Death by Calcium: Proof of the Toxic Effects of Dairy and Calcium Supplements
Thomas E. Levy, MD, JD
Since the 1950s recommendations for calcium intake for U.S. citizens have continued to climb, and are currently set at 1000 milligrams (mg) for men and women fifty-one to seventy years of age, and more for those over seventy. These amounts are most achievable with supplements.
Despite these recommendations, the results from a number of studies conducted between 1978 and 2012 show that bone fractures are not caused by a lack of calcium, that increasing calcium intake does not prevent fractures, and that supplements are of little value. The focus of current studies turns to the risks of calcium supplementation, which include kidney stones, digestive problems, cardiovascular-related death in men, stroke risk, calcification found in cancerous tumors and more.
Dr. Thomas Levy examines this very topic in his latest book, Death by Calcium, in which he disputes the long-standing beliefs that osteoporosis is caused by a deficiency of calcium and that arteriosclerosis is caused by high levels of cholesterol. Both conditions, he claims, are in fact caused by high levels of calcium. It is not calcium, Dr. Levy claims, but rather vitamin C that is the “foundation and cornerstone of strong bones,” and osteoporosis is a kind of chronic “focal scurvy” caused by lack of vitamin C. Osteoporosis is caused by oxidative stress, he says, and vitamin C is an antioxidant needed in sufficient amounts to combat that stress. A large part of the book discusses vitamin C: how to take it, how to administer it, varieties of vitamin C, and why it is a superior nutrient. However, his recommendations include only supplemental forms of vitamin C, and there is no discussion of natural forms.
Vitamin C is essential for synthesis of collagen, which makes up 90 percent of the organic matrix of the bone. But in studies where vitamin C supplements are given to prevent or heal fractures or prevent bone loss, the results are not consistent: some studies show a benefit while others do not.
Dr. Levy recommends 6,000-15,000 mg of vitamin C of any kind per day in divided doses, or, in the case of those who may experience watery diarrhea from taking those doses, 2,000 mg per day of liposomal vitamin C, which is generally well-tolerated. He also recommends supplementing with vitamin D3 and vitamin K2 which direct calcium into the bones and away from the heart and other organs.
Dr. Levy pays special heed to vitamin K2, and rightfully so. Research shows that calcification can be reversed in blood vessels, kidney stones and coronary arteries with appropriate intake of vitamin K2, specifically the MK-4 form. He also recommends that magnesium intake from supplements be sufficient and that magnesium glycinate be taken with every serving of dairy food to combat its purported artery-clogging properties. Dr. Levy regards magnesium as a calcium channel blocker. Recent research shows an association between low serum magnesium and coronary artery calcification.
In his book Dr. Levy argues that calcium supplements are not only unnecessary but are dangerous and can cause heart disease. Because dairy foods are high in calcium he considers that the calcium in milk functions in the same way as calcium supplements: it is extraneous and unnecessary. Calcium supplements and dairy foods are both considered toxic by Dr. Levy, statements that appear boldly on the cover of his book.
We know right off the bat that the author of this book is no fan of the milk mustache and the “milk does a body good” advertising campaigns, which aim to persuade Americans to drink more commercial pasteurized milk produced from animals given antibiotics and hormones. But, as it turns out, he is not a fan of raw milk either, even though he does acknowledge that raw milk has “significantly less negative impact on your health than pasteurized, processed milks with added vitamin D.” He warns us not to drink milk as a regular beverage and to indulge in cheese, yogurt, and sour cream only sparingly.
Dr. Levy believes that we “outgrow” our need for milk. Except for cheese and yogurt, there is “no room in a healthy diet for milk as a beverage, and no place for cow’s milk in the diet of a health-seeking individual.” He applies that logic to children as well but concedes that milk is “less negative for kids than for older folks because (in kids) skeletal growth is still using calcium from the diet.” Milk just has too much calcium in it, he says, and was meant for calves which have much bigger bones than humans.
Curiously, the studies he references to build his argument against calcium and dairy foods apply only to calcium supplementation and not to milk products. There is not one study in the book relating dairy foods to excess calcium or adverse events. In the entire book of over four hundred pages, there are approximately ten pages devoted to dietary calcium, while perhaps only five pages mention dairy foods or milk. In fact, the terms “dairy” and “milk” do not even appear in the index of the book.
We know that pastured dairy products in particular are also a good source of fats, cholesterol, fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K2 as well as other vitamins and minerals. Dairy foods are the primary source of the natural trans-fat conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may have anti-cancer and other beneficial properties. Raw milk contains built-in protective immunologic systems, enzymes, hormones, mucins, fibronectin, beneficial bacteria and other healthful substances all in one package.
Dr. Levy describes how excess calcium from supplements and dairy foods accumulates in cells, tissues and organs, a phenomenon called “ectopic calcification.” The real problem, he says, is not a lack of calcium in the diet, but rather a “relocation” of calcium from the bones to other areas of the body where it does not belong, a scenario that concurs with current research. “You are 30 percent more likely to have a heart attack and up to 20 percent more likely to have a stroke if you take an extra 500 mg of calcium per day”—this is the consensus from a review of fifteen independent studies. If you take the recommended 1,400 mg per day, the risk of cardiovascular disease goes up 40 percent. And taking calcium with vitamin D together is also dangerous because more calcium is absorbed. “Calcium supplements with or without vitamin D modestly increase the risk of cardiovascular events, especially myocardial infarction.”
Maybe Dr. Levy’s writing style is a bit preachy and autocratic and less entertaining than that of other health writers. Perhaps he expects too much of us, strongly admonishing us to give up dairy foods, even raw dairy, with no suggestions on how to replace it, except to find other food sources of calcium such as nuts, seeds and fruits. Eliminating a beloved food is difficult to do and may be the lonely path of only those with the worst food allergies.
Most people who enjoy raw dairy products understand their health benefits. If our children were to give up good raw milk, what could they possibly drink that might be equivalent or better? Certainly soda or fruit juice, both highly problematic for children, teens and everybody else, are implicated in obesity. All would agree these have no place in a healthy diet. Furthermore, some of the oldest people in the world drink fermented milk into old age and it is considered one of the secrets of healthy aging. Recent scientific literature describes the positive effects of probiotic bacteria on calcium absorption. Raw milk contains natural probiotics as well as short-chain fats and butyric acid which positively affect bone mineral density. It seems Levy didn’t go far enough in his research before condemning milk consumption.
The remainder of Dr. Levy’s book is devoted to discussions of antioxidants, calcium channel blockers, hormones, detoxification and dental issues such as amalgams, root canals, and cavitations.
The book is mostly well-referenced with some real nuggets of wisdom regarding the dangers of calcium supplementation. But it is long (429 pages) and difficult to get through. Much of the information in this book was already presented in his other books. Can the condemnation of milk and dairy foods be justified? Milk is a healthy traditional food cultures, and animal herding gave early peoples a distinct survival advantage. Reading the book was a real “slog,” and I am not talking about the game of cricket here, but in keeping with the Merriam-Webster definition: “to keep doing something even though it is difficult or boring.” I give this book a thumbs down rating.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2015