Calcium deficiency: Causes, signs and symptoms
What you need to know:
- When there is a deficiency of calcium in the circulatory system, the body ionizes some of the calcium from the bones.
- The most crucial effect of calcium deficiency is weak, brittle bones that are susceptible to fractures and breaks.
When you hear of calcium as a nutrient, bones, and teeth come to mind. But the mineral also exists in the circulatory system in ionized form. Ionized calcium is essential for some of the body's most vital biochemical processes ranging from muscle contraction and relaxation to hormonal secretion and nerve function. Combined, the calcium in the skeletal structure, teeth, and circulatory system is the body's most abundant mineral. Calcium deficiency, therefore, has a significant impact on your health and well-being.
Sources of Calcium
Dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese are the most available sources of calcium that also provide a significant amount of the mineral. Non-dairy sources include:
- Calcium-fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, bread, and juices.
- Dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and kale.
- Fish with edible bones such as sardines and salmon.
A single serving of grains does not offer a large amount of calcium. Also, the absorption rate of calcium from plant foods is low because they contain chemicals such as oxalic acid which form salts of calcium that the human body cannot digest. However, if you consume the foods regularly, the cumulative volume of calcium you get from them is adequate.
Functions of calcium in the body
The most vital function of calcium is in the development and maintenance of bones and teeth. Calcium is also essential in the following biological functions:
- Muscle contraction
- Hormonal secretion
- Nerve function
- Blood clotting
Health effects of calcium deficiency and the signs to look out for
Hypocalcemia is usually asymptomatic, and it may take time for the signs to appear. This is because when there is a deficiency of calcium in the circulatory system, the body ionizes some of the calcium from the bones. The borrowed calcium allows the body to continue with the other processes that require calcium. But it weakens the bone structure and overtime, you start to experience the following effects:
Weak brittle bones
The most crucial effect of calcium deficiency is weak, brittle bones that are susceptible to fractures and breaks. This condition is known as osteoporosis. Osteoporosis occurs when the body does not have enough calcium to form new bone or replace old bone tissue.
In children, the weak, underdeveloped bones cause rickets just like children with Vitamin D deficiency. Rickets manifest as knock knees or bowlegs.
Fatigue and muscle problems
When there is not enough calcium in the blood, the muscles cannot contract and relax properly. This causes cramps, spasms, and twitching. The pain and spasms are usually intermittent, occurring mostly when your muscles are active. This is because the body gets some calcium from the bones to cater to immediate needs. In the long-term, however, the symptoms get more severe, and the muscles become too weak. Fatigue then follows as the muscles become too weak for ordinary physical activity.
Calcium is essential for strong teeth. A lack of calcium leads to dental problems such as gum disease, tooth decay, and enamel erosion. The dental problems mainly result from the body pulling calcium from teeth to offset the deficit in ionized calcium in the circulation.
Tingling sensation and numbness
A deficiency of calcium causes a tingling sensation in the extremities, affecting the hands and feet. All nerve cells need calcium in the release of neurotransmitters. The numbness and tingling sensation is a sign that the nerve cells are struggling to register sensation and transmit impulses.
Seizures are a serious complication of hypocalcemia. They occur when the ionized calcium in the blood falls to very low levels thus disrupting the release of neurotransmitters in the brain. The seizures can be mild or severe, depending on the extent of the deficiency. Severe cases may result in coma or death.
Memory loss and confusion
This is yet another impact of hypocalcemia on the release of neurotransmitters in the brain. The disruption of the process hinders normal brain function causing memory problems and confusion. In recent years, calcium deficiency has also been linked to depression.
Who is at risk of hypocalcemia?
The following groups of people are at a higher risk of developing hypocalcemia:
- Premature babies
- Elderly people
- People with malabsorption disorders such as celiac disease and Crohn's disease
- People with certain cancers such as ovarian, breast, and prostate cancer
- People who have had surgery to remove the parathyroid gland or part of the stomach
- People with chronic kidney disease
Treatment for hypocalcemia
Hypocalcemia is treated by replenishing the calcium levels in the body through diet and supplements. Dietary changes are therefore the first line of treatment. The doctor may also recommend injectable calcium for people with severe deficiency or those at risk of seizures.
If you think you may be suffering from calcium deficiency, consult a doctor. Do not take calcium supplements at your own discretion. Excess calcium in the body leads to hypercalcemia, with serious health complications.