By Kimberly Beauchamp, ND
Healthnotes Newswire (April 6, 2006)—Pregnant women who don’t get enough calcium may lower their chance of developing complications related to preeclampsia by taking a calcium supplement, reports the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (2006;194:639–49).
Preeclampsia, a disorder affecting as many as one in seven pregnant women worldwide, is defined as a combination of elevated blood pressure (above 140/90 mm Hg) and excess protein in the urine. If left untreated, preeclampsia can cause serious complications. The disorder is most commonly seen in the last few weeks of pregnancy, and the only true cure for preeclampsia is delivery of the baby.
Risk factors include maternal obesity, first pregnancy, a history of preeclampsia, and multiple pregnancies (twins, triplets, and so on). Women who are under age 20 or older than 35 are also at higher risk. Preeclampsia may cause severe headaches, blurred vision, upper abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, or dizziness. A sudden weight gain of two or more pounds in one week may also signal the onset of preeclampsia. Sometimes there are no obvious symptoms, so regular prenatal screening is important for detection.
Preeclampsia causes a decrease in blood flow to the unborn baby, sometimes resulting in low birth weight and/or preterm birth (before 37 weeks’ gestation). The condition can also cause placental abruption, a serious complication in which the placenta separates prematurely from the uterine wall. Other complications of preeclampsia include the HELLP syndrome—a constellation of abnormalities that may lead to liver failure and problems with blood clotting. Eclampsia—a combination of preeclampsia and seizures—may result when preeclampsia is not treated, leading to permanent brain, kidney, and liver damage in the mother, or even death in the mother and baby.
Research into the possible causes has suggested that nutritional deficiencies may be partially to blame. In particular, earlier studies have indicated that inadequate calcium intake may increase risk. The new study aimed to determine the effects of supplemental calcium in pregnant women with low calcium intakes (less than 600 mg per day) on the incidence of preeclampsia, eclampsia, and preterm delivery.
A total of 8,302 healthy women who were pregnant with their first child completed the study. Starting before 20 weeks’ gestation, the women received either 1.5 grams of supplemental calcium per day for the duration of their pregnancy or a placebo.
Calcium supplementation did not significantly reduce preeclampsia risk; however, it did significantly lower the risk of eclampsia and severe gestational hypertension (blood pressure exceeding 160/110 mm Hg). In addition, the risk for developing the HELLP syndrome, early preeclampsia (that which develops before 32 weeks’ gestation), and placental abruption was 24% lower in the calcium-supplemented group than in the placebo group. Other complications, including the risk of death, were also significantly lower among women in the calcium group than in the placebo group. Babies born to mothers who took calcium during pregnancy were 18% less likely to be born before 32 weeks’ gestation than were babies of moms in the placebo group. Similarly, babies of mothers in the calcium group had a significantly lower risk of dying in the newborn period.
The results of this large study suggest that although taking calcium does not substantially lower preeclampsia risk, women with low calcium intakes might avoid most of preeclampsia’s serious complications by supplementing with this essential nutrient.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women’s health.