GoneWithTheWind/ShutterstockWe all know that calcium and vitamin D work in tandem to help to build strong bones. But scientists have now discovered that they may also play a role in preventing early menopause. In a study published in the American Journal of Nutrition, Alexandra Purdue-Smithe, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, worked with a team of scientists to investigate the effects of calcium and vitamin D on the development of early menopause.
The team looked at 116,000 pre-menopausal women, beginning in 1989 and following up with them every two years. The women were asked to complete questionnaires detailing many aspects of their lives, including their lifestyle, behaviors, diet, and medical diagnoses. In particular, the team looked to see who experienced an early menopause—meaning they began entering menopause before the age of 45 (check out the symptoms of menopause).
The findings were clear: Women who consumed the most calcium and vitamin D from food sources (particularly from dairy), had the lowest risk of early menopause. “Their risk was 17 percent lower than the women who consumed those the least vitamin D from food sources,” Purdue-Smithe says.
And it made a huge difference where those nutrients came from. There was a clear difference between women who got their calcium and vitamin D mainly from food versus those who got their vitamin D or calcium from supplements. It seems that popping supplements actually makes little difference when it comes to staving off early menopause.
Purdue-Smithe is careful to emphasize the limits of the study’s findings about supplements: “It’s important to note that there were very few women who consumed very high levels of supplemental vitamin D, so we didn’t really have a lot of statistical power to test for those. But it was clear that women who got their calcium and vitamin D from dairy food sources had a lower risk than those who didn’t.”
So why is there a difference? “Our findings for dairy were stronger than those for non-dietary dairy sources, so we think it’s possible that are being driven potentially by other things that are in dairy,” Purdue-Smithe says. These additional elements include vitamin B12 and fats, as well as progesterone and estrogen, hormones that affect female reproductive function.
Of course, preventing early menopause is not as simple as just including more dairy in your diet. (More plant protein in the diet can also help delay menopause, per new research in the Journal of Epidemiology.) But, as Purdue-Smithe says, “It doesn’t seem like there would be any harm in consuming more vitamin D and calcium from food, particularly from dairy.” Dairy is one of the high-fat foods that gets an unfairly bad rap.
Consuming dairy foods can also help combat other significant health risks. Not only can milk help protect against insulin resistance (pre-diabetes), but it could also lessen the risk of developing another common women’s health issue. “Early menopause is associated with a higher risk of osteoporosis,” explains Purdue-Smithe, “So I think it’s widely accepted that women are advised to consume more vitamin D and calcium as they age, to reduce their risk of osteoporosis.” Don’t miss the silent signs of osteoporosis.