a man shaking pills into his hand from a bottle, calcium supplements

People who take calcium supplements are more likely to end up with calcium in their arteries. That is the conclusion from a new study that took 10 years to complete.

The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis:

More than 5,000 people between 45 and 84 years old participated in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) over the course of 10 years. They filled out questionnaires about their dietary habits and supplement use. Coronary artery scans were performed to detect calcification.  About half of the participants had a second scan at the end of the study.

More Calcium from the Diet, Less from Calcium Supplements:

The researchers found that those who got the most calcium had the cleanest arteries–unless it was coming from calcium supplements. In that case, they had the most calcification.

Calcium and Atherosclerosis:

Atherosclerosis is the medical term for hardened arteries. But, you may wonder, doesn’t that have to do with plaque in the arteries? Well, yes it does. Even though doctors have focused most sharply on cholesterol in arterial plaque, these lesions actually contain more calcium than cholesterol. It is the calcium that makes plaque-laden arteries “hard.”

When coronary arteries become calcified, people are more likely to develop heart disease. This study confirms the results of other research implicating calcium supplements in the development of hardened arteries. You can read what we wrote about some previous studies here and here. You may also want to read what else we have written about these findings from the MESA study.

Journal of the American Heart Association, October 11, 2016

What About Strong Bones?

Most of the people taking calcium supplements are doing so because they believe this will prevent bone loss and protect them from fracture. If only that were the case!

While a certain amount of calcium is essential so that young people can develop healthy bones and older people can maintain bone strength, it turns out that excess calcium from supplements is not associated with stronger bones that don’t break. A meta-analysis of 59 studies found that people taking calcium had very modest increases in bone mineral density, one way to measure bone strength (BMJ, Sept. 29, 2015). These gains did not last beyond a year or two, however. The researchers concluded: “for most individuals concerned about their bone density, increasing calcium intake is unlikely to be beneficial.”

The Take-Home Message:

The bottom line is complicated in theory, but (luckily) simpler in practice. To benefit both your heart and your bones, be sure to exercise every day. That gives your bones the resistance they need to stay strong, and it keeps your heart pumping and your blood vessels in shape.

Also, eat a varied diet with lots of vegetables and nuts, along with some dairy products if you tolerate them. You can get adequate calcium from almonds, beans, broccoli, bok choy, corn tortillas, kale, mustard greens, spinach and Swiss chard. Tofu is a good source, too. If you are not vegetarian, add canned salmon and sardines, with the bones.

Either the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet will make all this easier. If you’d like to learn more about these dietary approaches, you might want to read our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedy. It describes how to follow these diets. You might also want to listen to our Show 752: Bone Vitality, in which we discuss how to strengthen bones through diet rather than through calcium supplements.

Vitamin D is also needed for strong bones and healthy arteries. You can learn more about vitamin D supplements and the British recommendation that all adults take them here.

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  1. Health Coach

    “Also, eat a varied diet with lots of vegetables and nuts, along with some dairy products if you tolerate them.” This one is important! I totally agree and thank you for having this article published. It’s really informative and helpful! Awesome!

  2. Jill J

    Hi! Thanks for sharing this. Calcium should always be taken with magnesium. I believe supplements are very important if we want to avoid potential illnesses. I also came over this website http://takeyoursupplements.com which happens to offer free health coaching on proper nutrition and supplementation. You might want to check it out. I hope that helps. Nice content, by the way. :-)

  3. Susan

    What do you think of calcium supplements, such as Alive! Gummies, that are made from fruits and vegetables that are in powder/juice/extract form? Is this a food-based product that will support bone health without risking atherosclerosis? It’s difficult to get enough calcium from leafy greens, dairy products and other foods.

  4. Cindy M. Black
    Seattle, WA

    I agree with Patty… why on earth not mention that calcium needs to be paired with magnesium? Because it does. But better yet, take no calcium supplement at all. By now I’ve read 100’s of times, from various sources, that calcium supplements are not only worthless but possibly dangerous!
    Much better to take vitamin D, vitamin K, magnesium, fish or krill oil (all of which strengthen bones), and drink something like almond milk, which has lots more calcium than most of those other “milks” (except for regular milk, which I don’t like.) Also there’s strontium, which is supposed to go directly to bones and build the heck out of ’em. There’s the supplement “Bone Up,” for instance, which mainly contains strontium. But since I almost never hear about strontium in any articles about osteoporosis, I can only assume there might be some contraindications. I’ll have to study up on strontium…

  5. Rick

    I shared a hospital room with an older lady who according to the Doctor had the highest calcium levels in her blood he had ever seen sadly she died the next day. Her husband told the Doctor that she ate Tums by the handful. When are people going to realize that supplement vitamins are not bio-identical to vitamins produced from the nutrient’s you consume.I call them synthetic metabolic toxins that are marketed to make money and not produced to help establish homeostasis values in your body

  6. Debra

    Magnesium is also vital in helping calcium get to bones rather than arteries.

  7. Mary Jane

    I took a calcium supplement for several years, and one day noticed a bony protrusion on the tip of my right shoulder. I suspected that my body was telling me that I had excessive calcium, so I stopped the supplement. The protrusion gradually disappeared.

  8. Peggy
    New Mexico

    Since it is recommended that we get our calcium from food not supplements, I wonder if taking plant-based calcium supplements is safe compared to taking calcium supplements made from limestone and shells. Any thoughts?

  9. Susan A Coomer

    So, does the calcium added to various foods such as almond milk count as natural calcium or is that a supplement? Does only using real dairy and some leafy vegetables get you the calcium you need?

  10. Don
    Wake County, NC

    I am a 73 year-old male. About 30+ years ago, after many broken bones, I was diagnosed with osteoporosis (It was difficult for me to convince the doctors to do the bone density test back in those days when it was believed to be a women’s only condition). I was prescribed the usual Fosamax and lots of calcium/vitamin D supplements. I took these for many years until it progressed to osteopenia. Then the Fosamax was stopped. But the calcium/vitamin D supplements have been continued.

    Now, the only significant health issue I have is atherosclerosis. This may be only anecdotal – but interesting. By the way – even though I follow all the guidelines for healthy bones (exercise, diet, calcium, etc.) I continue to easily break bones – which supports the other study about calcium having less than expected benefits on improving bone density/strength to help prevent fractures. Been a listener of your great program ever since it started (a long time ago).

  11. Pattie

    I am surprised you didn’t include the fact that Calcium must always be balanced with Magnesium and your diet needs small amounts of boron or a boron supplement when you take calcium but most importantly, you need to take sufficient amounts of vitamin K2 which keeps the calcium in your bones and out of your arteries. If you have more magnesium than calcium, your body pulls calcium out of your bones and it ends up as atherosclerosis, in your arteries. So the real issue, which was sadly ignored in the article, is that people need K2 which would greatly reduce risk of heart attack and stroke.

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