By Jamie Holland, Licensed Acupuncturist and Applied Clinical Nutritionist
Calcium is vital in the functioning of our immune system. Depletion of tissue calcium not only leads to increased virus and bacterial infections, but can be a general indicator of susceptibility to severe illness with higher mortality rate. When we become feverish, this warming of our body releases calcium making this mineral available to assist our body to protect itself from an assault. To properly absorb calcium, we need a good source. Fresh spring water is the best. Calcium lactate is the next best and can be found in supplement form. Calcium carbonate is the worst, and unfortunately, is the most common form of calcium in over the counter vitamin products. Calcium is also needed for a healthy gut, and—as you can read more about in another LCA article, Improving Immunity and Gut Health Through Diet—our gut is an important component of our immune system.
“Spring or well water is the best for drinking because hard water contains minerals like calcium bicarbonate. Calcium bicarbonate is essential in the blood stream to prevent our children from becoming susceptible to colds, flu and other childhood diseases like chickenpox and even polio, which produce fevers.”—Dr. Royal Lee, founder of Standard Process from "Water – the First Step to Health."
The best type of calcium is the same form of calcium that is found in our blood and that is calcium bicarbonate. However, you can't get this in supplement form because it has to be suspended in water. You can find calcium bicarbonate in spring water but not in tap water or boiled water. When you boil water it changes the chemical make-up of calcium, making it less absorbable—this process can be observed by the calcium deposits at the bottom of our hot water kettle and this in turn mirrors how the wrong types of calcium can negatively precipitate in different areas of our body (plaque, for example).
In supplement form, the best type of calcium is calcium lactate, followed by calcium citrate. Calcium lactate is called ionizable calcium because it is one chemical reaction away from becoming calcium bicarbonate (which is ionized calcium, a term referred to in many of the studies below). Ionized calcium is the usable form of calcium in our bodies (and by our immune systems). Calcium lactate is also the form calcium takes when provided in mothers milk.
Now—this can be a little confusing because their names are so close—calcium carbonate (missing the bi) is the most common type of calcium sold on the market and is basically useless. It almost certainly won't help you and may even harm you. Calcium carbonate is basically limestone, and it takes too many chemical reactions for calcium carbonate to become calcium bicarbonate for most people's bodies to accomplish, making it nearly impossible to utilize. Instead, this type of calcium often precipitates in the body causing stones in the kidneys, plaque on the teeth, deposits at the small joints, plaque in the arteries, and so forth. Avoid calcium carbonate supplements.
Foods that are rich in calcium include: raw milk and raw milk products (remember, heat chemically changes calcium so the process of pasteurizing milk harms the absorbability of calcium in dairy ), green leafy vegetables (especially collard greens, spinach and kale), sardines and other seafoods with bones in them, sesame seeds and almonds, and amaranth. (28, 29)
Calcium surrounds foreign matter, locating it for other immune system players, such as phagocytes, to come and destroy. A helpful analogy is to think of calcium as like a GPS marker or beacon, marking the virus or bacteria or other foreign substance so that the Missile Command of our body (ie, the immune system) can locate and destroy.
"Through images of phagocytosis, the process by which a cell engulfs and then destroys it's target, [researchers are] able to track the movement of calcium waves as they send signals to key players in the immune response." (8)
Conversely, phagocytes—which as mentioned above are key players in our immune system's ability to fight infection—are inhibited by depleted blood calcium. (9) Thus, if we use up our calcium or interrupt it's absorption or distribution our immune system suffers greatly.
Calcium is instrumental in assisting your body to fight infectious diseases, as shown in multiple studies.
The Department of Medical Microbiology at Linköping University in Sweden found that the ability for the body's immune system to kill the bacteria that causes tuberculosis was decreased in the absence of calcium in the cells and increased when calcium was sufficient. "We conclude that *neutrophil-mediated killing of mycobacteria is a [ionized calcium] dependent process." (4) *Neutrophils make up the majority of white blood cells involved in the immune response. (25, 26)
The Journal of Leukocyte Biology reported that bone marrow induced macrophages (white blood cells that function as an integral part of our immune system) were increased and more active when there was sufficient blood calcium. (5)
In Science, the researchers noted that when more calcium was used in therapy, the body was able to fight Epstein Barr Virus more effectively. (7)
Fevers are a natural stage in our immune system's response to colds and flus. When the muscles around your bones warm up, ionized calcium is released from the bones so that this calcium can be used to help combat the virus, bacteria, or other foreign invaders. (24, 25)
This is a supply and demand process, sort-of like triage of the body. The body has to decide, where is calcium most important right now? If you have a virus attacking you, calcium is needed to assist white blood cells in fighting the virus, more than it is needed in your bones.
However, if you have enough ionizable calcium in the body, then you will not get a fever, even in the presence of a virus. I have seen many patients of mine reduce their fevers after taking calcium lactate or other calcium rich supplements or herbs. Shi Gao (gypsum) is the most famous Chinese herb to prescribe when someone has a fever. Why? Because it is rich in calcium.
Doesn't it make more sense to provide enough calcium for the body to fight infectious diseases, than for the body to have to resort to stealing calcium from our bones by heating it up?
As noted above, calcium is one of the most important minerals for our immune system. This is true not only for viruses and bacterial infections. When we have a calcium deficiency, we are generally more prone to severe illness and death by those illnesses.
The American Journal of Medicine found that 70% of acutely ill patients in their study had deficient calcium and 40% of patients in the study who died were significantly deficient in calcium. "These findings suggest that hypocalcemia [low calcium] is a very common abnormality in acutely ill patients and is associated with a poor prognosis." (1)
A study in Scandinavia found that 85% of 993 critically ill patients were calcium deficient. "Ionized hypocalcemia [low calcium] is common among critically ill adults and it is associated with increased mortality." (2)
The Harvard Medical School did a study of 145 sick children and found 49% of the children had low calcium and 31% of the children who died in their study had low calcium. "We conclude the following: ...Ionized hypocalcemia [low calcium] is common in severely ill children [and] patients with ionized hypocalcemia have a higher mortality rate than those with normocalcemia [calcium sufficiency]." (3)
Other studies report, "We conclude that hypocalcemia is extremely common in hospitalized patients (up to 88%) and correlates with severity of illness, but not with a specific illness per se." (10) And, "Hypocalcemia has been documented in critically ill patients, including those with sepsis and shock." (21)
Calcium is very important in gut health and has been shown to inhibit E-Coli and Salmonella in the gut. Calcium reduces the infection time of harmful gut bacterium and should be a part of any plan to rehabilitate healthy gut flora
"...dietary calcium supplementation is effective in reducing the severity of E. Coli-induced diarrhea. The protective effects of dietary calcium are not restricted to ETEC or E. coli infections only." (11)
"... researchers say high doses of calcium may prevent the bacteria [E. Coli] from multiplying in the intestine, relieving symptoms such as weight loss and diarrhea. The findings are published in the recent issue of Gastroenterology." (20)
"Researchers ... note that the positive effects of dietary calcium are not restricted to Montezuma's revenge from E. coli infections and they are testing calcium for treatment of other forms of bacteria." (20)
Our gut is a major immune system player and keeping our gut healthy is not only important for proper digestion and absorption of nutrients, but also for immune health. To read more about gut health and immunity, refer to this article: Improving Immunity and Gut Health Through Diet.
Vitamins and minerals don't work alone. They are always interacting with each other. Calcium is no different and depends upon vitamin D, essential fatty acids, phosphorus, and vitamin K to transport it around the body.
An interesting example of how this works is revealed in studies showing how a person will have a higher chance of contracting a viral infection when they over expose themselves to sun! (22, 23) Don't misunderstand this—it takes some explanation. Sun itself is not bad. When we are exposed to sun, our bodies produce more vitamin D. Vitamin D pulls calcium into the blood. In general, this is good and proper, but when we have too much vitamin D, calcium is locked in the blood and cannot distribute to the tissues, and thus cannot mark the foreign invaders and trigger our immune system to attack.
A simple remedy is to increase your consumption of essential fatty acids (EFA). EFA help transport calcium to your tissues. Vitamin D and EFA work together and need to have a balance of quantities in your body. If you have too much vitamin D compared to your body's need for EFA, you will inhibit your body's ability to transport calcium. Other nutrients that help transport calcium are phosphorus and vitamin K, both of which move calcium into your bones.
In short, vitamin D helps pull calcium into the blood, EFA transport calcium to the tissues, and phosphorus and vitamin K help transport calcium to the bones. If there is too much vitamin D, it locks calcium in the blood, not allowing it to distribute around the body. An excess of vitamin D can even cause calcium to be stripped from the tissues and bones, pulling it back into the blood.
A common presentation of tissue calcium deficiency is cramping in the muscles. Often this is because a person is taking too much vitamin D and/or not enough EFA. Another presentation is cold sores, which only present on the mouth when there is not enough calcium in the tissues.
Calcium, especially ionizable calcium (calcium lactate) or calcium bicarbonate (found in fresh spring water) are essential for proper immune system response. Anyone wishing to arm themselves with the best tools to protect against viruses, bacteria, and severe illnesses in general, would be bereft if calcium was left out of the equation. But, when boosting your immune system, you also need to include essential fatty acids in your diet so that calcium can be transported throughout the tissues and provide guidance for an effective immune defense.
A special thanks to Mark Anderson of Selene River Press, who's immaculate capacity to scour research was instrumental in creating this article. Much of this article was heavily influenced by Mark Anderson's Seminar, "Dr. Royal Lee and the Immune System: Answers Before There Were Questions," Presented by Mark R. Anderson in September 2004, and the resources he provided or referred to.