Let’s talk about magnesium. Before I became an NTP, this little mineral meant pretty much nothing to me. It was just another thing on a multivitamin label that someone somewhere said I needed. However, I quickly learned it plays HUGE roles in the body, even though we don’t need a ton of it. Magnesium is an essential macromineral. It is needed for over 300 enzymatic and biochemical reactions. Some of these include blood glucose control, cell energy production, and muscle function. Despite it’s importance, most people aren’t getting enough. Historically, this was not a problem as magnesium was plentiful in the soil and water, and overly processed foods were nonexistent. Today, it’s said that people are only getting a fraction of their daily needs, which is about 400mg per day according to the Linus Pauling Institute, but experts are now saying that number should be increased.
Are you deficient in magnesium? The answer is most likely yes! Here are ten reasons why you probably need more.
1. You’re a soda drinker. Dark colored sodas contain phosphoric acid, or phosphates, a form of phosphorus. These phosphates can bind to magnesium as it moves through the digestive tract. Once that binding happens, the magnesium is no longer recognized by the body rendering it useless and left to be excreted as waste. Soda is also high in sugar, mentioned below.
2. You eat a high sugar/starch diet. According to Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride in her book Put Your Heart in Your Mouth, it takes about 28 molecules of magnesium to digest just 1 molecule of glucose. (Sugar itself is sucrose, which is made of a fructose molecule and a glucose molecule, so when it’s broken down, you still have that glucose.) So if you consume excessive sweets and refined carbohydates, you’re going to be using up a lot of your magnesium.
3. You’re under a lot of emotional or physical stress. This is a big one because stress can be in many forms…emotional stress as in something work-related, loss of a loved one, family troubles, depression, anxiety, sleep problems, um..parenting (!), etc. Physical stress can be anything like heavily exercising, recently undergoing surgery, pregnancy, chronic illness, did I already mention parenting?, etc. Magnesium is known as the anti-stress mineral because it helps us have the ability to handle the stress, but it’s the first to be depleted in times of stress which can start a vicious cycle.
4. You consume a lot of caffeine. As caffeine’s diuretic effect takes place in the body, it flushes out minerals along with the water. That includes magnesium. The kidneys help to regulate and filter excess magnesium, but in the case of caffeine consumption, they tend to excrete more magnesium, leading to deficiency.
5. You take medications. There are a number of medications that deplete magnesium. Some of these include steroid medications (both oral and inhaled), certain antibiotics, certain heart medications, antacids, and hormone medications such as birth control pills.
6. You drink alcohol regularly. Alcohol has the same kind of effect on magnesium as caffeine.
7. You take calcium supplements. An increased amount of calcium in the body increases the need for magnesium, but we tend not to hear about that part. Magnesium levels help to regulate where calcium gets stored. If it’s stored in the wrong place, it can lead to things like bone spurs, kidney stones (particularly calcium oxalate stones in the case of magnesium deficiency), or osteoporosis. Calcium and magnesium should be in a balance of about 1:1, or at most 2:1, but some researchers have said the standard American’s ratio may be as high as 6:1!
8. You’re pregnant or want to become pregnant. Pregnancy is a stressor on the body so magnesium is constantly being used. A magnesium deficiency may be a possible culprit in infertility cases as it can cause spasms of the fallopian tubes, hindering proper egg travel. Having proper magnesium stores prior to pregnancy may help to prevent or reduce pregnancy sickness when combined with vitamins B6 and B12. Magnesium can also be helpful in managing pregnancy conditions like water retention, preeclampsia and preventing preterm labor.
9. You get muscle cramps. Ladies, this includes premenstrual cramps! Back to the calcium-magnesium balance, this goes for muscle contractions and relaxations too. Calcium plays the role of contracting. Magnesium is responsible for the relaxation part.
10. You have a heart condition, such as hypertension or heart palpitations. The heart is a muscle that contracts, which means it is also dependent on a good balance of calcium and magnesium. With low levels of magnesium, high amounts of calcium would flow into vascular cells causing them to contract, or tighten, leading to elevated blood pressure.
If we look at this list, these can all be combined into three categories: Diet, Stress, Medications. This seems to be the trifecta in America’s failing health.
How do you know if you’re deficient? Unfortunately a simple blood test won’t really tell much. This is because magnesium is stored in different amounts throughout the body, and only a small amount is actually in the blood. According to Liz Wolfe, in her book Eat the Yolks, “More than half the magnesium in our bodies is concentrated in our bones and teeth; the rest in muscle and bodily fluid. It is found in high concentrations in the heart and brain.”
It’s interesting to note how our highly processed modern diet is wreaking havoc on our magnesium levels. In the book, Staying Healthy with Nutrition:
In the body, magnesium works closely together with vitamin D, phosphorus, and calcium. The processed food supply has given us an artificial abundance of vitamin D, in the form of fortified milk and dairy products; a surplus of phosphorus, in the form of phosphoric acid added to soft drinks; and extra calcium in everything from orange juice to pancake mix. By comparison, we do not have any “false surplus” of magnesium, and I suspect that at least part of our magnesium deficiency is due to the false elevations of these other nutrients in the highly processed food supply.
Symptoms of deficiency:
Insomnia, irritability, muscle tremors (even down to eye twitches!), confusion, rapid heartbeat, tingling, anxiety, depression, headaches, nausea, low energy/fatigue, memory difficulties, chocolate cravings
How to get more magnesium:
I would always recommend food first. This is because nature has a way of pairing nutrients together that work together in the body. For example, almonds are a good source of magnesium. They also contain calcium.
Some food sources of magnesium:
Dark leafy greens
The hard part about getting enough magnesium from food sources depends on 2 things. 1) The soil that these foods were grown in. Much of our soil today is deficient in minerals, which would mean the food is too. 2) Digestive health. Proper stomach acid is needed to pull out certain minerals from foods and with antacids being so heavily prescribed today, it’s no wonder so many people are deficient in minerals. Plus leaky gut is very common and can compromise proper absorption of minerals, including in supplement form.
What about supplements?
Supplementing magnesium can be tricky because there are many different forms and they can vary in bioavailability, which means you may not be getting what you think you’re getting. Unfortunately many magnesium supplements sold in drug stores are magnesium oxide, which according to Staying Healthy with Nutrition, can have as low an absorption rate of 4-15%! Another form may be magnesium sulfate, only giving about 25-40%. These two are the least absorbable forms. Much more available forms of magnesium are magnesium glycinate, magnesium aspartate, magnesium citrate, magnesium lactate, magnesium fumarate, magnesium gluconate, and magnesium carbonate. These are the chelated forms and are available for 75-98% absorption! (A common sign that you’re taking too much magnesium or are not tolerating it well is diarrhea.)
Another option for supplementation is transdermal magnesium. This kind of magnesium gets absorbed through the skin directly into the tissues, which means it can bypass the digestive tract altogether. So if there’s any kind of digestive dysfunction, it won’t inhibit your magnesium absorption. Transdermal magnesium can be in the form of magnesium gel, oil, lotion, or bath salts. This is my personal favorite way to supplement magnesium. I use the Magnesium Gel from Ancient Minerals (no affiliation) each night before bed, and the amazing thing, is that even at 31 weeks pregnant, I have not experienced the all too-common pregnancy insomnia that I suffered through with my first two pregnancies!
Many people find topical magnesium to be itchy and feel the need to wash it off. I apply mine to my upper arms, thighs, and lower back (rotating nights, not all at the same time) and do sometimes feel the itch. It’s not terrible for me, but I find that applying a little coconut oil over it after it’s absorbed a bit really helps. You can apply it just about anywhere. Just don’t apply to freshly shaven areas.
Just an extra reminder here, this post is meant for educational purposes only. Please don’t run out and buy tons of magnesium supplements to start on, or stop any medications in hopes of your condition just being due to a magnesium deficiency. If you’d like to make some changes, please do so under the care/supervision of your provider.