The Little Mineral That Could

From PMS to colon cancer and high blood pressure, calcium rules

It could be a new ad campaign: Calcium — It's Not Just for Bones Anymore. Although the bones hoard 99 percent of a person's calcium, that remaining 1 percent circulates through the far reaches of the body. It helps nerves tell muscles when to contract, thus preventing cramps. It smooths the flow of impulses between nerves and the brain. Calcium also aids digestion, by contributing to the production of saliva and enzymes, and heals wounds through its role in clotting. One recently discovered benefit will resonate with women: it seems to ease premenstrual syndrome. In the largest-ever study of PMS, researchers led by endocrinologist Susan Thys-Jacobs of St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York divided 500 women into two groups. One group took 1,200 mg of calcium a day; the other took a placebo. After three menstrual cycles, the calcium group reported a nearly 50 percent drop in four major PMS symptoms: mood swings, pain, water retention and food cravings. The placebo group saw just a 30 percent decrease. "No other drug addresses all these symptoms as effectively," says Thys-Jacobs. She speculates that two potent hormones that control the movement of calcium in and out of bones work overtime in some women, causing the miserable symptoms of PMS. "I think PMS is a signal that a woman is not taking enough calcium, and a marker for possible future osteoporosis," says Thys-Jacobs.

Doctors also suspect a link between low calcium levels and high blood pressure. Argentine researchers have found that women might influence their children's risk of high blood pressure in the future by taking calcium during pregnancy. In 1997 they studied 591 women who took 2,000 mg of calcium a day, starting in their 20th week of pregnancy. The babies had lower than average (but healthy) blood pressure for at least seven years after birth. More research needs to be done before recommendations are made. In a California study, calcium-deficient teens significantly lowered their blood pressure by taking 1,500 mg of calcium�equal to five cups of milk�a day.

Perhaps the most dramatic news links calcium to colon-cancer prevention. Two major studies have found that 1,200 mg of calcium a day can reduce the growth of colon polyps, from which an estimated 90 percent of colon cancers develop. In the most recent, doctors at the University of North Carolina gave 1,200 mg of calcium a day to people who'd had colon polyps removed. This group had 24 percent fewer recurring polyps than patients who did not increase their calcium intake, reports Dr. Robert Sandler. Milk never looked so good.

Stephen Williams

Newsweek, Spring/Summer, 1999

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