Calcium is an extremely vital element needed for our bodies to be healthy and operate at peak efficiency. However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Excess calcium can create a myriad of health problems, some of which can be life threatening. Fortunately, we have been designed with systems in place to keep calcium levels in check. However, if they are not operating properly, excessive amounts of calcium can build up. Let’s take a more in depth look at how this occurs and the effects it may have on our wellness.
What is Hypercalcemia?
Hypercalcemia is a condition associated with elevated levels of calcium in the blood. Calcium is one of the most important and abundant minerals found in the body, and it plays a key role in many bodily functions. Under normal conditions, our Creator endowed us with a complex network of checks and balances that serves to maintain the proper amount of calcium in the body, as either too much or too little can cause numerous health problems. Excessive amounts of calcium in the blood can be caused by a number of factors, but most cases are due to improper operation of the parathyroid glands. Other common causes of hypercalcemia are related to side effects from certain medications and medical conditions, and to the over use of calcium or vitamin D supplements.
Hypercalcemia occurs more commonly in women than in men, and while it can strike at any stage of life, the rate of incidence increases with age. The majority of hypercalcemia cases are found in women over the age of fifty. It is also much more common in many cancer patients than in the general population, for reasons we will discuss in more detail below.
Why is the Proper Amount of Calcium in the Body So Critical?
Probably the most well known purpose of calcium is its role in the development and maintenance of bones and connective tissues. It works with another important mineral in the body, phosphate, to enable bone growth and replacement of bone tissue that is lost. Beyond its functions in the musculo-skeletal system, calcium is also a key player in many other bodily functions. Without calcium, the body could not send or receive nerve impulses properly, and thus muscle contraction and movement would not be possible. Much of the metabolic activity within the body involves calcium. Tooth formation, enzyme activity, heart regulation, and blood clotting are also enabled by calcium.
How is the Level of Calcium in the Body Regulated?
Calcium enters the body largely through the foods we eat. For most people, dairy products are the main dietary source of calcium. Other foods that are relatively high in calcium include nuts, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, legumes, eggs, and whole grains. Calcium supplements are also a potential source for introducing calcium into the body. Only a small amount of pure calcium can be directly absorbed into the body from food, averaging about 10-30%. Most of the calcium in food is linked with other components, and must be broken down during the digestive process in order for it to become available.
The vast majority (up to 99%) of calcium that accumulates in the body is stored in the bones, and the rest is found mainly in the blood, with minimal amounts in other bodily fluids as well. There are several factors involved in maintaining calcium balance within the body. The major ones include:
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Hypercalcemia?
Often cases of hypercalcemia, especially if they are minor, can go undiagnosed because the patient will have minimal if any signs. If symptoms do occur, they may include:
More severe cases of hypercalcemia can also produce cognitive symptoms that result because too much calcium can adversely affect the operation of the nervous system. These may include:
What Possible Complications Can Occur Due to Hypercalcemia?
What Are the Main Causes of Hypercalcemia?
The majority of hypercalcemia cases are classified as primary hypercalcemia, and are caused by a condition known as hyperparathyroidism. This occurs when the parathyroid produces and excretes too much PTH. Up to 90% of all hyperparathyroidism is the result of tumors on the parathyroid, most of which are benign (non-cancerous). However, when malignant tumors are treated with radiation, hyperparathyroidism may occur as a side effect, sometimes years after the treatment.
Other major causes of hypercalcemia include:
How Can Hypercalcemia Be Treated?
In severe cases, patients may require hospitalization to avoid potential life threatening consequences. Treatments may include intravenous therapy with fluids alone, or sometimes including medications such as diuretics, artificial hormones (often calcitonin), or special corticosteroids that will offset the presence of too much vitamin D.
Surgery is also an option, with the most common being partial or total removal of the parathyroid gland, a procedure known as a parathyroidectomy. I would be very careful about what drugs you agree to be treated with, as they can have serious side effects, and about surgery as well. Removal of the parathyroid can lead to consequences such as diminished or total loss of vocal chord function, and the surgery is not always successful. A second or third opinion is always a good idea before proceeding with any treatment.
Prevention is always the best policy. If you take care of yourself on a regular basis by making wise lifestyle choices, most cases of hypercalcemia can be avoided. It is particularly important to drink plenty of pure, filtered water, and to stay away from the use of antacids or too much supplemental vitamin D. The best way to avoid the need for antacids it to eat a healthful diet and exercise regularly. As far as vitamin D goes, the best way to get enough is to spend at least 20 minutes a day in direct sunshine, the most natural source of vitamin D.