Calcium is the single most abundant mineral in the human body and you dont need me to tell you that it’s essential for strong bones and teeth – hence why its always emphasised for growing children and adolescents. Its important in later life too, particularly for women, since we are at risk of osteoporosis (oestrogen having a protective effect on bones and declining at menopause). Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding also have higher calcium requirements.
As if all that wasn’t enough, theres excellent research to show that adequate calcium also reduces the emotional, behavioural physical and psychological symptoms of PMS, including mood swings and depression. Getting enough calcium may also help with reducing period pain and helping to relieve migraines, which sometimes get worse during PMS.
Why is Calcium So Important in PMS?
Of course, no single nutrient works in isolation. Nutrition is a symphony not a single note, and a varied diet consisting of a mainly plant-based whole foods diet (here are tips on how to get started) is the gateway to better hormonal health. However, some minerals like calcium are worth paying closer attention to.
Calcium is particularly important for women with PMS because:
- As well as providing strength to bones and teeth, calcium is used in the body to help muscles to move and for nerves to carry messages between the brain and every body part. This includes the release of hormones and the production of enzymes.
- Research studies show that levels of calcium and vitamin D (which is needed to absorb calcium) drop in the menstrual phase between ovulation and your period (basically the second half of your cycle) and increasing the level of calcium results in less PMS. See the Journal of the American College of Nutrition and the Archives of Internal Medicine.
- Many people – but especially women – typically consume BELOW the recommended rates of calcium and vitamin D (yes, even those who drink milk and eat meat).
- Women with PMS are MORE likely that other women to suffer from osteoporosis in later life. This is why weight-bearing and resistance-based exercise (to strengthen your bones by using them) is important, in addition to adequate levels of calcium. Exercise plays an important part in reducing PMS anyway.
What aboUT milk?
Many respected sources (such as experts at Harvard University) question the overemphasis of milk, cheese and yoghurt as the primary source of calcium in the developed work. This is not only because of the high level of saturated fat, or even the rising levels of lactose intolerance, although these are considerations.
Most significant for women with hormone sensitivities is the high level of hormones in milk produced using modern industrial milk production practices. The milk we drink today is mostly produced from pregnant cows, who release high levels of their own estrogen and progesterone levels into the milk which is, after all, originally intended for their calves while they’re growing – not for adult human women over a whole lifetime.
It has been hypothesised that this could be a factor in the increase the risk of female hormone cancers, such as ovarian cancer and breast cancer and this seems to be a really persuasive argument to me. More and more evidence is emerging about how counterproductive a reliance on dairy products is We may not yet have seen the full long term consequences of succumbing to the marketing push to see milk as a ‘health food’, when it is probably counterproductive when you look at the facts.
Another problem with consuming large amounts of dairy products is that they can actually cause the body to leech calcium and other minerals, because diary is both difficult to digest and acid-forming properties in the body. Dairy products also contain low amounts of magnesium and high levels of phosphorus, which can decrease the availability of calcium.
See my earlier post about milk and PMS for more information.
examples of calcium-rich foods
In my experience, it’s best to stick to non-dairy sources of calcium as part of a PMS management plan. Good sources of calcium are:
- Kale, spring greens, chinese cabbage, broccoli and spinach
- Canned or dried beans (even baked beans) and tofu (which is made of soya beans)
- Calcium is often added to breakfast cereals, to soya milk, and to juices , making fortified foods at breakfast time a great way to load up on calcium. I always advise having a sound hormone-friendly breakfast to prevent problems later on in the day with energy levels and mood.
- Nuts, especially almonds and Brazil nuts.
- Seaweeds, as used in Japanese foods like miso soup and seaweed salads and sushi.
- Seeds, especially sesame seeds (e.g. as tahini, which is sesame seed butter – often added to hummous), flaxseeds – which you should already be eating! – and sunflower seeds.
You can easily get your 1000mg of calcium daily by eating three to four servings of calcium-rich foods – which will also impact on your health positively in other ways too.
Many products are fortified with calcium and show up on the label (often as calcium phosphate). So get reading the nutritional information on the packet. Here’s an example from Kara Coconut Milk (which I personally love on cereal or as a drink on its own; it’s really tasty and creamy).
Factors that reduce the absorption of Calcium
Several factors potentially affect the amount of calcium absorbed from the digestive tract including:
- Vitamin D – 90% of which we make when skin is exposed to sunlight – is esential for calcium absorption.
- Vitamin K is also needed to help bones absorb calcium, protein and magnesium. It’s found in foods such as broccoli, chickpeas, nuts, lentils and potatoes.
- Oxalic acid (found in some vegetables and beans) and phytic acid (in whole grains) can reduce calcium absorption. But if you eat a good, varied diet, you don’t need to worry.
- Age. The efficiency of calcium absorption decreases as people get older (and that’s why it’s advised that people over 70 consume more).
- Calcium is eliminated in urine, faeces and sweat, and factors which affect this in a negative way include alcohol and caffeine.
What About Calcium Supplements?
Wouldnt it just be easier to neck a tablet every day, for example as part of a multivitamin? Well, no, not really. Apart from being pricey, vitamin supplements are no substitute for a healthy diet, containing all fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals you need, in the form your body can best digest them.
You can also overdose on calcium supplementation in a way you cannot with food, and there are risks associated with too high levels of calcium, such as a higher risk of heart disease as shown by the large scale Womens Health Initiative Study. Too much calcium via supplements can also interfere with the body’s ability to absorb iron and zinc.
Calcium supplements can cause gas, bloating, and constipation and kidney stones in some people. If you do take calcium supplements and find this, try spreading out the calcium dose throughout the day and taking tablets with food to help your body break down the supplement. It’s best not to take more than 500 mg at one time.
The two main types of Calcium Supplement
The two main forms of calcium dietary supplements are calcium carbonate and calcium citrate.
Calcium carbonate is very cheap its basically chalk / limestone. It’s no coincidence that pure calcium supplements come in the form of large, usually white, chalky looking tablets (like in the picture above). How well do you think your body will absorb something so inorganic?
Lately, I’ve heard some women say they’ve discovered a new, expensive and high quality alternative type of calcium – coral calcium. But this is basically still just hard, white, inorganic limestone too. (There are also environmental issues linked to its harvesting it and the question of lead and mercury pollution of the seas its harvested from).
Calcium carbonate must be taken with food or after eating because the body requires stomach acids to absorb it.
Calcium citrate and malate, chelate, and orotate are more expensive forms of the supplement and, whilst not ideal, are better absorbed.
What About Calcium and Magnesium Tablets Marketed for PMS?
All the above comments apply. Whilst it’s true that magnesium is another critical mineral to dietary management of PMS, it too is better digested and absorbed through food and there’s no risk of oversupplementation. You can read all about the many types of foods containing magnesium here.
The Bottom Line
Calcium has been proven to significantly reduce PMS. Make sure as much of your calcium intake as possible comes from non-dairy whole foods. The bonus is that this will ensure your future bone health as well as help your PMS.
If you feel that you must add a calcium supplement, make sure you dont take too high a dose, and choose calcium citrate over calcium carbonate for easier digestion and absorption.
Upcoming posts will feature Vitamin D, which goes hand in hand with calcium, and iron, which many women are lacking in, especially when suffering from PMS.
As always, thanks for reading, and let me know our experiences in the Comments below or via Facebook or Twitter.