Written by Carmela Pengelly, Dietary Therapist, Nutritional Therapist
Carmela Pengelly is a dietary therapist and nutritional therapist, trained in the UK. She now lives in Perth, Western Australia, where she practices as a nutritionist, specializing in SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), methylation issues, and vegan/vegetarian diets. She also offers consultations outside of Australia, via Skype.
Magnesium is an essential mineral needed for hundreds of different biochemical processes in the body. Magnesium deficiency is also one of the most common nutrient deficiencies. Up to 20% of men in the UK have levels below the LRNI (Lower Reference National Intake), and nearly one in 10 women are low, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey.
Most alarmingly, the survey found that more than half of girls aged between 11 and 18 are below recommended amounts, and over a quarter of boys the same age are deficient.
The reason? Modern Western diets, lacking in mineral-rich wholefoods, coupled with our stressful, busy lifestyles are mainly to blame. A standard Western diet contains only around half of our recommended daily requirements for magnesium.
A reduction in mineral content of our agricultural produce is also to blame. Some studies have shown losses of up to one third of magnesium content in commonly-grown vegetables in the UK since the 1970s. It is thought that changes are more likely the result of new cultivated varieties of vegetables and grains being grown, rather than mineral depletion of our soils.
What Does Magnesium Do?
Low magnesium has been associated with many chronic diseases including diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, and osteoporosis.
This essential mineral is vital for an enormous array of different functions in the body, including muscle and nerve function, DNA and protein synthesis, keeping inflammation at bay and maintaining healthy cells.
Magnesium works in balance with calcium in the contraction and relaxation of muscles. In simple terms, calcium causes muscles to contract and magnesium inhibits this action, resulting in muscle relaxation. Without magnesium, our muscles would stay in a permanent state of rigidity.
Magnesium also regulates the balance of sodium and potassium cells, called the sodium-potassium pump. If not enough magnesium is present, the sodium-potassium pump can’t work effectively, causing painful muscle cramping.
Most of the biochemical reactions in the body rely on enzymes. 100s of these enzymatic reactions will only work in the presence of magnesium.
For example, magnesium plays a key role in enzymatic reactions that help us extract energy from food, as well as enabling our cells to use this energy for a variety of chemical processes.
Magnesium is not often touted as an anti-inflammatory but it plays a vital role in reducing oxidative stress in cells, and this is one of the key reasons why it helps to reduce risk of chronic diseases.
10 Signs That You Might Be Magnesium Deficient
- YOU SUFFER PAINFUL MUSCLE CRAMPS
Magnesium deficiency reduces the muscle’s ability to relax between contractions.
This can cause a range of problems from annoying eye twitches and leg cramping, to more serious concerns, such as muscle spasms in heart arteries, which can lead to heart attacks.
- RESTLESS LEGS DRIVE YOU MAD AT NIGHT
Restless leg syndrome can often be caused by lack of magnesium as we need this mineral for proper nerve functioning.
If extra magnesium doesn’t work for you in relieving restless leg syndrome, also consider anaemia or B vitamin deficiency as possible causes.
- YOU CAN’T SLEEP
Magnesium acts as a natural sedative (without the side effects), as it will help you feel relaxed and sleepy and will also help you make the sleep hormone, melatonin.
- YOU FEEL TIRED AND WIRED
If you’re feeling continuously stressed out and unable to relax, it could be that you lack magnesium.
Magnesium helps increase production of our stress hormone, cortisol when it is needed, which, in turn helps us to cope better in stressful situations.
Stress also depletes our magnesium so it’s a good idea to up your intake of this mineral during challenging times.
- YOUR MENSTRUAL CYCLES ARE A NIGHTMARE
Because magnesium is a natural relaxant, it can help relieve painful menstrual cramping. If you suffer sugar cravings, low mood, and anxiety in the run up to your period, magnesium can be helpful, particularly when combined with vitamin B6.
Magnesium is also particularly effective in reducing the incidence of menstrual migraines.
- YOU SUFFER DEBILITATING MIGRAINES
Studies have shown that people who suffer migraines and cluster headaches are typically magnesium deficient.
In one study, sufferers who took high doses of magnesium (600 mg per day) saw a 41% reduction in migraine episodes within 9 weeks2.
- YOU FEEL DEPRESSED
Magnesium has proven to be extremely effective in helping symptoms of depression for many people. Some individuals have reported dramatic recovery from depression within a week simply by taking a daily dose of up to 300 mg of magnesium.
Our brain cells which make and release neurotransmitters rely on magnesium to be able to function properly. These neurons can actually become damaged if they lack this essential mineral.
Our feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin, can only be made in the presence of magnesium and other co-factor nutrients, such as B6 and zinc.
- YOU’RE TIRED ALL THE TIME
We need magnesium to be able to release energy from our food, so low levels will inevitably lead to lethargy and tiredness.
- YOU CAN’T HANDLE SUGAR
Magnesium is needed for the metabolism of the carbohydrates that we eat, so that our cells can burn them off as energy.
It is also very important in helping to regulate the hormone, insulin, which drives sugars out of our bloodstream and into our cells. Insulin resistance is a common problem where cells become increasingly unresponsive to insulin and so are less able to make use of circulating sugar. Insulin resistance is the precursor to diabetes type 2, so magnesium can greatly reduce our risk of this disease.
People already suffering from diabetes can also benefit from increasing their magnesium intake.
- YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE IS HIGH
Magnesium is needed for the relaxation of the smooth muscle cells of our arteries, allowing blood to flow through more easily.
When You Need That Little Bit Extra
There are times in our life when we have a greater demand for magnesium than normal. These are:
WHEN YOU SUFFER FROM CHRONIC STRESS
Chronic stress depletes magnesium and compromises our ability to make stress hormones. So, we need to increase magnesium, but we also need to increase our vitamin C, B vitamins and protein to support our endocrine and nervous systems.
To reduce demand on the body, it’s a good idea to make stress management a daily practice.
Meditation or yoga are especially effective. Numerous studies have shown that they can reduce the physiological effects of stress and reduce blood pressure.
WHEN YOU ARE EXERCISING VIGOROUSLY
If you are doing lots of endurance exercise, you will sweat out a lot of minerals.
This is where electrolytes are particularly useful post-exercise. When choosing an electrolyte, look for one that has around 6% carbohydrate content and also contains some magnesium.
WHEN YOU’VE HAD ONE TOO MANY
Alcohol depletes magnesium - the more you drink the more you will lose; yet another good reason to drink in moderation.
WHEN YOU ARE ON MEDICATION
Certain drugs, including antibiotics, diuretics, chemotherapy, and protein pump inhibitors can lower your magnesium levels.
If you do start taking a magnesium supplement whilst on these medications, always take it at least 2 hours away from the medication to avoid any interactions. And if you’re not sure, check with your doctor first.
WHAT ARE THE BEST WAYS TO INCREASE YOUR MAGNESIUM?
We can very effectively increase our magnesium by eating the right foods and, when necessary, through additional supplementation.
If you have any kidney disorders, consult your doctor first before increasing magnesium.
WHAT TO EAT
Cocoa and chocolate (the higher the cocoa content the better) are very high in magnesium.
Several studies have shown that moderate chocolate consumption can significantly reduce the risk of high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks, partly due to its mineral content and partly because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
You don’t need to overdo it with the chocolate though. Just 2 or 3 squares of good quality dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa content) every day can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
GOOD FOOD SOURCES OF MAGNESIUM
Cocoa and chocolate
Nuts and seeds
Beans and other legumes
Green leafy vegetables
KICK THE SUGAR HABIT
It’s also really important to reduce your sugar intake as sugar increases excretion of magnesium.
ENJOY A GOOD SOAK
Adding magnesium salts to a warm bath can be an alternative way of increasing levels.
Research suggests that you probably won’t absorb as much of the mineral through the skin compared with oral supplementation, but it still has benefits.
It’s especially useful if you suffer any digestive disorders or are taking antacids, as these will reduce your ability to absorb magnesium through your digestive system.
Bath salts are also a great way to help you relax and unwind, and you can add 1 or 2 drops of your favourite essential oils for an extra pampering experience.
You will need about 2 cups of bath salts, and bathe for at least 15 minutes, 2-3 times per week for best results.
There are two main types of magnesium bath salts – Epsom bath salts, which are made of magnesium sulfate, and magnesium chloride.
Epsom bath salts have the added bonus of providing sulfur, which the body uses for detoxification.
Magnesium sprays and oils are also readily available and are easy to apply directly onto the skin.
If you think you are lacking in magnesium and are not getting enough from diet, you may want to consider taking a good dietary supplement. Magnesium comes mainly in powdered or tablet form and the recommended dose is a maximum of around 300 mg per day.
If you have trouble sleeping or suffer muscle cramps at night you might want to take your magnesium just before going to bed, or you can split your dose and have half in the morning and half in the evening.
If you do consider supplementation look for a good one that is readily absorbed, such as magnesium citrate or magnesium glycinate.
Avoid magnesium oxide as this is not well absorbed and can have a laxative effect.
What Doctors Don't Tell You About Testing
Doctors occasionally test patients for magnesium, but this is generally a serum blood test, and since only around 1% of our total magnesium resides in the blood, it does not give you a good picture of what is going on in the tissues.
A red blood cell test is a slightly better test. Your body starts to rob magnesium from cells when levels get low elsewhere, so red blood cell testing would give an indication that this is happening.
Another test available, which is thought to be more accurate still, measures cells lining the mouth. It also has the advantage of being less invasive than a blood test, as it only requires collection of cells under the tongue using a spatula.
These tests are most typically not offered by GPs but are usually available from complementary health practitioners, such as nutritionists and naturopaths.
Carmela can be contacted at email@example.com or visit her website at www.nutritionknowhow.com.au