If you’re not aware of all the health benefits of magnesium, you’ll be pleasantly surprised and you’ll want more of it. Magnesium is one of the most versatile minerals that our bodies use, as it’s involved in over 300 physiological processes. Unfortunately, widespread intake of processed foods and the use of chemical fertilizers means that the average person only consumes 30-50% of the recommended magnesium intake.
Magnesium plays vital role in cellular energy production and DNA synthesis. It assists in muscle contractions and nerve impulses, as well as cell membrane function. Other vital nutrients even require magnesium in order to be properly absorbed and used, such as vitamin D, vitamin B1 and glutathione. For these reasons, magnesium deficiency has many faces, and you may mistake it for another issue. Let’s look at how magnesium deficiency can affect us, and what we can do about it.
Symptoms of Magnesium Deficiency
Magnesium deficiency can be either acute or chronic. The acute type of magnesium deficiency is a serious emergency, featuring heart arrhythmia and muscle cramps. Thankfully, it responds well to intravenous magnesium replacement. Mainstream medicine often doesn’t recognize the chronic, low-grade form of magnesium deficiency, even though it’s more common. This is because your blood levels of magnesium are likely to be normal. However, your blood only contains 1% of your total magnesium reserves; most are stored in your bones, and around 40% is inside your cells.
Because magnesium plays so many vital roles, there are many possible symptoms of magnesium deficiency. These symptoms include fatigue, weakness, muscle cramps, depression, anxiety, insomnia, headache, impaired athletic performance and extreme menstrual pain. As I importantly point out in my book, Infla-Menses, magnesium is both a muscle relaxant and anti-inflammatory. One of the many health benefits of magnesium is that it increases levels of the anti-inflammatory prostaglandin PGE1, and high intakes are linked to a 21% lower risk of endometriosis.
Long-term consequences of a deficiency include chronic fatigue, blood glucose dysregulation, osteoporosis and asthma. Other chronic diseases with magnesium deficiency as a possible cause include Alzheimer’s disease, migraine, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, ADHD and diabetes. Of course, magnesium deficiency is unlikely to be the sole reason behind them but is often a contributor.
Osteoporosis is another potentially devastating consequence of chronic magnesium deficiency. Around 60% of your body’s magnesium is stored in your bones. You don’t only need calcium and phosphate for strong bones, which form small crystals when your bones are healthy. A magnesium deficiency results in the growth of larger crystals, and therefore weaker bones. On the other hand, supplementation can increase bone density.
Magnesium Deficiency Can Affect You at Any Age
Nutrient deficiencies that can lead to chronic health problems – magnesium included – can start showing symptoms at any age. In my case, I first noticed a magnesium deficiency after developing muscle cramps in my legs when I was 15. Teachers at school would criticize my shoes, make me run laps of the netball courts, or say I needed to stretch more. Nothing worked, of course; the only solution was for me to take magnesium. If this sounds like you – with no stretches, shoes or other mechanical fixes working – try magnesium. If it sounds more like your child, listen to them! I don’t know what I may have prevented by starting to take magnesium at a young age, and I’m not sure if I’d want to know either!
Do I Have A Magnesium Deficiency?
With the average person consuming less than half of the recommended magnesium intake, chances are you do, especially if you have any of the above complaints. It can feel like an effort to get enough magnesium in your diet. It’s tough to reap all the health benefits of magnesium when you’re not intaking enough of it. While the average woman requires 360mg of magnesium every day, the average man needs 420mg per day.
If you consume a typical American diet with a lot of refined grains, meat and few vegetables, it’ll be a challenge to get enough of this vital mineral. Magnesium is a key component of chlorophyll, which is why green leafy vegetables (especially spinach) are known for being especially rich sources of magnesium. Some nuts and seeds, such as almonds, flax, pumpkin and sesame seeds; bananas; black beans; brown rice; cashews; oatmeal; broccoli; molasses and even “hard” water are other food sources that contain magnesium.
You are more likely to have a magnesium deficiency if you have celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease, as these impair absorption. Certain chemotherapy, immunosuppressant and antifungal medications can cause deficiency through their effects on the kidneys. Unfortunately, alcohol more than doubles magnesium loss too, even if you’re already deficient. If you want to have a few drinks, it may be best to increase your dose of magnesium.
If magnesium supplements or magnesium-rich foods aren’t working for you and you’re still deficient, what should you do? It may be best to check your vitamin D levels. We need vitamin D to stimulate magnesium absorption in the intestines, so a deficiency in vitamin D could lead to a magnesium deficiency.
Magnesium and Mental Health
The health benefits of magnesium extend to mental health, too. Mental health awareness has exploded in recent times, but typically the focus has been on the symptoms of illness and how to cope. Instead of concentrating only on the suffering side of mental illness, we need to look at the causes of mental illness and how to resolve or prevent it. Of course, therapy has its place, especially if your illness was triggered by traumatic events, but nutrient deficiencies can be at least part of the underlying causes of mental illness.
Magnesium keeps the brain running on multiple levels, as this 2020 review describes. Magnesium regulates dopamine, serotonin and cholinergic signalling, which helps with mood balance, motivation and cognition. By maintaining myelin, the protective fatty sheath around neurons, and the synapses where nerves transmit signals, magnesium allows for communication. Magnesium even promotes the growth of neural stem cells and assists in their differentiation into new neurons. Yes, your brain not only can regenerate, but a very slow level of regeneration is necessary for mental and cognitive health. Magnesium’s benefits in reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, while balancing the stress response through the HPA axis, may also help out by protecting your brain cells. A deficiency in magnesium increases the pituitary gland’s production of ACTH, a hormone that in turn raises cortisol production in the adrenal glands. These are major stress hormones, which is why magnesium deficiency is suspected to cause anxiety.
Mental Health Benefits of Magnesium
With all of these benefits, magnesium has been shown to improve mental health in clinical studies, including those in the 2020 review. A trial involving people with depression, for example, showed that eight weeks of supplementation significantly reduced depression scores. Another found benefit with magnesium and vitamin B6 in relieving stress, depression and anxiety scores when they were pooled together. Weaker evidence suggests magnesium may help out in autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder and eating disorders, but trials are needed to confirm.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the most common psychiatric problem in children, is another issue magnesium can help out with. Fortunately, it’s not just a mysterious chemical imbalance or being “lazy” or “naughty”. People with ADHD often have lower intracellular levels of magnesium, and supplementation can help relieve hyperactivity. Magnesium may work by reducing norepinephrine release and modulating dopamine and serotonin, which are also implicated in ADHD.
With all the health benefits of magnesium and the high chance you’re deficient, there’s no better time than now to increase your intake through dietary changes or supplementation. If you’d like to uncover genetic variations that may increase your risk of magnesium deficiency, or conditions that a deficiency may contribute to, you can learn more about CircleDNA genetic testing and dietary profiles here.