The Color Of CoralBy Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Medicine Bulletin
A few weeks ago, I attended a convention devoted solely to natural products and nutritional supplements. Now, I love going to these conventions – not because they are held in Las Vegas (although that’s a pretty good incentive) – but because of all the up-to-date health information that’s crammed into three days. And of course, every year one or two supplements grab the lion’s share of attention.
The buzz this year was on coral calcium. I wasn’t surprised since there have been a mind-boggling number of infomercials, books, articles and web sites about the subject. I’ll wager you’ve already seen some of them.
Needless to say, coral calcium has become one of the most controversial supplements to ever hit the market. Proponents adamantly claim that coral calcium can cure 90 percent of all degenerative disease – from heart disease to diabetes and yes, even cancer. The anti-coral crowd is just as adamant when they say that those claims are bunk – coral calcium isn’t a cure-all. And, they say it isn’t any better than the calcium carbonate supplements you’ll find at the drugstore.
So who do you believe? It’s not an easy issue, largely because there aren’t many hard and fast answers. In fact, it can be downright confusing. Which is why I’ve decided to help you separate the facts from the hype.
Miracle in a bottle
So, what the heck is coral calcium anyway? For the answer, I turned to Annette Dickinson, PhD, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition. According to Dr. Dickinson, coral calcium is made up of the fossilized shells of sea creatures and is found both above ground (stony fossilized) or in the ocean (marine grade) around Okinawa, Japan. It consists primarily of calcium carbonate, along with magnesium and numerous trace minerals like selenium and chromium.
But, Dr. Dickinson also notes that, while coral calcium supplements undoubtedly provide the proven health benefits of calcium for bone health, the claims made by some of the supplements’ more vocal champions go way beyond any existing scientific support.
The hoopla over coral calcium started with a research project known as the Okinawa Centenarian Study. This population-based study of the elderly in Okinawa, Japan, found that the people in this region have the world’s longest life expectancy and a history of exceptional health. According to the study, these folks escape the common diseases that plague the Western world, including dementia, heart disease and cancer. The authors of the study credit the Okinawan’s longevity to a low-calorie, plant based diet along with life-long exercise and strong social support for the elderly.
But, the science wasn’t good enough for some of the manufacturers of coral calcium. Since Okinawa is also the source of rich coral reefs, these manufacturers, along with a handful of marketing wiz kids, decided that it wasn’t the Okinawan’s lifestyle – but the water – that kept them going strong at 140 years plus. It was a modern day Fountain of Youth.
Despite the evidence that the people in Okinawa consume only 500 mg. of calcium a day, those with a vested interest in selling coral calcium began telling consumers that the Okinawan’s drinking water was chocked full of coral calcium – giving them at least 100,000 mg. of calcium a day – and that’s what was responsible for their amazing longevity.
OK, so admittedly, this was a real stretch of the imagination. But what happened next is truly remarkable. In fact, it may well go down in the annals of snakeoil sales as one of the biggest scams in medical history. According to some (and I emphasize “some”) of the folks who make and market coral calcium supplements, coral calcium can reverse the aging process, cure cancer, reduce or eliminate chronic pain, fight arthritis and heart disease, help with any and all digestive problems, and cure Parkinson’s disease and 200 other diseases, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes, chronic fatigue, multiple sclerosis, eczema, allergies and gout.
Sound too good to be true? It is. Coral calcium isn’t the magic bullet that some say it is. But before you start thinking that all coral calcium supplements are just hype – and a big waste of money – I want you to know that there are reputable coral calcium manufacturers that don’t buy into this fantasy.
The truth is that calcium is an essential mineral with abundant health benefits. Adequate amounts are critical for a myriad of body functions, including the transmission of nerve impulses, muscle contractions (including the heart muscle) and the normal clotting of blood. Most of us are aware that calcium is one of the building blocks of healthy bones and teeth. But studies have also shown that calcium can reduce the risk of colon cancer and kidney stones, decrease the symptoms of PMS, aid in fat metabolism and help control blood pressure. That’s a pretty impressive list of proven benefits.
The key to obtaining calcium’s true health benefits, however, is to make the mineral available to the body. And that’s where the problem lies. Much of the calcium we take isn’t absorbed, but is excreted from our bodies.
The calcium carbonate you get at the drugstore comes from bone meal or dolomite and isn’t absorbed particularly well. Calcium citrate is better absorbed. Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center-Dallas conducted an analysis of 15 studies on the bioavailability of calcium citrate and calcium carbonate. All but one study showed significantly greater absorption from calcium citrate than calcium carbonate by an average of 22-27 percent. The downside however, is that you have to take more calcium citrate supplements throughout the day to get the same amount of available calcium that you would get from calcium carbonate. I know it sounds confusing, but the reason is that there are limits to the amount of calcium your body can absorb at one time. Most experts believe that the limit is 500 to 600 mg. Anything beyond that amount is overkill since increased calcium intake has no effect.
What about coral calcium? Studies show that coral calcium is more absorbable than either calcium carbonate or calcium citrate. In one of the studies, 12 men and women were divided into two groups – one that ate crackers containing coral calcium and another that ate calcium carbonate spiked crackers. After a three-day wash-out period, the groups switched places. An additional group of volunteers served as a control and weren’t served either type of cracker. The researchers then measured the amount of calcium absorbed by each group. Based on their data, the scientists concluded that significantly more coral calcium is absorbed by the intestines than calcium carbonate.
Other nutrients can also help your body absorb calcium. Magnesium is probably the most important since this mineral enhances calcium absorption and proper deposit. According to Elson Haas, MD, calcium works with magnesium in its functions in the blood, nerves, muscles, and tissues, particularly in regulating heart and muscle contraction and nerve conduction. Dr. Haas also notes that vitamin D is needed for calcium to be absorbed from the digestive tract. Research has also shown that boron and lysine reduce the urinary excretion of calcium and magnesium.
For maximum absorption, it's best to take most calcium supplements (including coral calcium) with meals. The acid secreted by the stomach during digestion enhances absorption of most calcium supplements, especially calcium carbonate. Calcium citrate is an exception: it doesn't need stomach acid to be absorbed, so you can take it any time (this makes it good for people who have disorders in which the stomach produces less acid).
However, you may have heard that some foods actually interfere with calcium’s absorption. True, says Dr. Haas. Foods that are high in oxalic acid, such as spinach, rhubarb, chard, and chocolate, can interfere with absorption by forming insoluble salts in the gut. Phytic acid, or phytates, found in whole grain foods or foods rich in fiber, can also reduce the absorption of calcium. But don’t eliminate these healthy foods from your diet. Instead, simply take your calcium at a different time – if you have a bowl of whole grain cereal for breakfast, wait until lunch to take your calcium.
One last thing . . .
The unsubstantiated claims by some coral calcium manufacturers haven’t just gotten the attention of consumers. These claims have also garnered the government’s attention. Because of complaints by the Council for Responsible Nutrition, both the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration have taken action. The FTC has charged the marketers of a dietary supplement called Coral Calcium Supreme with making false and unsubstantiated claims about the product's health benefits. In related law enforcement efforts, the FTC and the FDA are sending strong warning letters to Web site operators who are marketing coral calcium products claiming that coral calcium is an effective treatment or cure for cancer and other diseases.
In a perfect world, these actions would simply put a stop to the fraudulent activities that are making coral calcium a 21st century medicine show. But, as I told you in the e-bulletin “Power Play” (6/19), the government rarely limits their actions to what’s necessary. Too often they cast a broad net – too broad in my opinion – and snare innocent bystanders. In this case, the reputable manufacturers of coral calcium.
If the coral calcium industry survives this government crack-down – and I truly hope it does – this source of calcium may well be worth checking out. No, it won’t cure cancer or help you live to 140. But it is more absorbable – and bottom line, if the calcium can’t get to where it’s needed, why bother taking it at all?
This just in . . .
Suppose there was a drug that could significantly lower your risk of prostate cancer. Suppose this drug could also increase your chance of growing particularly deadly and aggressive tumors if you do get prostate cancer. Should you take it? That's the question doctors and patients have been wrestling with since the results of a recent trial were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Compared with a placebo, Merck's finasteride — a drug currently marketed to treat baldness and benign prostate enlargement — appeared to reduce prostate cancer incidence by 25 percent. But in the seven-year study, involving more than 9,000 men ages 55 and older, the finasteride group also had a higher rate of aggressive, hard-to-treat tumors. And finasteride also caused loss of libido and impotence among the study participants.
Is the risk worth it? Maybe, if you have a strong family history of prostate cancer. But for most men, the risk could very well outweigh any benefit. Instead of relying on pharmaceuticals to ensure a healthy prostate, look to nature to reduce the risk of cancer and other problems that can affect your prostate as you get older. Research shows that diets rich in lycopene and lutin can thwart the risk of developing prostate cancer. Saw palmetto and African pygeum can also support prostate health and may even inhibit the damaging effects too much testosterone can have on prostate tumor cells.***
“FTC and FDA Take New Actions in Fight Against Deceptive Marketing.” Press release. 10 June 2003. www.fda.gov.
Ishitani K, et al. “Calcium absorption from the ingestion of coral-derived calcium by humans.” Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology. 1999; 45:509-517.
Kennefick S, et al. “Inhibitory effect of wheat fiber extract on calcium absorption in Caco-2 cells: evidence for a role of associated phytate rather than fiber per se.” European Journal of Nutrition. 2000; 39:12-17.
“Okinawa Centenarian Study Position Statement on Coral Calcium.” 7 Jan 2003. www.okinawaprogram.com.
Sakhaee, et al. "Meta-Analysis of Calcium Bioavailability: A Comparison of Calcium Citrate with Calcium Carbonate." The American Journal of Therapeutics. 1999; 6:313-321.