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How to get the most from calcium supplements

One of the most common questions Dr. Ann Hunt, Associate Professor of Nursing at Purdue University, gets asked is, "What about supplements ?" According to Hunt, not all calcium supplements are created equal, and they work best under specific conditions. Here are some things you should do if you decide to use a supplement.

Check absorption. Most professionals are concerned with how much calcium actually gets into your bloodstream where it can do your bones some good. This is called absorption. Sometimes the calcium from supplements doesn't make it into your system. The supplement just sits in your stomach, without dissolving.

To test whether or not your body will break down and absorb a calcium supplement, place the tablet in 6 ounces of vinegar or warm water. Let it sit for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. If it's still not completely dissolved after half an hour, it probably won't dissolve in your stomach, either.

Take small doses. Since calcium isn't absorbed very well, Hunt advises taking several small supplemental doses throughout the day.

"If you take a huge amount of calcium," she says, "only a small percentage is absorbed anyway."

Eat when you supplement. For best absorption, take calcium supplements with food. Hunt explains, "Hydrochloric acid in your stomach helps break down and digest your food. As you get older, your stomach just normally produces less. However, when you eat, your stomach produces extra acid, which then breaks down the calcium." Experts say calcium absorption increases by about 10 percent when taken with food.

Choose wisely. There's a great deal of controversy over which kind of supplement is better -- calcium carbonate or calcium citrate. The truth is, Hunt says, they both have pros and cons. "Calcium carbonate is more easily absorbed, but it causes a lot of gastric distress, such as bloating. Calcium citrate doesn't cause as many intestinal problems but less of it is absorbed. That means you need to take more of the calcium citrate to get your minimum calcium requirements." Read the label for how much of the supplement is absorbable calcium and make a dosage decision you're comfortable with.

Watch your D. Vitamin D plays an important role in how much calcium your bones actually absorb. Studies have proven that low levels of vitamin D go hand-in-hand with weaker, more fragile bones. That's why experts suggest taking vitamin D with your calcium supplements to help reduce your risk of bone fractures. Hunt says, "You can certainly take too much vitamin D and get into other problems, but 400 to 800 international units (IU) a day is about right."

Your body manufactures vitamin D when exposed to sunshine, but during the winter you are exposed to less sunshine and may experience more bone loss. In addition, sunscreens will block some of your body's absorption of this important vitamin. You don't need to sunbathe in January or give up your sunscreen -- just make sure you take in vitamin D from good nutritional sources each day. Fortified milk is the richest food source of vitamin D. You can also find it in other fortified dairy products and cereals; egg yolks; liver; and fatty fish, like salmon, tuna, and sardines.

 
 

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