99% of calcium in humans is stored in our skeleton, why is why calcium supplementation is so popular among older women for beating osteoporosis. Indeed, say calcium to the average man and he’ll probably think of three things – healthy teeth, strong bones, and fresh dairy products from cows roaming around green fields.
However, calcium has far more alternative roles in health than many people realise. The 1% not found in bones is used for neurotransmitter release, cellular functioning, maintaining a regular heartbeat, muscle contraction, and various cellular signals.
Calcium is not discussed much in regards to acne; zinc and selenium are the famous acne minerals. Do any of calcium’s non-bone related functions wind up clearing or worsening your skin in any hidden way?
Calcium’s role in insulin sensitivity
First of all, there’s no evidence that calcium has any role in chronic inflammation, or an overactive immune system, the number one cause of acne.
Calcium is needed to produce some immune system agents behind acne such as interleukin-6 and TNF-a but that’s as far as the link goes. Nor does calcium have much link to stress hormones such as cortisol, to gut health, or to your skin’s resistance to UV rays.
However, one area which calcium is interesting is its effect on insulin. Calcium is used for many cellular signals in the body, and that may extend to the receptiveness of glycogen stores to insulin molecules.
This study on 96 female teenagers analysed the dietary habits of each one in detail. 49 of the girls were obese and 47 were healthy. Levels of dietary calcium were much lower in the obese girls, who generally had higher insulin levels as well. Interestingly, hardly any of the girls were eating enough calcium; just 4% had adequate dietary intakes.
Another study from 1997 fed 1500mg of calcium per day to 21 non-diabetic subjects and in addition to the expected blood calcium increase, observed an increase in insulin sensitivity and fall in blood insulin levels.
Why do these studies matter? In short, improved insulin sensitivity or lowered insulin resistance is excellent for acne because insulin is the worst acne hormone for oily skin. Greater responsiveness of the glycogen stores to insulin will allow the levels in your bloodstream to fall.
Some studies have found benefits for type 2 diabetes as well, which is the ultimate progression of insulin resistance. This 2009 study gathered 31 people with hypertension or type 2 diabetes and gave them a calcium supplement for 3 weeks. By the end of the study, their calcium levels increased and this was accompanied by an improvement in insulin sensitivity.
However, the good news ends there as far as calcium and insulin is concerned.
This study found a highly negative result; calcium supplement nation was found to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Their exact conclusion was “an increase in serum calcium concentrations is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes in individuals at high cardiovascular risk”.
This 1986 study found that a diabetic patient group consisting of 48 men and 44 women had higher blood calcium levels than average. A much bigger 1990 study found that blood calcium levels were higher in 125 diabetic patients as opposed to 379 non-diabetic controls.
This 2011 study found several bad results; serum calcium levels were “significantly and positively” correlated with fasting blood glucose, fasting insulin, and insulin resistance in men.
This study on Newfoundland residents found that higher blood calcium levels were correlated with greater insulin resistance and higher blood glucose levels. This study was particularly interesting, as it analysed elderly men and concluded that while endogenous (supplementary) calcium was linked to impaired beta-cell insulin sensitivity, dietary calcium had no effect at all.
Additionally, the low levels of calcium in the first positive study were mainly associated with higher rates of obesity; the insulin resistance in calcium deficient girls could have been caused by the obesity rather than calcium itself. The healthy girls were mostly calcium deficient but still had far greater insulin sensitivity, suggesting that obesity was the bigger factor.
Then there’s more mixed studies; this one found that calcium levels have no association with insulin sensitivity at all. This study found that serum vitamin D levels had a close inverse correlation to type 2 diabetes, but that calcium didn’t.
My analysis of the situation is that a sizeable calcium deficiency may lead to impaired cellular signalling and thus insulin resistance. However the studies are so inconclusive that we cannot confirm anything.
Calcium affects insulin in several other ways. One hand, it’s used to manufacture the GLUT-4 transporter which allows insulin to transport glucose and do its job more efficiently. On the other hand, calcium is an ingredient the pancreas uses to manufacture insulin in the first place. Too much might lead to an uncontrollable overdose. Calcium certainly has a link to insulin levels but the nature of that link is shrouded in mystery.
One thing is for sure; above average levels, the type of levels achieved by stuffing down tons of pills in order to prevent osteoporosis, are strongly linked to higher diabetes levels.
The verdict – low calcium levels may increase insulin resistance, but so may higher levels.
Does calcium increase acne antioxidant supplies?
According to many theories circulating the internet, calcium might well be an antioxidant mineral just as potent as selenium. On this website we’ve previously discussed how your body manufactures its own antioxidants like glutathione in addition to the antioxidants you obtain from the diet.
Well, another of these indigenous antioxidants is catalase. Many people believe that calcium is a co-factor required for catalase synthesis, and hence by getting more you can supercharge your antioxidant reserves.
Catalase is known for building itself into skin tissues just like glutathione, and that gets many acne patients excited.
But let’s look at the facts for a minute. Yes, it’s true that acne patients have lower catalase levels than average. This study on 32 acne patients and 34 healthy controls found that acne patients had significantly less catalase activity in their blood than average. Meanwhile, this study on 43 acne patients found that blood catalase had a strong inverse correlation to total acne lesion counts.
Catalase is similarly important as glutathione for clearing acne as it breaks down free radicals such hydrogen peroxide. It’s thus known to finish off the antioxidant work of superoxide dismutase, which breaks down superoxides (very deadly free radicals) into hydrogen peroxide and oxygen. The problem is that calcium does not increase catalase. There’s no evidence nor scientific studies I know of supporting the theory.
The main two co-factors required for catalase synthesis are manganese and iron, not calcium. Elsewhere there are few studies showing that supplementary calcium can help with oxidative stress at all, so there’s no indirect evidence to speak of.
In fact, the bulk of the scientific evidence suggests that taking calcium supplements in the hope of getting strong bones and teeth, for instance, might well increase free radicals and oxidative stress levels.
There’s a whole rafter of studies showing that once calcium intake gets above optimal levels, the massive influx of the mineral into all your bodily cells can make your immune system’s free radicals go berserk.
Firstly, this study commented on how the human body ordinarily produces moderate amounts of free radicals for healthy functions, such as molecular signalling.
According to the scientists, excessive calcium intake can flip a switch in the immune system that causes these free radicals to get completely out of control and attack healthy cells. This was achieved by excess blood calcium inundating the body’s cells. The scenario of crazy free radicals is exactly what we want to avoid for acne.
This study meanwhile, found the exact same thing, and gave a whole host of mechanisms. Excessive cellular calcium can apparently lead to interference with glutathione, excessive nitric oxide production, and high production of lipid peroxides.
The scientists even commented that the over the top activity of all those free radicals could somehow increase blood calcium levels themselves. They painted an apocalyptic scenario of blood calcium getting elevated, free radical production accelerating, and calcium being pushed up further to create a “feedforward, self-amplified loop”.
This study found that far from being a beneficial mineral such as zinc or selenium, calcium deficiency can increase the activity of the antioxidant glutathione. We can thus assume that too much calcium will decrease glutathione activity, which is in accordance with the study above, and there’s a mechanism which makes perfect sense.
Another mineral which is important for glutathione synthesis is magnesium. Because magnesium and calcium act in tandem, both complementing and blocking each other’s effects when the ratio between them gets out of whack, excessive calcium can inhibit all of magnesium’s bodily functions.
That’s one reason why isolated calcium supplements have been shown to increase heart disease by 31%; magnesium is critical for keeping your heart beat steady and your muscles relaxed. Take in too much calcium and magnesium will fail.
In fact, that’s a broader problem for acne patients with too much calcium in both the diet and from supplements. Magnesium is an essential mineral for keeping stress hormones at normal levels, preventing sleep deprivation, and maintaining the responsiveness of insulin stores. It’s a mineral which is critical for many indirect aspects of acne.
It’s possible that the negative effect of calcium on insulin resistance is again due to blocked magnesium uptake. Because magnesium deficiency is a global health pandemic, with 80% of Americans estimated to be deficient, this makes getting too much calcium particularly bad news for acne.
The verdict – excessive intakes of calcium can decrease antioxidants and cause elevated free radical production, as well as block the powers of magnesium.
Calcium may control sleep quality
One of calcium’s main roles in the human body is to manufacture neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine, the reward hormone that controls many addictions like sugar and gambling addictions…
…and another such example is melatonin. Melatonin is the sleep hormone, secreted by the pea-sized pineal gland in your brain. Levels of melatonin rise as a natural response to darkness and induce drowsiness; hence why the human species sleeps at night.
Calcium acts as a precursor to melatonin by allowing the brain to use the amino acid tryptophan more efficiently. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, the happiness hormone, and serotonin is the main precursor to melatonin.
In other words, a calcium deficiency can inhibit the power of your brain to make the substances responsible for both a quick and easy and a restful night’s sleep.
Several studies have confirmed this. First we have this study and this study on the pineal glands of animals, where calcium was found to increase melatonin output. Next there’s a study which found that calcium is required for activating tryptophan hydroxylase, which manufactures serotonin.
Finally, one study published in the European Neurology Journal analysed the effect of calcium on sleep directly. They found that calcium levels in the body are at their highest during the deepest levels of sleep such as the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep phase. The study concluded that impaired sleeping during the deep REM phases are strongly related to a calcium deficiency.
So far there are no studies directly linking melatonin levels to calcium on human subjects, so unless you’re a gilthead sea bream fish or a chicken, this doesn’t prove anything. However the mechanism makes plenty of sense. The role of calcium in making serotonin is well established.
As for how sleep affects acne, it’s very similar to vitamin D in that it controls so many bodily functions that it can clear your skin in a variety of ways. You can read about the science in detail in my eBook Annihilate Your Acne.
Again, you don’t want to eat too much calcium, because magnesium is needed to manufacture melatonin in the pineal gland and calcium can block magnesium’s effects. Simply correcting your calcium intake to the normal level will work. Too much calcium can also lead to calcium deposits directly on the pineal gland, which inhibit its activity.
The verdict – correcting a calcium deficiency could increase your sleep quality, and give you all the benefits that entails for acne.
The verdict on calcium
The secret of calcium for acne-free skin is to simply get your intake to the optimal level for humans and then forget about it.
Calcium is not a super-mineral like zinc or selenium. Too much calcium can make your body pump out too many free radicals, become insulin resistant, and interfere with potency of the mineral magnesium. Too little calcium can impair neurotransmitters and damage your sleep quality.
The simple solution is to aim for the RDA of about 800mg per day, which unlike the low RDAs for vitamin C and vitamin E, is an accurate target for health and acne. This should be combined with increasing your magnesium intake to keep the ratio correct. We discussed the ideal magnesium strategy for acne in this article.
Another highly important mineral is vitamin K2, which shunts the calcium in your bloodstream to where it needs to be, such as in the bones or teeth, rather than building up in the pineal gland or arteries.
The strategy for calcium
As for the sources, countless people all over the world are taking isolated elemental calcium for their bones, but new evidence is now pouring in to suggest that they’d be better off improving their diets instead.
Some statistics from the various studies on calcium supplementation include: 31% higher risk of heart attack, 20% higher risk of a stroke, 20% higher risk of death from CVD, 139% greater risk of heart attack, and a 40% higher risk of early death in women. Meanwhile, for many of these statistics the same quantity of calcium sourced from dietary calcium had no effect.
Instead of supplements then, you should get your calcium from acne-friendly foods. Drink milk if your skin can tolerate it, or preferably forms of dairy with bonus bio-live bacteria like natural yoghurt, blue cheeses or kefir. Cheese is extremely concentrated; 100 grams of cheddar contains over 1000mg.
Green vegetables like kale and lettuce are great sources. Green lettuce (not iceberg) is fantastic; 100 grams contains 150mg and you can guzzle down endless amounts because it’s a zero calorie vegetable.
Spinach looks fantastic on paper, but is too high in oxalates and is thus merely good. Never forget about mineral water, which is a great source of both calcium and magnesium. Good quality mineral water can provide up to 200mg (25%) of the RDA per day.
Get down to the local fishmonger and buy some fresh salmon or herring or sardines, and make sure you eat the tiny chewy bones if you can avoid choking. It’s believed that back in prehistoric times humans got a lot of their calcium from tiny bones in the wild animals and fish we hunted.
You don’t have to be incredibly accurate and obsessed; an intake of up to 1200mg will not trigger a massive acne explosion. As we just discussed, calcium supplements are the real villains. When calcium is bound up in nutrients from whole foods it is substantially easier to process.
Thanks for reading!