Taking an interest in your health means attacking all aspects of physiology—whether counting macros to achieve your body composition goals or fueling for peak mental and physical performance. Optimal health can also be achieved by paying attention to your intake of the essential minerals and micronutrients which, while often disregarded, can have a huge impact on health.
One particular essential mineral is magnesium. While magnesium may not live on the Mount Rushmore of supplements, of late, more and more people are realizing it’s importance. That’s because magnesium deficiency has some nasty side effects, and more evidence is emerging highlighting the health-enhancing properties of magnesium supplementation.
Are you magnesium deficient? Curious how supplementation might benefit you?
Magnesium is an electrolyte, meaning it carries an electrical charge in the body and conducts electricity when present in water. It plays a critical role in a surprising amount of bodily functions.
Magnesium is needed for the proper contraction and relaxation of muscles, helps to regulate fluid balance, and allows cell membranes to maintain a proper electrical charge. This is especially important in the heart, where the inward and outward flux of magnesium, along with a whole cast of other ions, allow the heart muscle to maintain a proper rhythm of contraction and relaxation.
In order for us to properly produce and utilize energy, magnesium is a must.
Magnesium plays important roles in over 300 enzymatic reactions. Think of magnesium as a key used to start the engine for hundreds of metabolic processes.
The most important of these may be the activation of ATP, our body’s main energy currency. Simply put, without magnesium, the energy-producing power of ATP can’t be fully realized, since ATP must bind to magnesium.
A slew of other necessary molecules are synthesized with the help of magnesium. DNA and RNA, literally the molecules that encode the essence of who we are, require magnesium for their proper regulation and synthesis. Free radical-neutralizing antioxidants are also synthesized with the aid of magnesium, helping reduce the amount of oxidative stress and inflammation throughout the body. In this way, magnesium helps maintain a healthy cellular environment that is less susceptible to disease and all-around better at maintaining health.
Like certain amino acids and other nutrients, magnesium is essential; it must be consumed in the diet. Our body cannot make its own magnesium. Nope, to get proper amounts, we should be consuming food sources of magnesium like dark leafy greens, fatty fish, nuts and seeds, legumes, dark chocolate, avocados, and certain types of unrefined whole grains—all considered to be magnesium-rich foods. Unfortunately, many of these foods are also lacking in the typical American diet.
Interestingly, our need for such a high amount of magnesium may be evolutionary. Our Paleolithic ancestors were thought to have consumed around 600mg of magnesium per day, likely a result of diverse diets. Given that the typical intake for people in the United States currently sits somewhere around 260mg - 350mg of magnesium per day,1 it’s no wonder that Americans (and many other cultures) have a problem with low magnesium levels.
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Health may suffer if we don’t get enough magnesium. Remember that list of bodily functions that require magnesium? You feel like you’re eating a well-balanced diet, maybe even supplementing with a multivitamin—but could you be running a bit low on magnesium?
Perhaps. Recent studies suggest that “marginal” magnesium deficiency may be an under-recognized issue. Marginal, meaning the symptoms aren’t often clinically apparent. It’s more of a silent attack on your health that might compromise day to day function. You still might feel OK, but aren’t functioning at your best.
Approximately 50% of people in the United States may not be getting the estimated average requirement (EAR) of magnesium, studies indicate.2 This seems to be the case worldwide, where around 10% - 30% of any population are expected to have a marginal (also known as “sub-clinical” magnesium deficiency).
If a silent but deadly magnesium deficiency is prevalent, what could be the reason?
Low magnesium levels may be caused by an inadequate dietary intake. Most of us try to consume a varied diet with nutrient-rich foods, but even the most thorough of omnivorous eaters may fail to get the proper sources of magnesium through food sources in their diet. Prescription? A heaping daily plate of avocado toast, followed by some dark chocolate, perhaps.
Yet even with proper diet filled with healthy magnesium sources, intake may not be adequate, since many of these foods have also become magnesium-depleted.
This could be due to certain modern agricultural practices which remove many crucial nutrients from our food.
The act of processing removes much of the magnesium content in food sources originally rich in this nutrient.
Refined oils, refined grains, and refined sugar all lose their high-magnesium status post-processing. Soil conditions just don’t pack our veggies with the amount of nutrients we expect. Between 1963 and 1992, magnesium levels have fallen in foods like vegetables (24%), fruit (17%), and meat (15%).3
So, even piling your plate with leafy greens and avocado might not provide the necessary amounts of magnesium, since these typically magnesium-rich foods may have staggeringly low magnesium levels.
Lack of magnesium absorption can occur in various intestinal disorders. Diarrhea, Crohn's disease, celiac disease, chronic kidney disease (CKD), type 2 diabetes—each of these conditions lead to improper absorption of nutrients including magnesium. Certain medications may also lead to “magnesium wasting,” a condition where the body improperly excretes magnesium.
Even certain foods can prevent proper magnesium absorption! A diet high in saturated fat, sugar intake, and phosphates (present in carbonated beverages like soda) can inhibit magnesium absorption.
A certain amount of stress, like exercise, could raise the requirement for magnesium. This may be because exercise actually increases the loss of magnesium through sweat or urine. Magnesium loss in urine was found to be higher following vigorous exercise bouts like a marathon run or HIIT session,4 so you may need to ingest more magnesium following intense exercise or during training. Magnesium is also reduced under conditions of high mental stress. Two studies have shown that exposure to conditions of chronic stress leads to increased urinary magnesium excretion5 and lower ionized and total magnesium in the body.6
Given the high-demand society in which most of us live, perhaps the “fight or flight” response is taking a toll on our magnesium levels.
Low magnesium, unless severe, probably won’t make you feel like you’ve been run over by a truck. Little signs and symptoms, clues rather, might signal a potential magnesium deficiency that needs attention.
A common sign of magnesium deficiency is cramping. Cramps can pop up anywhere, but the hands and the feet are two hot-spots. Other abnormal muscle movements like spasms, tremors, or small fasciculations (involuntary twitches) under the skin are common in magnesium deficiency. These cramps may also be accompanied by a general feeling of muscular weakness. Remember: muscles and ATP require magnesium for optimal functionality.
There may also be some mental symptoms of magnesium deficiency. Mood changes, symptoms of depression,7 migraine headaches, anxiety-like behavior,8 and even impairments in learning and memory9 have been observed in studies where magnesium-deficient diets are fed to rats and humans. All of these symptoms are usually reversed once a high-magnesium diet is fed.10 Avocados, a great source of magnesium, really do cure all (almost).
Day to day health is super important. But, if you’re constantly missing out on magnesium, negative health effects could result and spill over into the long term. Falling short on magnesium may lead to a higher risk for developing chronic disease.
In particular, the cardiovascular system seems especially prone to the ill-effects of magnesium deficiency. There may be a role of magnesium in preventing several maladies such as heart disease and other cardiovascular abnormalities.
Magnesium deficiency is associated with greater risk for hypertension (high blood pressure), arrhythmias (irregular heart beats), heart disease, hardening of the arteries, and myocardial infarction (heart attack).1 A large recent meta analysis found high magnesium intake was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular risk factors like metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.11
Adequate magnesium is required if we want to properly regulate blood pressure and the efficient, regular beating of the heart. People who get more of it seem to have better cardiovascular health in the long-term.
The cardiovascular effects of low magnesium may be due to low potassium levels. Magnesium deficiency has been correlated with low potassium—which might contribute to a greater incidence of heart arrhythmias, since potassium plays a role in the maintenance of proper ion gradients in cardiac muscle.12 This just further illustrates the impact that low magnesium has no only on it’s own, but by interacting with other minerals in the body.
Cardiovascular performance may also be compromised along with health if you suffer from magnesium deficiency. Studies have shown low levels of magnesium are associated with a reduced maximal aerobic capacity (V02 max) and an impaired ability to exercise efficiently plus a greater energy requirement during exercise.13,14 Prime function of the heart and blood vessels is important to maintain health and prevent things like heart disease, especially with aging. The ability to maintain a high exercise capacity and fitness might be a hallmark of healthy aging and key to a longer life.
Signs and symptoms can be the first clue to magnesium deficiency, but a proper diagnosis may be the condemning evidence you need to take action.
Unfortunately, conclusions from a recent study indicate that no test can easily be used to assess magnesium. No simple, fast, or accurate lab tests exist to give a complete picture of whole-body magnesium or magnesium in the bone and muscle: the two main storage compartments for magnesium in the body.15
However inconclusive they may be, certain tests will give a general snapshot of magnesium status. Currently, serum magnesium is a useful measure. What categorizes a deficiency? A serum magnesium level below .75 mM/L is used as a threshold for severe deficiency, and a level below .85 mMl/L also may characterize a deficiency, although a less severe one
Other ways to assess magnesium status includes oral magnesium load tolerance tests, measures of red blood cell magnesium, and muscle magnesium levels (which require a biopsy...ouch!). These more invasive, but perhaps more accurate, measures might be useful to you if it appears magnesium deficiency might be something to fear. A visit to a healthcare professional for one of these tests is the first step to assess your magnesium status.
If you are deficient, the next step is understanding why, and how to reverse the deficiency. If your diet isn’t providing enough magnesium for you to perform optimally, then it might be time to look for additional ways to boost magnesium.
Trying to beat a deficiency, or simply hoping to boost your magnesium levels to feel the positive health effects for yourself? Several varieties of supplementation (other than increasing your dietary magnesium intake) exist.
But, let's consider diet first and foremost. The RDA/ERA for magnesium is 400mg- 420mg of magnesium per day for men and 310mg - 320mg of magnesium per day for women; although these values will vary slightly based on body size, activity, and physiology. And, as stated before, the magnesium amounts listed on food might not reflect the actual, bioavailable magnesium present in your kale smoothie. When food sources fail, supplements can step in.
The list of supplemental forms of magnesium is large. Magnesium malate, magnesium threonate, magnesium oxide, magnesium citrate, magnesium chloride, magnesium sulfate, magnesium glycinate—all are different forms of magnesium available to supplement with that can be purchased over the counter from any supplement or vitamin store.
Which to choose? This may depend on what benefits you’re seeking, as each form has a slightly different effect and purpose.
Magnesium threonate is used for memory and brain function, magnesium malate is used for energy and muscle relaxation, magnesium oxide is used for constipation (be careful!), magnesium citrate is used for relaxation, magnesium chloride is used to enhance absorption, magnesium sulfate (epsom salts) is used to relax muscles, and magnesium glycinate is used for sleep. Research particular forms to find which is best suited for the goals you have in mind.
What is the proper dose? Recent recommendations from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) set a tolerable upper limit at 350mg per day of supplemental magnesium for adults.16 This does not include any magnesium you’re getting from dietary sources.
Assuming you’re getting the ERA for dietary magnesium, your daily total should be somewhere around 700mg - 800mg of magnesium per day combined between dietary and supplemental sources.
Certain nootropics combine magnesium with other ingredients to potentially prevent deficiencies while enhancing other aspects of health—like sleep.
For instance, certain supplements contain magnesium glycinate, along with L-theanine, melatonin, and L-glycine. This combination is designed to promote high-quality sleep, giving you the restful night needed to tackle the day. Magnesium glycinate, has been shown to be a highly bioavailable form of magnesium, meaning you’ll be able to actually use more of it.
Combining magnesium with the amino acid glycine enhances absorption better than other forms, such as magnesium oxide,17 and has double the sleep-inducing effects. The benefit of combining magnesium with glycine is that you can attack sleep while also gaining the magnesium boosting power of supplementation to prevent a deficiency.
Supplementing with magnesium can clearly have benefits if you’re deficient, pulling you out of the hole and getting baseline levels to normal, perhaps even above. Supplementing with magnesium may also have health effects even if you’re not suffering from a deficiency by promoting health and performance above baseline, and maybe fostering a bit of relaxation.
Supplementing with magnesium might have some cardiovascular benefits and play a role in preventing other health conditions.
A large meta-analysis observed that a dose of 300mg of magnesium per day for at least one month leads to a reduction in systolic and diastolic blood pressure.18 Another review of experimental magnesium supplementation studies concluded that doses of 365mg - 450mg of magnesium per day for 1 - 6 months lowered blood pressure in individuals with insulin resistance, higher risk of type 2 diabetes, or other chronic health conditions.19 There is also some evidence that supplementing with magnesium for more than 4 months might improve glucose control, insulin resistance, and increase insulin sensitivity in certain individuals; correlating with better metabolic health and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders.20
Give the old bones some love, too.
Magnesium supplementation may have a beneficial protective role in bone health and osteoporosis, since it has been shown to increase bone density and prevent the incidence of fractures.21
A month-long regimen of magnesium supplementation suppressed the rate of bone turnover, a marker of bone loss, in healthy young men and postmenopausal women.22,23 This effect is probably due to the necessity of magnesium for proper vitamin D absorption. Vitamin D is crucial for the maintenance of proper bone health, among other important functions. However, in order for vitamin D to become fully “active,” adequate magnesium is required.24 Just another one of the important roles of Mg.
It might be best to think of magnesium as “protective.” The risk of deficiency is far greater than the side effects of excessive supplementation, and the above health benefits can be achieved through inexpensive forms of supplemental magnesium along with an adequate dietary magnesium intake.
Athletes aren’t the only ones asking a lot from their bodies. Everyone is searching for a way to optimize productivity, achieve the most benefits from a training program, or perhaps just get the most out of a high-quality exercise session and feel good the entire time. In a sense, we are all “athletes” who need high quality nutrition to perform well. Magnesium plays a role on and off the field.
Whether you're doing physical or mental weight lifting, you need magnesium.
Research shows magnesium supplementation might translate to greater gains. Added to a strength training program, supplemental magnesium oxide increased quadriceps muscles torque more than a strength training only program.25 This result might be due to the effects of increasing magnesium levels impacting protein synthesis in the muscles, providing a little more pump for the supplementing lifters.
Evidence, though observational, also links high levels of serum magnesium to better grip strength, leg power, jumping performance, and torso mobility.26 This is pretty strong data indicating that higher magnesium levels are essential for overall functional fitness, and may even improve performance in individuals during aerobic and anaerobic exercise, making for better training, more adaptations, and a stronger body.
Your brain is a muscle too, and the effects of magnesium on the brain, either too much magnesium or not enough, are quite substantial.
In rats, elevating brain magnesium levels has been shown to enhance synaptic facilitation and long-term potentiation—in other words, it boosts learning abilities, working memory, and short- and long-term memory in.10 Mood also improves when magnesium deficiency is reversed through a high-magnesium diet.8
Magnesium was first reported as a therapy for treatment resistant depression (TRD) in 1921.
It has now been shown that magnesium supplementation might be as effective as certain antidepressant drugs in treating depressive symptoms without any of the common side effects of medications.
These astounding benefits make sense. Low levels of magnesium result in neuronal damage, low levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin (the “feel-good” hormone), and altered ion channel activity in neurons.28 Fixing deficiencies through magnesium supplementation could possibly address chemical imbalances related to depression. While this shouldn’t be taken as medical advice to treat depressive like symptoms with minerals like magnesium, the associations are interesting enough to gain some attention.
We can focus on proper health and improved physical performance all day, but without proper sleep, we can’t achieve either. Another impressive quality of magnesium is its sleep-promoting effects, and the sleep-inhibiting effects that occur with low levels of magnesium.
Indeed, people shown to be magnesium deficient report worse sleep, more disturbed sleep, and sleepiness-related depressive symptoms29 that are probably a result of poor mood and impaired performance from not getting enough shut-eye. Sleep cycles are thrown off when we don’t get enough magnesium, resulting in an inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and soak in restorative slow-wave sleep that is a hallmark of a good night’s rest.30
Improving magnesium status is consistently shown to reverse sleep symptoms, with higher brain levels leading to increased slow wave sleep.31
The wonderful slumber-inducing effects occur because the central nervous system seems to be “quieted” by magnesium, reducing overall stress levels and allowing the body to achieve a calm state required for sleep.
For this reason, many have sought the benefits of magnesium as a sleep-supplement. Through higher dietary magnesium intake or magnesium supplementation, increasing magnesium levels restores sleep organization parameters and increases melatonin levels.32 Melatonin, as you may know, is the primary molecule involved in signaling when we should get to sleep. Melatonin and magnesium levels are correlated in the brain, and supplementing with magnesium may boost melatonin by up to 35%.32
If you want to sleep like a baby, consider using a dose of 350mg of magnesium about 1 - 2 hours before bed. This may enhance sleep quality and reduce the time it takes you to fall asleep.
If you’re careful to refrain from supplementing above the recommended magnesium doses, it is unlikely that you’ll “overdose” on too much magnesium and experience any unwanted side effects.
Most commonly, gastro-intestinal issues are reported, included tummy troubles like diarrhea, upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain and cramping. Magnesium, particularly magnesium oxide, is sometimes used as a laxative treatment, likely owing to some of the above side effects if this particular form is taken at high doses.
Since it is also used as an antihypertensive, high-dose magnesium may also lower blood pressure to unsafe levels, especially if combined with blood pressure-lowering medications such calcium-channel blockers (CCBs). This may lead to symptoms of lightheadedness and dizziness.
Magnesium may render certain antibiotics (like tetracycline) less effective, so be thoughtful when combining magnesium with other medications. Always consult a doctor if you are currently taking any medications and considering supplementing with magnesium.
And while sleep is one of the proposed benefits of magnesium, it may also be one of the unintended side-effects if taken at the wrong time. Popping your magnesium supplement during the day might lead to sleepiness or drowsiness. This can be avoided by dosing magnesium a few hours before bedtime, both for the benefits of preventing deficiency and the slumber-promoting actions.
Most of these side effects can be avoided by using the proper, recommended dose of no more than about 350mg of magnesium day of supplemental magnesium on top of dietary magnesium intake. Also, take magnesium with food instead of on an empty stomach, as this will prevent some of the GI issues commonly reported.
You might not have a full blown deficiency that renders you useless and disease-ridden. You might not even think you need to supplement because you’re eating a perfectly balanced diet. But, the benefits of the mighty nutrient magnesium are not something you want to risk missing out on, even a little bit. For this reason, magnesium supplementation might be in the best interest of anyone looking to boost physical and cognitive health. Magnesium is one of the least expensive and reasonable supplements available.
Supplementing is an experiment. Since several forms of magnesium exist, and multiple areas of health stand to benefit, put magnesium supplementation on your to-do list, even if just for a while.
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