Could you have a calcium deficiency?

Written by: Dr Rasha Mukhtar
Published: | Updated: 02/09/2021
Edited by: Cameron Gibson-Watt

The human body contains more calcium than any other mineral, and around 99 per cent of it is stored in our teeth and bones. As we know, calcium is critical for maintaining strong bones and teeth, however, what many may not know is that it also plays a vital role in regulating muscle contractions and facilitating the conduction of messages from the brain to the rest of the body via the nerves.

Having low levels of calcium in the body can cause a wide range of symptoms and health problems, so we spoke to Dr Rasha Mukhtar, a top consultant in diabetes and endocrinology at Frimley Park Hospital, to understand more.



Why does the body need calcium?

Calcium is a mineral found in food that is needed to build strong bones and to carry out other important bodily functions. It is stored in bones and teeth and supports their development, structure and strength.


Calcium is also one of the body’s electrolytes - a mineral that carries an electric charge. The mineral is needed to help the transmission of nerves signals between the brain and the body and facilitates the contraction and movement of muscles – including the heart to maintain the heartbeat.


Additionally, calcium is required in the blood to help with normal blood clotting and by most cells to facilitate the release of important hormones and other chemicals, which impact many functions in our body.


What are the signs and symptoms of low calcium?

Calcium deficiency symptoms can vary from mild to severe. 



Early signs of a calcium deficiency include:


  • weakness
  • fatigue
  • muscle cramps or spasms
  • numbness or tingling, particularly in the fingertips and jawline
  • muscle spasms mainly in the hands
  • weak or brittle fingernails
  • fainting
  • difficulty swallowing
  • occasionally vomiting


If a calcium deficiency is left untreated and progresses, it can cause severe symptoms, such as:



What causes a calcium deficiency?

A true calcium deficiency usually has little to do with your diet and more to do with underlying health conditions, such as a problem with your kidneys or parathyroid glands, which can affect the levels of calcium in the blood.


Calcium is usually well maintained in the body, especially if you have a diet rich in calcium foods. When it comes to maintaining healthy bones and teeth, calcium is regulated by a hormone known as parathyroid hormone (PTH) and vitamin D to maintain blood calcium levels within narrow margins. Disturbances in PTH or vitamin D can affect calcium levels with a deficiency of either resulting in low blood calcium levels. Vitamin D helps the body absorb adequate levels of calcium from the intestines, so having a deficiency in this vital vitamin could be a cause for low calcium.


In addition, certain medications can interfere with the mechanisms that absorb or excrete calcium from the body, which over time can lead to further problems if they aren’t well managed.


What happens when the body doesn’t get enough calcium?

In the long term, if you don’t get enough calcium, it can cause the body to start taking the calcium that’s stored in the bones. Over time, this results in a loss of bone mass, making them weak and porous and can lead to a condition known as osteoporosis with a high risk for fractures.


In children and young people, a condition called rickets can form if the body isn’t getting enough vitamin D and calcium. Likewise, in older people, osteomalacia can develop.


If a person is experiencing a severe calcium deficiency, they may also experience heart problems, as the heart muscle becomes less efficient at contracting and pumping blood around the body.


What are the tests and medical treatments available?

The initial tests would involve checking your calcium level using a blood test. We also look at other minerals, vitamins and hormones to help us understand what is causing the calcium deficiency. We may need to need to carry out a urine test to see if your body is losing calcium through the kidneys.


If your doctor suspects you may be suffering from osteoporosis, they will carry out a bone density test. This uses X-rays to assess the density and strength of certain bones, hip and spine mainly, which is a sign of long term calcium deficiency.


Treatments for a calcium deficiency depend on the underlying cause, but may include:


  • Vitamin D replacement therapy
  • Calcium replacement tablets
  • Hormone replacement therapy, if the parathyroid hormones need replacement due to underactive glands
  • Reducing or stopping the medication that is the principal cause


How can I raise my calcium levels at home?

The safest way to increase your calcium intake is to add more calcium to your diet. Adults aged 19 to 64 need at least 700mg of calcium a day. Calcium-rich foods include:


  • dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt
  • leafy greens such as spinach, broccoli and kale
  • oat and soy milk, with added calcium
  • nuts and seeds
  • beans
  • sardines
  • tofu
  • figs


You may also want to consider taking calcium supplements, however, you should be able to get enough calcium from a normal diet. Consult a pharmacist or your doctor before taking these.


To book an appointment with Dr Rasha Mukhtar, visit her Top Doctors profile and check her availability.

By Dr Rasha Mukhtar
Endocrinology, diabetes & metabolism

Dr Rasha Mukhtar is an esteemed consultant in diabetes and endocrinology based at Frimley Park Hospital. Dr Mukhtar has a busy clinical practice covering the investigation, diagnosis and management of patients with diabetes, obesity, thyroid dysfunctions, calcium disorders, pituitary disease, adrenal problems, hypogonadism, and electrolyte abnormalities. She also runs a diabetes and endocrine antenatal clinic in conjunction with obstetricians and specialist nurses, and can also provide pre-conceptual care.

In addition to her clinical practice, Dr Mukhtar is an active medical educator. Dr Mukhtar is a MRCP PACES examiner and is involved with the General Medical Council. Her research was in dietary interventions and metabolic syndrome, and she has extensive research experience in studies involving diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular risk management. She is a principal and co-investigator for a number of international and multi-centre studies.

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