What Should I Eat If My Calcium Is High? A condition called hypercalcemia (high calcium in the blood) can be caused by diseases such as cancer or it may occur as a side effect of cancer treatment. Nutritional management of hypercalcemia is most commonly associated with malignancies. However, a rise in calcium causes other problems, such as low potassium and phosphate levels, which can also cause confusion, disorientation and weakness.
Your health is a priority, so when your doctor tells you that you have too much calcium in your blood, it is understandable that you might panic. The good news is that it is not nearly as serious as it sounds. In fact, you might be able to manage high calcium levels by making simple lifestyle changes at home.
What is Calcium?
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body and accounts for 1-2% of the human body weight. Every cell in your body needs it to function. Calcium supports your bones, heart, muscles, and nervous system. But only around 1% of your total body calcium is found in the blood. The remaining 99% is stored in your bones and teeth.
Calcium blood levels are mostly controlled by parathyroid hormone (PTH). Cells in your parathyroid gland – located in the neck just behind the thyroid – release PTH when they sense a drop in calcium blood levels.
PTH raises blood calcium levels by increasing the absorption of calcium from the gut and kidneys. This hormone can also mobilize calcium and phosphate from the bones: that is, it can break down and free the mineral content of bones to compensate for low calcium levels. This process is known as bone resorption.
PTH also increases the amount of vitamin D that is converted to its active form, calcitriol. Active vitamin D increases calcium absorption in the gut. If PTH levels drop too low, so does calcium
What is hypercalcemia?
The parathyroid glands are responsible for controlling calcium levels in the blood. These four tiny glands sit behind the thyroid gland.
When the body needs calcium, the parathyroid glands secrete a hormone. This hormone signals:
- the bones to release calcium into the blood
- the kidneys to excrete less calcium into the urine
- the kidneys to activate vitamin D, which helps the digestive tract absorb more calcium
Overactive parathyroid glands or an underlying health condition can disrupt the balance of calcium.
If calcium levels become too high, a person may receive a diagnosis of hypercalcemia. This condition can impede bodily functions and may specifically lead to:
- poor bone health
- kidney stones
- abnormal heart and brain function
Extremely high levels of calcium in the blood can become life threatening.
Mild hypercalcemia may not produce any symptoms, but more serious hypercalcemia can cause:
- Excessive thirst and frequent urination: An excess of calcium forces the kidneys to work harder. As a result, a person may urinate more often, leading to dehydration and increased thirst.
- Stomach pain and digestive problems: Too much calcium can cause an upset stomach, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and constipation.
- Bone pain and muscle weakness: Hypercalcemia can cause the bones to release too much calcium, leaving them deficient. This abnormal bone activity can lead to pain and muscle weakness.
- Confusion, lethargy, and fatigue: Too much calcium in the blood can affect the brain, causing these symptoms.
- Anxiety and depression: Hypercalcemia may also affect mental health.
- High blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms: High levels of calcium can increase blood pressure and lead to electrical abnormalities that change the heart’s rhythm, adding strain.
Why Diet Is So Important With Hypercalcemia
If you’re diagnosed with hypercalcemia, you may need to make some changes to your diet, like avoiding high-calcium yogurt.
Being diagnosed with high blood calcium, or hypercalcemia, might mean making some changes to your normal diet. You may be advised to have a low-calcium diet or to avoid specific calcium-rich foods in the short-term. But everyone with hypercalcemia is different, so follow your doctor’s advice.
What Causes High Blood Calcium?
The most common cause of hypercalcemia is excess parathyroid hormone (PTH) being released by the parathyroid glands, according to the Endocrine Society. The excess PTH makes the bones release calcium into the bloodstream, which can cause symptoms such as weak muscles, nausea, constipation and confusion.
Other illnesses, including cancer, tuberculosis and autoimmune conditions, can raise blood calcium to dangerous levels, too. Diet — such as unusually high intakes of vitamin D, vitamin A or calcium in conjunction with antacids — is only very occasionally the cause.
“Hypercalcemia is not caused by a diet high in calcium, nor is a low-calcium diet the primary way of treating it,” says Whitney Linsenmeyer, PhD, RD, assistant professor of nutrition at Saint Louis University in Missouri. “Instead, the primary treatments are medications and sometimes surgery.”
That said, a low-calcium diet may be recommended for a short period of time until the hypercalcemia is under control, Linsenmeyer says.
Low-Calcium Diet for Hypercalcemia
Typically you’ll be advised to follow a low-calcium diet for hypercalcemia if you’ve received hospital treatment to bring your high blood calcium levels down and are now going home, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).
This will generally involve:
- Going easy on, or temporarily cutting out, calcium-rich dairy foods, including cheese, milk, ice cream and yogurt.
- Choosing magnesium-based antacids if you require these medications (not those with a high calcium content).
If you have been diagnosed with hypercalcemia, you should also not be cutting back on salt and must make an effort to stay well hydrated. It can be helpful to keep water by your side at night so you can drink some when you get up to use the bathroom, according to the NLM.
Linsenmeyer says it’s also important to inform your health care team about any supplements you may be taking, especially those that may contain higher levels of calcium and/or vitamin D. “Also, pay attention to any foods fortified with calcium (i.e., breakfast cereals, orange juice),” she adds.
Another tip from Linsenmeyer: Ignore any self-help advice you may see to drink lemon juice for the condition. “There is no evidence to support that lemon juice is an effective or appropriate treatment for hypercalcemia,” she warns.
Hypercalcemia Longer Term
“Ultimately, calcium is an important nutrient for bone health and should not be restricted indefinitely,” Linsenmeyer says. She adds that while it can be somewhat counterintuitive, hypercalcemia actually increases the risk for osteoporosis (brittle bones) because calcium is being leached from the bones.
However, you should not change your diet to be higher in calcium (e.g., by starting to incorporate more dairy foods) without a health professional’s advice — this may need a specialist dietitian, Linsenmeyer says.
Similarly, check with your doctor as to the appropriate amount of exercise for you, per the NLM. Walking and being generally active will help to offset the breakdown of bones, but you should follow any guidelines that are specific to your own medical needs.
Other important pointers from the NLM: If your doctor prescribes medicines to help keep your calcium level from getting too high, take them the way that is explained to you and call your doctor should you have any side effects.
Also, keep any follow-up appointments you have with your doctor and/or dietitian, particularly for blood tests, which people with hypercalcemia will usually have to have regularly.
6 Natural Remedies for High Calcium Levels
There are various safe things you can do to decrease your blood calcium levels and avoid having hypercalcemia. Consider the following natural remedies for high calcium levels:
1. Address Underlying Health Issues
If your hypercalcemia is mild and you are already working with your doctor to address the causes, the following strategies may help. However, it would help if you first discussed these strategies with your doctor.
When you have high calcium levels, your doctor may prescribe the following:
- Intravenous fluids
- Dialysis (if other treatments are not helping, or if there is damaged kidneys)
- Calcitonin, biphosphonates, loop diuretics, or corticosteroids
It would help if you did not make any sudden changes to your lifestyle, diet, or supplement regimen without consulting your doctor.
2. Reduce Foods High in Calcium
If you know you are suffering from high calcium levels, you may have to reduce your intake of food high in calcium. Such foods include green leafy vegetables, fortified cereals, tofu, and dairy. Instead, increase your intake of low-calcium foods. Some healthy low-calcium foods include asparagus, strawberries, eggplant, tomatoes, apples, rice, meat, resistant starch, and olive oil.
3. Avoid Drugs and Supplements Containing Calcium
You should avoid taking calcium supplements if you have hypercalcemia. Many dietary supplements contain calcium, so you should be very careful about your choice of supplement; these supplements include over-the-counter drugs for acid reflux (for example, Tums) and multivitamins.
4. Drink More Water
You need to consume more water if you are suffering from hypercalcemia. Staying hydrated will help flush more calcium from the body through the urine. Hydration (saline drop) is one of the principal treatments for hypercalcemia in hospitals.
5. Limit Vitamin D Supplements
Vitamin D elevates the amount of calcium your body takes in. If your calcium levels are already too elevated, you do not need to worsen them by increasing calcium absorption from foods. You may need to decrease your dosage of vitamin D or generally stop supplementing it. Importantly, exposure to the sun does not cause dangerously high vitamin D levels. Even if you expose yourself to too much sun, sunlight will degrade any excess vitamin D. limiting your vitamin D supplement is one of the essential natural remedies for high calcium levels.
6. Watch Out for Calcium-Raising Drugs
Some medications may increase your calcium blood levels. Talk to your doctor if your calcium levels are high, and you are taking any of the following medications:
- Antacids for heartburn (for instance, Tums)
- Tamoxifen (Nolvadex), used to fight breast cancer
- Anti-estrogens, used in the treatment of hormonal abnormalities and breast cancer
- Estrogens, such as birth control pills
- Androgens used majorly in breast cancer therapy
- Thiazide diuretics
Although calcium-free foods might be hard to come by, you can still find many foods with an irrelevant amount of calcium. Considering that your daily calcium intake should be around 1000 mg, these foods are good options with a calcium amount of up to 100 milligrams at most.
Here are some no-calcium foods:
1. Chicken and beef fat
Both chicken fat and beef fat contain no calcium at all. Chicken fat contains an acceptable amount of fatty acids and no sugar, making it a healthy option for those looking to reduce their calcium intake. In contrast, beef fat is lower in calories and is usually considered a more beneficial fat.
2. Soy milk
Soy milk found in regular stores and supermarkets is usually ‘fortified’ with nutrients, including calcium. However, you can make soy milk at home without any added nutrients, including calcium. Soy milk contains just 10 milligrams of calcium. That is a relatively low amount, especially compared to 290-300 milligrams of calcium found in dairy milk. Therefore, soy milk is an ideal substitute for milk in your diet.
With only 52 milligrams in one serving, cereals provide nowhere near the 1000 milligrams of recommended daily calcium. Most cereal products you can find in supermarkets contain 10 percent of the daily recommended amount of calcium. You should try to avoid consuming cereal with milk; so try it with soy milk instead.
In a serving size of 100 gr, mushrooms only contain 3 milligrams of calcium, which is one of the lowest figures in foods. Mushrooms should be an essential part of your diet because their nutritional value is high, and you can compensate for what you’ll be lacking with no-calcium foods by adding mushrooms into your diet.
5. Brown rice
Brown rice contains as little as 10 milligrams of calcium per 100 g serving. It is one of the optimal foods for those on a low-calcium diet, as its nutritional value is high. Also, it is healthier than its white-grain counterpart because it is a whole grain.
6. Dried cranberries
Dried cranberries are a type of fruit that has been dried and then sweetened. One of the very few fruits that don’t include a high amount of calcium with 7 mg, dried cranberries are a good addition to your diet as it is high in nutritional value.
7. Corn pasta
Corn pasta, the starchy and gluten-free alternative to wheat pasta, is made from ground corn flour and water. Unlike regular pasta made from wheat which contains approximately 50 milligrams of calcium, corn pasta contains a very modest amount of 4 milligrams of calcium per 100 gr, thanks to the low-calcium nature of corn.
Foods to avoid on a low-calcium diet
For those on a special diet to adjust or lower their calcium levels, there are foods to avoid as they contain lots of calcium.
1. Dairy products: milk, cheese, yogurt
Dairy products are high in calcium. Dairy products rich in calcium include milk, yogurt, and cheese. Parmesan cheese is the richest in calcium at 242 milligrams. Make sure you keep parmesan cheese out of your diet. Yogurt is another calcium-rich dairy product. While low-fat yogurt is higher in calcium compared to regular yogurt, Greek yogurt seems to be even lower. Opt for the latter if you want to add some yogurt to your diet.
2. Seafood: salmon, sardines
When it comes to seafood, salmon, especially canned salmon, contains a surprisingly high amount of calcium at 232 milligrams. That is higher than some dairy products. This amount is mostly due to the fish bones. Sardines contain even more calcium than canned salmon, with a figure of 321 milligrams. Make sure you avoid these two if you are on a non-calcium diet.
3. Leafy vegetables
Leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, kale, and collard greens contain high amounts of calcium. One hundred grams of cooked collard greens contains 242 milligrams of calcium, while 100 grams of cooked mustard greens have 123 milligrams of calcium. Consume these in moderation, or find a substitute for them.