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Healthbeat: Calcium, vitamin D important for bone health

Dr. Charles Paik

Dr. Charles Paik

Today, people know how important calcium is for good bone health. To ensure sufficient amounts, many add calcium supplements to their diet.

However, if people are also not consuming adequate amounts of vitamin D, they may be wasting their time. Recent research shows that without the recommended amounts of vitamin D – 200 to 400 international units for healthy individuals – the body may absorb calcium poorly.

Unfortunately, the rate of vitamin D deficiency is rising, especially for people living north of Atlanta, Ga. Part of the reason is that people spend more time working and recreating indoors than in the past. Even children don’t play outside as often, with television, video games and computers to keep them entertained.

If you never venture into the sun without sunscreen, consider delaying its application for 15 minutes to allow your body to soak up some of the “sunshine” vitamin.

But people who shun the sun aren’t the only ones who wind up vitamin D deficient. Recent research suggests older individuals and those with a high body mass index may have low vitamin D levels.

Even when intake is adequate, people with very dark skin or those suffering from certain diseases that inhibit nutrient absorption – such as Crohn’s disease or cystic fibrosis – may still be deficient.

Severe vitamin D deficiencies may cause rickets, where bones soften, deform and fracture.

More commonly, the cumulative lack of sufficient vitamin D may result in brittle bones, which can lead to fractures, especially hip fractures.

This is serious because these conditions are associated with small, but significant, increases in death rates. Intensifying this process is the fact that all people lose calcium from their bones as they age.

Moreover, certain individuals have a greater risk for osteoporosis than others. For example, more women than men develop it, especially menopausal Caucasian women with small frames. If a close relative had osteoporosis, you have a greater chance of developing it, too. Smokers do, as well.

If you also are at risk for osteoporosis, your doctor may recommend a bone scan. If you have already experienced bone loss, medication can slow its progression.

When building strong bones, prevention works far better than the cure. Bone production peaks around 30 and then slowly declines. Therefore, it’s important to concentrate on developing healthy bones during the first two to three decades of life. Calcium loss is less devastating to already dense bones.

Although one cannot undo a lifetime of calcium and vitamin D deficiency, correct amounts of both will strengthen existing bones. Good sources of calcium for people of all ages include dairy products, kale, broccoli, tofu, sardines, salmon and calcium fortified orange juice.

Other than the sun, good sources of vitamin D include fortified dairy products, egg yolks, certain types of fish and fish liver oils.

If you opt for calcium supplements, don’t take more than 2000 milligrams a day. Excess calcium can lead to heart problems and kidney stones. Also, the body cannot absorb large amounts at one time. Ingesting only 500 milligrams of calcium at a time maximizes its absorption.

Because vitamin D deficiency can only be gauged by blood tests, you can ask your primary care physician to assess your levels. If they are low, your doctor will recommend supplements.

Always consult your doctor before starting vitamin D supplements. Your dietary and lifestyle habits may already be adequate.

Dr. Charles Paik is an orthopedic doctor who sees patients at Adventist Hinsdale and La Grange Memorial hospitals, and is a member of its medical group, Adventist Health Partners.

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