While we most often think of calcium in terms of bone health, that’s only one part of what it does in the human body.

A tiny fraction of the body’s calcium (less than 1 percent) resides not in bones, but in and around every cell, where it plays a role in everything from contracting muscles to releasing neurotransmitters. That calcium relies on an enzyme called calcium ATPase (CA) to maintain a perfect balance of the mineral inside and outside the cell. When CA levels are deficient, there can be body-wide effects. Researchers in multiple fields have linked low CA levels to a wide variety of illnesses:

Cancer. CA affects the growth and differentiation of cancer cells, contributing to cancer’s progression. Reduced CA is directly associated with breast, lung, colon, thyroid, skin, and blood cancers, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researchers reported in 2016.

Hypertension. Reduced CA makes it harder for the arteries to relax, which results in constriction or narrowing and high blood pressure, according to researchers publishing in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Chinese Medicine Journal, and the American Journal of Hypertension.

Inflammation. Reduced CA triggers the release of inflammatory substances such as histamine, interleukin, and TNF-alpha. It can mimic an allergic response, even if there is no allergen present, or magnify the body’s response to allergens, creating unnecessary inflammation, University of Kansas Medical Center researchers reported in Frontiers in Immunology.

Heart disease. Intracellular calcium levels regulate the relaxation and contraction of the heart muscle. Decades of research show that reduced CA is associated with heart failure, atrial fibrillation, and a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

Sleep. When there is a reduction in CA, melatonin production drops and sleep quality deteriorates, the American Sleep Association notes. Reduced CA can also cause pineal cells to gradually degenerate and die, resulting in reduced melatonin production and poorer sleep.

Cognition. In the brain, intracellular calcium levels affect the release of neurotransmitters, learning and memory formation, and neuroplasticity. If there isn’t enough CA to restore calcium levels, though, too many neurotransmitters are released, which can cause cell death in the neural pathways we use most often, researchers from Purdue University discovered.

Dietary support

As we age, CA levels naturally decline, but we can slow that decline with easily modifiable lifestyle choices. To start, add more of these protective nutrients to your diet:

Vitamin E has positive effects on CA in the brain, liver, kidney, skeletal muscles, and heart. Food sources include almonds, olive oil, sunflower seeds, avocado, palm oil, sweet potato, butternut squash, peanuts, tomatoes, hazelnuts, pine nuts, turnip greens, mango, spinach, and wheat germ.

Ellagic acid stimulates CA in the heart and normalizes levels in the kidneys after exposure to chemical toxins. Good sources include blackberries, raspberries, chestnuts, cranberries, green tea, strawberries, pecans, pomegranate juice, red wine, red grapes, and walnuts.

Green tea. A compound in green tea, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), helps to maintain CA levels in the heart, maintains platelet CA levels, protects CA activity from drug-induced kidney damage, and increases CA levels after exhaustive exercise. An 8-ounce cup contains about 50 to 100 milligrams (mg) of EGCG. You can also take 300 mg of a green tea extract with EGCG.

Luteolin, a bioflavonoid, increases levels of CA during heart failure and after a heart attack. Good sources include artichoke, radicchio, broccoli, red leaf lettuce, celery, rosemary, chicory greens, spinach, chili, green peppers, green bell peppers, parsley, yellow bell peppers, pumpkin, and thyme.

Lycopene, a carotenoid, protects brain cells from the damaging effects of environmental toxins. Good sources include asparagus, red cabbage, goji berry, red peppers, papaya, tomatoes, pink grapefruit, and watermelon.

Resveratrol protects CA levels during cardiac trauma, protects CA levels in the heart from bacterial endotoxins’ harmful effects related to sepsis, and counteracts some of the adverse effects pancreatitis has on CA in the pancreas and lungs. Food sources include cocoa powder/ dark chocolate, red grapes, peanuts/ peanut butter, red wine, pistachios, strawberries, and red grape juice.

Avoiding toxins

Adding protective foods is just half of the equation. It’s also important to reduce exposure to toxins. Choosing whole, fresh foods is a great place to start.

Read labels. If you use packaged foods, read the labels so you can avoid chemicals, dyes, and preservatives that inhibit CA. Skip anything that contains potassium bromate or bromated flour; the preservatives tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), butylated hydroxyanisole (BHAQ), and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT); and red dye #3 or #40, yellow #5 or #6, and blue #1.

Choose organic foods when possible. Studies from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) have found organophosphate and pyrethroid pesticides, both of which inhibit CA, in up to 70 percent of analyzed urine samples. Choosing organic foods can lower those urinary levels in as little as one week, EWG researchers report.

Drink clean water. Both tap and bottled water can contain lead, mercury, cadmium, chlorine, atrazine, fluoride, bisphenol, nonylphenol, and a variety of other toxins and pesticides that are linked to CA disruption. A reverse osmosis filter (countertop or whole house) removes most of these substances.

Avoid seafood with high mercury levels. Good choices include salmon, trout, herring, shrimp, cod, catfish, crab, scallops, pollock, tilapia, whitefish, perch, flounder, and sole.

Avoid aluminum in cookware and cans. Look for aluminum-free baking powders, and skip foods that contain the additive aluminosilicate, often used in soup mixes and nondairy creamers. Many antacids, such as Maalox, Mylanta, and Gaviscon, contain aluminum hydroxide. Aluminum foil, if used to cook acidic ingredients like tomatoes, citrus, and barbeque sauce, can seep aluminum into your food. Personal care products, such as cosmetics and antiperspirants, can be a source of aluminum, too.

Take care when grilling. When fat from your food drips onto the coals and burns, it creates benzo(a) pyrenes, which have a negative effect on CA in the brain, red blood cells, and lungs. Reduce risk by putting the cooking surface as high as it will go and avoiding flareups.

Choose sunscreen and personal care products carefully. Avoid products that include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. Avoid all sunscreen sprays. Instead, choose non-nanoparticle titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Avoid nanoparticle titanium dioxide.

Clear the air. Keep toxins out of your air as much as possible by upgrading your furnace and cooling system filters with electrostatic filters. Consider buying a HEPA stand-alone air filter, and use a vacuum with a HEPA filter and wet-mop floors once or twice a week.

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