What do a glass of milk, a block of cheese and a bowl of leafy vegetables have in common? These everyday foods are packed with calcium, an essential mineral for promoting bone and colon health and supporting a healthy pregnancy. Did you know that beyond these well-known benefits, calcium plays a particularly vital role in preserving optimal brain function by enabling proper communication among neurons?
Calcium maintains the integrity, shape and functioning of the neurons. Essentially, calcium acts as a conductor for electrical signals, or nerve impulses, transmitting them from the exterior to the interior of neurons. Within the neurons, calcium ions activate specific proteins (gated channels) located on their surfaces, which helps excite the neuron and transfer the signal.
Dr Ansu Sen, consultant neurologist from Manipal Hospital, Salt Lake, Kolkata, explains that calcium intake into the neurons reduces as we age and can impair memory and cognition. With age, the gated channels become weak, disrupting the calcium balance in the brain. Thereby, the neuron functions get altered.
Sen adds that calcium deficiency is a life-threatening condition as it becomes detrimental to the brain and nerves. “Calcium deficiency causes states of confusion, delirium, depression and hallucinations,” he says. Low calcium levels can also affect the nerves at the extremities and muscles, manifesting as tingling sensations, numbness and muscle cramps.
While calcium deficiency is life-threatening, too much calcium is also harmful. Dr Sen says that abnormally high calcium levels are seen in conditions like hyperparathyroidism. “This condition causes abnormal deposition of calcium in the brain and can give rise to epileptic disorders and cognitive impairment,” he explains. Dr Sen says that good dietary modifications and proper monitoring of serum calcium levels help address both conditions.
All of these highlight the essential roles that calcium plays in the brain. The below infographic highlights some of the other ways in which calcium helps with good brain health.