplements: Get your calcium in your diet. Eat a variety of small fish, dark, leafy green vegetables, almonds and cashews, or dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt. You should be aiming for about 400 mg per day.
  • Take a vitamin D supplement: I recommend 400 IU per day. It helps your body absorb calcium and maintain bone density. Without vitamin D, calcium supplements are worthless. The best source of vitamin D is the sun – 10 to 15 minutes of exposure a day should be enough. During the winter, take cod liver oil. It’s by far the best supplemental source of vitamin D.
  • Eat your greens: Vitamin K found in dark leafy greens regulates calcium while stabilizing bones in addition to regulating blood clotting. Eat at least one serving of green vegetables like spinach, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, Brussels sprouts or broccoli every day. One study found people eating just 0.1 milligrams of vitamin K daily (about one large serving of greens) were 30% less likely to break their hips than people who ate less than that amount.

Another university study showed that vegetables and herbs improve your bone metabolism. Researchers found that rats that missed out on their veggies had much lower bone density.5 Another showed that fruits and vegetables increase your bone density. The same study found that dairy products did nothing.6

  • Eat foods rich in B-complex vitamins: Your body also uses a variety of B vitamins in bone building. The best sources are liver, eggs, lean meats, yeast, fish, raw nuts, asparagus, broccoli and bananas.
  • Get a blood test: A simple blood test will tell you how your hormone levels affect your bone health. This is the best way to determine the health of your bones and your risk for fracture. Women may need to take natural progesterone. For both men and women testosterone is the most powerful controller of your bone density.

To arrange for your own blood test, talk to your doctor. Or contact Quest Diagnostics at 1-800-377-8448 for a location near you. If you can get to Florida, call my office at 561-784-7852.

To Your Good Health,

Al Sears, MD

  1. Freskanich D, et al., Milk, dietary calcium, and bone fractures in women: a 12-year prospective study American Journal of Public Health 1997 Jun; 87(6): 992-997
  2. Cumming RG, et al., Case-control study of risk factors for hip fractures in the elderly American Journal of Epimediology 1994 Mar 1; 139(5): 493-503
  3. Grant AM, et al. Calcium/vitamin D not effective for secondary prevention of fracture. Lancet 2005; 365:1621-1628.
  4. Willett W. Calcium: too much of a good thing? Report from the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Roundtable.
  5. Effect of vegetables on bone metabolism. Nature. September 23, 1999; 401(6751):343-4
  6. Dietary influences on bone mass and bone metabolism: further evidence of a positive link between fruit and vegetable consumption and bone health? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 71, No. 1, 142-151, January 2000.