Calcium is good for our teeth and bones. However, a permanently elevated level of calcium in the blood can be detrimental to health. The symptoms are varied – and often an incidental finding.
We associate calcium with strong bones and healthy teeth – and with calcium-rich foods such as milk, cheese and nuts. For example, in the prevention and treatment of the bone disease osteoporosis, a diet rich in calcium is recommended.
But at the same time , experts from the German Society for Endocrinology (DGE) are now warning of excessively high calcium levels in the blood. Why is this problematic? And does that mean we can harm ourselves with calcium-rich foods?
Intestines and kidneys regulate calcium absorption
A high level of calcium in the blood is called hypercalcaemia. Normally, our body manages to avoid an excess by regulating the absorption of calcium in the intestine. When we eat foods high in calcium, absorption in the gut is reduced and excretion through the kidneys increases.
But a long-term, even if only slightly elevated calcium level can be harmful to health. In the long term, it can lead to kidney stones, gastrointestinal problems and vascular diseases – or it can also be a symptom of various diseases. Therefore, the calcium level is a natural alarm signal of the body.
Get calcium levels checked
“When the calcium level in the blood rises, it is always an indication that clinical pictures or other causes are behind it,” explains Stephan Scharla, endocrinologist from Bad Reichenhall and spokesman for the Bone and Mineral Metabolism Section of the DGE. That is why the experts at the DGE recommend having your blood calcium levels checked regularly .
Because, as the experts determined: About one percent of the total population has slightly elevated levels. In women after menopause it is even around three percent. These are often incidental findings.
At the beginning of what is known as hypercalcemia, those affected usually only have non-specific symptoms such as tiredness, gastrointestinal complaints, sleep disorders or reduced performance. “When cardiac arrhythmias occur, the calcium metabolism disorders are already well advanced,” says internist Scharla.
The most common cause of high blood calcium levels is an overactive parathyroid gland. One or more of the four small organs located next to the thyroid secrete a hormone – the parathyroid hormone. This regulates the calcium balance. If the parathyroid glands are overactive, this mechanism no longer works properly.
In most cases, the reason for this is a benign tumor, a parathyroid adenoma. About half of those affected suffer from it. According to Scharla, a small and uncomplicated operation to remove the derailed parathyroid gland is the treatment of choice.
If the patients initially decide against the surgical procedure, they must be closely monitored, emphasizes the endocrinologist. Because about 30 percent later develop typical secondary diseases such as osteoporosis.
Be careful with dietary supplements
A tumor is not always the cause of the increased values. Preparations that are supposed to promote health can also increase the calcium level above normal. An example: diuretics. And – important but often overlooked: high-dose calcium supplements. Unlike calcium from food, they can accumulate in the body in alarming amounts. Likewise, taking too much vitamin D can often lead to hypercalcaemia. Vitamin D should therefore only be taken under medical supervision.
According to the experts at the DGE, blood tests – especially routine tests by general practitioners – should routinely determine the calcium value and pay more attention to it. In cooperation with the German Society for Internal Medicine, the experts have therefore published recommendations for