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Sharon Lawrence Dives Into Coral Calcium

By John Morgan, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

NYPD Blue alum Sharon Lawrence portrayed a character that made a living determining right from wrong. Now Lawrence is helping people make a similar distinction when it comes to the health of the world's coral reefs.

"The destruction of coral reefs is threatening the health and stability of the entire ocean ecosystem," cautions Lawrence, who volunteers as a spokesperson for Reef Check, an international program that scientifically monitors, restores and maintains global coral reef health. "We're raping and pillaging the reef for an element - calcium -- that we can get in other sources more efficiently and more economically."

Lawrence points out that harvesting coral for calcium supplements is just one of the many ways the reefs are being destroyed.

"Over-fishing and catching fish by dynamiting the reef as well as pollution, sewage and logging operations are killing reefs at an alarming rate," says Lawrence, who is a certified scuba diver. "I've seen a dead reef in Bali - it's white and devoid of life - like a skeleton."

While ecologically devastating practices by humans are making a virtual bone-yard of our oceans, Lawrence is gravely concerned that people are plundering the reefs literally to save their own bones. And in doing so they may be harming their health.

"The coral reef is alive," Lawrence notes. "It's a living organism that provides nutrients that are essential to life in the ocean. If the reef is taken out of the food chain, then fish cannot feed and the entire balance of the ocean's ecosystem will be upset. The impact to human health will be catastrophic."

But Lawrence is also sensitive to the debilitating and often disfiguring effects of osteoporosis and recognizes a real need for people to make sure they get enough calcium in their diets.

"My grandmother did have a broken hip so I am very aware about bone health, especially since my husband is a physician," says Lawrence, who will appear in the upcoming fall feature film Little Black Book.  "I am a woman and as we get older we lose bone mass if we don't stay on top of things like knowing your family history. You don't want to have hip fracture problems."

But most Americans are unaware they are at risk for bone loss.

Got calcium?

More than 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, which is defined as low bone mass accompanied by structural deterioration of bone, leading to bone fragility and the increased risk of spine, hip, and wrist fractures. Approximately 80% of those afflicted are women. Another 34 million Americans have decreased bone mass or osteopenia, placing them at higher risk for developing osteoporosis.

While bone density tests can diagnose and help identify the potential for developing osteoporosis, lifestyle choices, including weight-bearing exercise and consuming a calcium-rich diet, can help prevent or lessen the impact of the condition.

A 2003 poll revealed that while 64% of women understand that calcium is important to their health, 53% surveyedhad no idea how much calcium they need. While most women consume on average around 600 mg/day of calcium, they actually need between 1000-1500 mg/day of calcium.

For many, getting this much calcium from their diet is simply not possible. Consuming copious amounts of dark leafy green vegetables like kale is simply impractical. Dairy products are another source of calcium and Vitamin D. But with so many people lactose intolerant, this can also be a challenge.  One solution is the many lactose-free dairy products which enable people who cannot digest milk sugar to still consume milk without physical discomfort.

Another option is vitamin supplements.

Depending on the individual, the type of calcium supplement can be an issue and subsequently cause non-compliance.  Calcium carbonate-based supplements can cause side effects like gas, bloating, constipation and upset stomach. Calcium citrate seems to produce fewer adverse reactions and is better absorbed, but is more expensive than calcium carbonate.

"I take calcium supplements," states Lawrence, who also does bone-building, weight-bearing exercise three times a week. "But I don't take supplements made from coral because it destroys the reef and in my opinion it's not as healthy a calcium source."

Coral controversy

One of the immediate concerns regarding coral calcium and human health is the issue of trace elements.

"Coral has numerous trace elements like manganese, strontium and even uranium which are not good for us," explains William Kiene, director for Conservation Science at Reef Check and a coral reef expert with a PhD in marine science. "Because of the intricate structure of the coral polyp and the many spaces within the structure, there potentially can be many other materials in the coral when it's ground up. Who knows what could be in it?"

Kiene contends that claims that coral calcium is better than calcium from other sources like limestone or broccoli is more about marketing than fact.

"Coral seems to be an attractive marketing tool employed to sell a product at great cost to the reef," Kiene says. "There are much easier ways to obtain calcium. The reefs are under constant threat from so many sources that introducing coral harvesting for some kind of luxury item is very unfortunate. We have to remember that coral reefs benefit humans by maintaining ocean health, not by 'mining' calcium supplements."

Kiene reminds people that they have a choice in what they purchase and consume.  "It's important to be knowledgeable about where those products come from," Kiene cautions. "Depleting our coral reefs, which are already under siege, is not the answer."

Lawrence, who supports several ecological organizations, believes the solution starts "at home."

"I think the parallels between our health and reef health are obvious," Lawrence says. "Both are the foundations of entire ecosystems, one global and one individual. We have to protect both in order to insure a healthy future. Whether you spend time in the water or not, you can help be a steward of our planet and help take care of the environment. This is our home and we don't get another one."

For more information on osteoporosis, click here.

Created: 6/6/2004  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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