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Calcium metabolism

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Calcium metabolism refers to all the movements in Physiology (and how they are regulated) of calcium atoms and ions into and out of various body compartments, such as the gut, the blood plasma, the interstitial fluids which bathe the cells in the body, the intracellular fluids, and bone. An important aspect, or component, of calcium metabolism is plasma calcium homeostasis, which describes the mechanisms whereby the concentration of calcium ions in the blood plasma is kept within very narrow limits. Derangements of this mechanism lead to hypercalcemia or hypocalcemia, both of which can have important consequences for health. In humans, when the blood plasma ionized calcium level rises above its set point, the thyroid gland releases calcitonin, causing the plasma ionized calcium level to return to normal. When it falls below that set point, the parathyroid glands release parathyroid hormone (PTH), causing the plasma calcium level to rise.

Calcium concentrations

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body. The average adult body contains in total approximately 1 kg, 99% in the skeleton in the form of calcium phosphate salts. The extracellular fluid (ECF) contains approximately 22 mmol, of which about 9 mmol is in the plasma. Approximately 10 mmol of calcium is exchanged between bone and the ECF over a period of twenty-four hours. The concentration of calcium ions inside the cells (in the intracellular fluid) is more than 7,000 times lower than in the blood plasma (i.e. at <0.0002 mmol/L, compared with 1.4 mmol/L in the plasma)


Calcium has several main functions in the body. It readily binds to proteins, particularly those with amino acids whose side chains terminate in carboxyl (-COOH) groups (e.g. glutamate residues). When such binding occurs the electrical charges on the protein chain change, causing the protein's tertiary structure (i.e. 3-dimensional form) to change. Good examples of this are several of the clotting factors in the blood plasma, which are functionless in the absence of calcium ions, but become fully functional on the addition of the correct concentration of calcium salts. The voltage gated sodium ion channels in the cell membranes of nerves and muscle are particularly sensitive to the calcium ion concentration in the plasma. Relatively small decreases in the plasma ionized calcium levels (hypocalcemia) cause these channels to leak sodium into the nerve cells or axons, making them hyper-excitable (positive bathmotropic effect), thus causing spontaneous muscle spasms (tetany) and paraesthesia (the sensation of "pins and needles") of the extremities and round the mouth. When the plasma ionized calcium rises above normal (hypercalcemia) more calcium is bound to these sodium channels having a negative bathmotropic effect on them, causing lethargy, muscle weakness, anorexia, constipation and labile emotions.

Calcium acts structurally as supporting material in bones as calcium hydroxyapatite (Ca10(PO4)6(OH)2).

Because the intracellular calcium ion concentration is extremely low (see above) the entry of minute quantities of calcium ions from the endoplasmic reticulum or from the extracellular fluids, cause rapid, very marked, and readily reversible changes in the relative concentration of these ions in the cytosol. This can therefore serve as a very effective intracellular signal (or "second messenger") in a variety of circumstances, including muscle contraction, the release of hormones (e.g. insulin from the beta cells in the pancreatic islets) or neurotransmitters (e.g. acetylcholine from pre-synaptic terminals of nerves) and other functions.

In skeletal and heart muscle calcium ions, released from the sarcoplasmic reticulum (the endoplasmic reticulum of striated muscles) binds to the troponin C present on the actin-containing thin filaments of the myofibrils. The troponin's 3D structure changes as a result, causing the tropomyosin to which it is attached to be rolled away from the myosin-binding sites on the actin molecules that form the back-bone of the thin filaments. Myosin can then bind to the exposed myosin-binding sites on the thin filament, to undergo a repeating series of conformational changes called the cross-bridge cycle, for which ATP provides the energy. During the cycle, each myosin protein ‘paddles’ along the thin actin filament, repeatedly binding to myosin-binding sites along the actin filament, ratcheting and letting go. In effect, the thick filament moves or slides along the thin filament, resulting in muscle contraction. This process is known as the sliding filament model of muscle contraction.