It's a sad irony that the place you go to receive treatment for an illness or injury could be harboring the thing that kills you. But this is a sad reality for thousands of patients every year who become infected with Clostridium difficile, or C. diff for short.
C. diff bacteria are difficult to kill and can be easily transferred among patients in places like hospitals and nursing homes. The reason they're so tricky to eliminate is that the bacteria have an armored shell that lets them get past cleaning solutions and the acid in our guts. They have to be triggered to open up and begin germinating, creating the often-deadly infection. And what triggers them is something that I've been warning my patients about for years, even when other doctors are prescribing it.
In a study published in the online journal PLoS Pathogens, researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School found that C. diff can't break out of its shell without sufficient levels of calcium in the gut. Keep levels low enough, and you'll pass the dormant spores right out of your body.
But wait, you might be asking, don't you need calcium to keep your bones strong as you age?
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No! I've been preaching against this for years. Yet there's still plenty of misinformation out there. Excess calcium won't help your bones. It actually increases your risk of issues like kidney stones, calcifications in the arteries, and calcium deposits in the joints. Now this study shows it increases your risk of C. diff too. Many older adults are taking unnecessary calcium supplements or other medications that contain calcium, which helps explain why this population is particularly vulnerable to C. diff infection.
The researchers also found that people who suffer from these infections are likely to have low levels of vitamin D. In fact, patients who are deficient in vitamin D are five times more likely to suffer from a C. diff infection that people with sufficient levels. Vitamin D helps the body absorb the calcium you do consume, so it's not left sitting in your gut, providing a welcoming environment in which C. diff spores can germinate.
I hope that this study helps convince doctors to stop recommending calcium supplements. You can check my website for more information on why I think they're a bad idea. Yes, I do think you should protect your bones as you age. But calcium supplementation isn't the way to do that. And having strong bones won't do you much good anyway if you're stuck in a hospital bed with a C. diff infection.
Of course, I'm certainly not against all supplements. If you want to take a supplement that will actually protect your health — and your bones — try vitamin D instead. I recommend Advanced Bionutritionals Vitamin D3, a natural form that's easy for the body to absorb. We all get some calcium in our diet, and that's okay. Vitamin D helps the body absorb it and put it to work so that C. diff can't use it as a breeding ground.
Yours for better health,
Frank Shallenberger, MD