Magnesium: An essential nutrient that most people don’t get enough of
Magnesium is an essential nutrient that most people are not getting enough of. In this article, we will discuss the reasons magnesium is so important, how much you need for optimal health, and how you can make sure you're getting enough.
Magnesium is an important mineral for the human body and its optimal function. It plays an essential role in the health of our bones and function of our cells. It’s involved in over 700 enzymatic reactions, and it’s required to make DNA, RNA, and proteins—the building blocks of life. Magnesium deficiency is associated with many health problems, ranging from cardiovascular disease to dementia to osteoporosis.
The essential functions of magnesium
Magnesium is involved in energy production, blood sugar regulation, the development of bone, muscle contraction, regulating normal heart rhythm, nerve function, and the production of glutathione, one of the most important antioxidants in the body. Magnesium is also an important cofactor for other nutrients. Magnesium is required for the biosynthesis, transport, and activation of vitamin D.
Signs of magnesium deficiency may include:
Loss of appetite
Cravings for stimulants like coffee
Abnormal heart rhythm
Numbness or tingling
And many more
Magnesium helps promote healthy cardiovascular function by helping to regulate cardiac muscle function and thus protecting against the development of arrhythmia and heart failure. It also helps to prevent or delay calcification of the heart’s valves and arteries, supports healthy endothelial (the inner membrane of blood vessels) function and blood vessel relaxation, contributing to healthy blood pressure.
In fact, magnesium is so important for cardiovascular health that people at high risk of heart attacks who consume the most magnesium have a 34 percent lower risk of death compared to those that consume the least.
Magnesium is also one of the most powerful natural substances for lowering blood pressure. A review of 49 clinical trials found that, at appropriate doses, magnesium supplementation can reduce blood pressure in those with uncontrolled hypertension.
Magnesium is a cofactor for many enzymes including glucose metabolism, making it
an essential mineral when it comes to converting carbohydrates and fats into energy. Studies have shown a clear dose-response relationship between magnesium intake and the risk of Type 2 Diabetes (T2D), with each increment of 100 mg/d of magnesium leading to an 8-13 percent reduction in the risk of T2D.
Magnesium is an essential element of the physical structure of bone tissue and helps contribute to maintaining bone mass. It also plays a role in the regulation of calcium. Studies have shown that magnesium supplementation increases bone mineral density in post-menopausal women with osteoporosis, primarily by suppressing bone turnover.
Migraine and chronic headache
Magnesium supplementation reduces the frequency and severity of migraines and headaches. Studies have shown that migraine sufferers may be magnesium deficient.
In addition, a randomized, double-blind trial found that magnesium was as effective as two migraine medications at reducing migraine pain!
Studies have shown that magnesium deficiency may contribute to numerous women’s health concerns, such as painful periods, PMS, menstrual migraine, and postmenopausal symptoms, and that supplementation may help prevent, decrease the severity or relieve these conditions.
Cognitive and neurological health
Magnesium plays an important role in brain function and has multiple effects on cognitive and neurological function. It supports nerve transmission, neuromuscular conduction, and it prevents the death of brain cells.
Studies have shown that magnesium deficiency is associated with a higher risk of dementia and that magnesium may protect against Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease, and other cognitive and neurological disorders.
Mental and behavioral health
Magnesium has been known to be an important nutrient for mental and behavioral health. It’s involved in several functions within the central nervous system, including nerve transmission and signal transduction.
A large systemic review found that magnesium deficiency is associated with depression, anxiety, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental and behavioral health disorders and that supplementing with magnesium may help to prevent or decrease the severity of such conditions.
Because of magnesium’s muscle-relaxing effects and its effects on pain receptors, it has been shown to alleviate neuropathic pain, fibromyalgia, muscle pain, arthritis, and a wide range of other conditions that cause chronic pain.
Stress and HPA axis dysfunction
Studies have shown that not only does magnesium help to reduce stress, stress depletes magnesium. It helps improves the body’s ability to relax and improve quality of sleep. This makes maintaining healthy magnesium levels critical for reducing the effects of stress on the body.
Magnesium can help in cases of constipation, abdominal pain, gas and bloating due to its relaxing effect on the smooth muscle in the gut,. A recent review found that magnesium is a safe and effective remedy for chronic constipation.
Most people aren’t getting enough magnesium
The Recommended Dietary Allowance, or RDA, for magnesium varies by age, sex, and other factors, like pregnancy and lactation. The following table is from the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements:
However, it’s important to note that the RDAs for magnesium were last published in 1997, using average body weights of 133 lbs for adult women and 166 lbs for adult men.
In 2021, researchers published a study arguing that the RDAs for magnesium should be updated to reflect the increasing average body weights of the US population.
They re-calculated the RDAs for magnesium according to the current average weights of male and female adults, and came up with the following values:
Age and Sex Revised RDA Revised Bodyweight
Women 19–30 450–514 mg/d 168.5 lbs
Men 19–30 542–620 mg/d 196 lbs
Women 31+ 467–534 mg/d 168.5 lbs
Men 31+ 575–657 mg/d 196 lbs
The average intake of magnesium for US adults is 340–344 mg/d for men, and 256–273 mg/d for women.
This means that most Americans are not getting enough magnesium—even if we use the lower, outdated RDA values. And Americans are falling far short of the recommended magnesium intake if we use the more accurate, updated RDAs based on current average body weight. The average male and female over 31 years of age are consuming 200–300 mg/d less magnesium per day than they need.
Magnesium requires vitamin D to be absorbed in the intestine. Given that up to 94 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamin D, this suggests that even those who are consuming enough magnesium (from food and supplements) may still be deficient.
How to maintain healthy magnesium levels
Given what we know about the importance of magnesium for promoting optimal health and preventing disease, and given the study mentioned above, which calculated the revised RDA for magnesium, I would suggest the following daily intake targets:
Women 19–30: 500–515 mg/d
Men 19–30: 600–620 mg/d
Women 31+: 520–535 mg/d
Men 31+: 630–655 mg/d
How do we ensure that we meet these daily targets? There are two options: food and supplements.
Magnesium in food
The top food sources are:
Green, leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach)
Sea vegetables (e.g. agar, spirulina)
Seeds (e.g. pumpkin, chia)
Spices (e.g. coriander, chives)
Nuts (e.g. almonds, cashews)
While it’s important to eat as much magnesium-rich food as possible, it’s difficult to reach the optimal intake targets from food alone. There are 3 primary reasons for this.
1.Only about 30–40 percent of the magnesium we consume in the diet is absorbed by the body. Many foods that are rich in magnesium, such as spinach, are also high in compounds like oxalic acid which decrease magnesium absorption.
2. Due to changes in the quality of soil over the past few decades, the amount of magnesium found in the food that we eat has declined. Between 1940 and 1991, magnesium content in vegetables in the U.S. decreased by 24 percent, fruit by 17 percent, meat by 15 percent, and cheese by 26 percent.
3. It can be difficult to eat enough high-magnesium foods each day. The table below from the National Institutes of Health lists the top 20 common sources of magnesium in the diet:
On a given day, if you ate 1 ounce of pumpkin seeds, ½ cup of boiled spinach, a baked potato, 8 ounces of yogurt, a banana, and 6 ounces of salmon, you’d be at 400 mg. But even this is a significant overestimate because of the factors mentioned above: declining soil quality and the fact that we only absorb 30–40 percent of the listed values of magnesium in food.
This means that, for the vast majority of people, supplementation with magnesium will be required to reach the optimal targets.
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