Most of us learn that calcium is essential for bone health in school — but that’s not the whole story. According to rheumatologist Chad Deal, MD, “Our body needs calcium for other important functions as well, including those involving muscles, nerves, blood vessels and the release of hormones and enzymes.”
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For that reason, a serious calcium deficiency can wreak havoc on your body in many different ways.
We talked to Dr. Deal about how much of this mighty mineral you should get in a day — and the symptoms you may experience if you develop a deficiency.
How much calcium should you consume per day?
According to Dr. Deal, a lot of us get all the calcium we need from the food we eat. Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese) are plentiful sources. Other sources include:
Some foods, like soy milk and orange juice, are also often fortified with calcium.
Your recommended daily amount depends on your age and sex assigned at birth. All adults aged 19 to 50, and men up to age 70, should get 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium a day through their diet and (if necessary) supplements. Women 51 and older and men 71 and older need to take 1,200 mg of calcium a day.
In the short term, most symptoms of calcium deficiency are subtle — so subtle, in fact, that you may not notice them at all. But if left unaddressed, those symptoms can worsen.
“Over time,” Dr. Deal explains, “low calcium intake can have detrimental effects on different body systems, including contributing to low bone mass and risk for osteoporosis.”
While it’s possible to get a blood test to determine your vitamin D level to see if you might be deficient, calcium levels in the blood are usually normal even when your calcium intake is low. That’s because your body will take calcium from your bones to supply what’s needed to function.
If you suspect you aren’t getting enough calcium from the food you eat, talk to your healthcare provider about taking a supplement.
“There is no need to exceed the recommended daily allowance for calcium,” Dr. Deal says. In fact, having too much calcium (hypercalcemia) can be dangerous, too.
It’s also worth noting that some people experience hypocalcemia because of a medical condition they have or prescriptions they take. In those cases, a supplement may not be enough to right the ship.
Calcium deficiency symptoms
The following symptoms may point to a calcium deficiency. Keep in mind that some of these symptoms occur only during an acute illness, when serum calcium levels drop to dangerous levels.
“Fatigue” is a deceptively simple word for a symptom that is actually pretty complicated. As you’ll see, a lot of the other symptoms on this list fit could be attributed to fatigue, from body aches and stiffness to depressed mood. In the case of hypocalcemia, fatigue is the result of your cells being undernourished.
Poor oral health
You might have never given it a thought before, but, fun fact: Although your teeth are not bones, they are anchored in them! If your body is leeching calcium from your bones to stay functional, it’s going to make your teeth more susceptible to decay and loosening — and possibly even periodontal disease.
Muscle pain and spasms
Calcium doesn’t just make our bones strong: It also ensures our muscles function properly. Specifically, it helps our muscles contract and relax. Put differently, hypocalcemia will, quite literally, make you weaker. You’ll also experience more aches, pains, stiffness and spasms.
If your cells are being deprived of calcium, you can encounter a range of cognitive symptoms, from brain fog to dizziness and confusion. There’s even preliminary evidence to suggest that calcium intake affects our mental health.
Numbness and tingling in your fingers
Calcium plays a vital role in many different parts of our central nervous system; if we’re deficient, we may see those nerves impacted, particularly in our extremities (hands, fingers, feet and toes).
Nutritional deficiencies can sometimes trigger seizures.
Abnormal heart rhythm
If your heartbeat is starting to feel a bit … off, you need to have chat with your doctor as soon as possible. It could be a sign of a severe calcium deficiency.
Remember: Calcium is crucial to muscle function — and your heart is a muscle. There is a well-established connection between calcium dysregulation and ventricular arrhythmias, which can be serious — and potentially even deadly.
Regardless of calcium levels, you should go to the emergency room (ER) immediately if you’re experiencing chest pain (angina) along with other symptoms like shortness of breath, lightheadedness or fainting.
No bones about it
While some of the symptoms of calcium deficiency may be scary, there’s good news: The underlying condition is easy to treat! But before you go stalking the shelves of your local pharmacy for a supplement, make an appointment with a healthcare provider. They’ll be able to assess your risk for calcium deficiency and — if needed — determine what the safest dose is for you.