The Calcium Paradox – Start At The Beginning
Life evolved in the sea – a wonderfully balanced electrolyte solution of sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca++) and magnesium (Mg++) with chlorine (Cl–) and sulfate. Although the sea has become saltier (higher concentrations of sodium chloride) than it is thought to have been historically, our bodies still bathe our cells in a very similar solution that quite closely mimics seawater, just with less sodium and chloride.
In our biology, calcium found a role as a powerful “ON” switch, and magnesium took up an opposing “OFF” switch role, blocking calcium wherever it was needed. As such, magnesium roamed freely within the cell in partnership with proteins and mitochondria, while calcium was kept out by the cell membrane and only allowed in by invitation. Even once inside the cell, calcium was kept in storage (sarcoplasmic reticulum), closely guarded (calcium pumps and calcium channels) and only let out under specific instructions.
When evolution took creatures from the ocean to land, they needed to guarantee a reliable supply of the sea salt minerals, while keeping the critical calcium and magnesium levels always at similar seawater levels that their cells had evolved with. Bone was set up as the ideal mineral storage site and thyroid and parathyroid glands developed with the ability to monitor and control calcium levels very strictly. Magnesium seems to have been given more leeway to figure things out for itself.
Our Bodies Calcium System
The core of calcium biology relies on maintaining the concentration of calcium in blood and interstitial fluid (the fluid bathing our cells just as the ocean did) at a very precise level. It is reported, and repeated often, that our serum ionized (free to interact) calcium level is the most tightly controlled parameter in our body. We take in calcium from our food, we lose it through sweat and urine and we store it in our bones, taking it out and putting it back like we use a current account at the bank. We do not use up calcium. Lastly, each cell must regulate how much calcium it will allow to cross its cell membrane and how that calcium will be stored and used once it enters.
The master controller of calcium is the parathyroid gland. These four little glands are located on the deep surface of the thyroid gland in front of our trachea in our necks are only found in land-based animals. They have receptors on their cell membranes that respond to calcium levels and secrete parathyroid hormone (PTH) when the levels drop. When serum calcium levels are normal or high, the calcium receptors will not stimulate PTH secretion.
PTH raises calcium levels in 4 ways: PTH
- stimulates osteoclast bone cells to chew up the calcium bone matrix and spit out calcium into the bloodstream
- reduces calcium excretion in urine
- activates vitamin D (in the kidney) which then goes to the gut to increase calcium absorption
- pushes calcium through cell membranes into cells
There are two mechanisms that balance this calcium raising system:
- calcitonin hormone from the thyroid gland (C-cells) that quickly lowers high (overshoot) calcium levels by encouraging excretion in the urine
- calcium handling proteins that clear excess calcium from soft tissue and return it to the bone bank
Think of calcium as a hot coal in the body. It is charged and very interactive with many cell proteins – turning things on wherever it goes. The calcium handling proteins are charged with picking up the extra calcium and returning it to bone, for re-inclusion in new healthy bone. Calcium will not clear from tissue or return to bone without them.
The two known calcium-handling proteins are called osteocalcin and matrix gla protein (MGP). Vitamins A and D together stimulate the production of these two proteins. It seems that a good balance of this vitamin pair is essential for optimum production. Osteocalcin directs calcium back into bones and teeth, while MGP clears calcium from soft tissues like blood vessels and the heart, which should not be calcified. Imbalances of levels of these vitamins, that act more like hormones, cause various defects in the calcium handling protein levels. Getting just the right amount of both goes a long way to optimizing calcium health.
That is just half the story, as both proteins need to be activated to enable them to handle calcium. Vitamin K2 (and its brother K1) activate an enzyme (carboxylase) that then tacks on another carbon dioxide molecule right next to a carbon dioxide group already attached at one end of the protein. This essentially provides the protein with an oven mitt, enabling it to pick up the (hot) calcium ion and move it – to wherever that protein is meant to move it to. K2 activates osteocalcin and MGP, while K1 activates calcium in the blood clotting sequence. Forget about K1 for now – it is so important that the body recycles it so that we very seldom run short of it. The two do not overlap to any significant extent that we know of.
There are two crucial weaknesses in this calcium-control system:
- the body relies on three externally sourced hormones (vitamins A, D & K2)) to regulate this powerful molecule
- PTH is also secreted in response to low magnesium and high phosphate levels, meaning that these two minerals can upset the calcium balance if the are not consumed in the right amounts
Any combination of deficiency or overdose of the vitamin calcium management team can result in unhealthy calcium balance, most often the calcium paradox situation of osteoporosis and calcified soft tissue. Then, our almost universal low magnesium intake ensures ongoing bone losses and tissue calcification by driving PTH to keep moving calcium from bone to soft tissue and into cells, even when the system is unbalanced to the point of disease.
When We Fail Our Calcium System
What makes it all so catastrophic is that modern medicine has completely overlooked this powerful system and its controls, all while the way our food is grown and raised has changed dramatically for the worst. The result is that we have moved so far away from creating the conditions that satisfy our natural biology that we have very little hope of maintaining even mediocre health.
It is no wonder that our elderly population is suffering so widely from calcium paradox diseases like anxiety/depression, chronic pain, cardiovascular disease and stroke. I feel immense sadness with every older person I see struggling into my hospital; pale and grey, bent over and shuffling in with their families who are struggling to understand their pain. Whether they have poor memory or cancer, they’re left wondering how they got to be so sick when they followed all of their doctors’ instructions. We think that this is growing old but in fact, it is just becoming calcified.
When it’s fully understood how many people suffer from calcium paradox diseases, I think the world will be shocked and I hope that individuals take it upon themselves to balance their bodies calcium systems. The effects of over-calcification are affecting everyone, and it starts at very young ages (anxiety/depression in children) and ruins far more lives than a viral pandemic or world war ever could.