I receive many questions each month from subscribers to Women's Health Letter. Since I can't reply to many of them in my newsletter, I've decided to answer them periodically in these health alerts. I hope that they provide you with some of the answers to your own questions.
Dear Dr. Nan:
I'm confused. You say that calcium causes muscles to contract and magnesium causes them to relax. I understand this concept. Then you go on to say that calcium contributes to constipation, while magnesium has the opposite effect. Why would something that causes your muscles to contract also cause constipation? – C.C.G., Waterford, PA
Let me clarify this for you. Your large intestine, which carries solid wastes out of your body, is a muscle. If that muscle contracts, or becomes tight, waste products can't move along as they should. Scientists call these wave-like contractions that move waste along peristalsis.
When your colon is tight and bound-up, it actually slows down peristalsis. You need that muscle to relax in order for peristalsis to work. This is why calcium, which causes your intestine to tighten, often leads to constipation. And it's also why I recommend you take equal amounts of calcium and magnesium – it helps keep your muscles (including your colon) in proper balance.
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Unfortunately, many people take laxatives to solve their problem of constipation. Laxatives can reduce the tone of your intestinal muscles. They can also lead to anal leakage if you use them over a long enough time.
I realize that just about everyone, from doctors to the media, is telling you to take plenty of calcium (1,500 mg per daily) to prevent osteoporosis, and half that amount of magnesium. There are many problems with this:
* 1,500 mg a day includes dietary calcium, not just the calcium in your supplements. Many people take 1,500 mg of supplemental calcium and eat dairy, nuts, dark green vegetables, and other sources of calcium. This is too much.
* Some forms of calcium, like calcium carbonate, are poorly absorbed. Unabsorbed calcium can lead to heart disease and arthritis, two common health problems that have escalated as we've increased our calcium intake.
* If your diet includes dairy, you probably need to increase magnesium. A 1:1 ratio is safer. You can find magnesium in nuts, seeds, whole grains, and beans. It causes muscles to relax. Many foods that contain magnesium also have some calcium.
* Constipation is often a signal of excessive calcium and insufficient magnesium. I suggest that people take magnesium to bowel tolerance, but not to exceed 1,000 mg. This eliminates most cases of constipation.
I know this sounds like the exact opposite of everything your doctor has told you. It is. But there are numerous studies that back up everything I've said here – and more. If you'd like to see the reasons why I disagree with many doctors on the subject of calcium, you may want to see all the articles I've written on the subject. They're available free of charge to my newsletter subscribers on my website.
Your voice of reason in Women's Health,
Dr. Janet Zand