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If there was one single supplement I would recommend almost everybody takes, that would be magnesium. Magnesium is a mineral crucial to our health! It plays a vital role in maintaining homeostasis in the body. Magnesium deficiency can negatively impact our body and nowadays, unfortunately, due to the agricultural soil mineral depletion, most people just aren’t getting enough of this mineral.

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What is magnesium and why do we need it for optimal health?

Magnesium (Mg) is an essential dietary mineral (which means that our body does not produce it and we need to obtain it from our diet). It is the fourth most abundant mineral in the human body. About 65% of the magnesium is found in our bones and teeth, and the remaining 35% – in the blood, fluids, and other tissues. It is important to note that the magnesium content of bone decreases with age.

In the human body magnesium is used primarily as an electrolyte (it helps regulate nerve and muscle function and maintain acid-base balance and water balance). It is also a mineral cofactor for enzymes, playing an essential role in more than 300 regulatory enzyme systems which control muscle, nerve, bone, protein, DNA, glucose, energy metabolism, and calcium and phosphorus metabolism.

Magnesium critically stabilizes enzymes, including many ATP-generating reactions. ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) is the main source of energy in cells that is needed for many crucial processes such as glucose utilization, synthesis of fat, proteins, nucleic acids and coenzymes, muscle contraction, methyl group transfer. Magnesium contributes to the regulation of vascular tone, heart rhythm, and bone formation.Therefore, any interference with magnesium metabolism might also influence these functions. With other words, all these vital functions are all magnesium dependent. 

Dietary sources of magnesium:

Chlorophyll (and thus green vegetables) is one of the major sources of magnesium. Nuts, seeds, whole grains, and molasses are also rich in magnesium. Legumes, fruit, meat and fish have an intermediate magnesium concentration. Low magnesium concentrations are found in dairy products. Processed foods have a much lower magnesium content than unrefined grain products. With the overconsumption of processed foods, de-mineralized soft water, most industrialized countries are deprived of their natural magnesium supply.

Some of the foods with highest magnesium content are:

  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Almonds
  • Spinach
  • Cashews
  • Brown rice
  • Molasses
  • Soybeans and edamame
  • Sesame seeds
  • Quinoa
  • Yogurt
  • Oatmeal

Absorption and intake:

Magnesium is absorbed in the gut (mainly absorbed in the small intestine) and stored in bone mineral, and excess magnesium is excreted by the kidneys and the faeces. The absorption of magnesium in the intestines varies greatly and is mainly dependent on magnesium status in the body, as well as on stomach acid levels, body needs, or dietary habits. The lower the magnesium level, the more of the mineral is absorbed in the gut. This means that the relative magnesium absorption is high when intake is low and vice versa. Magnesium requires an acidic stomach environment for best absorption, so it is best taking it between meals or at bedtime.

Keep in mind that meals high in protein or fat, high alcohol consumption, as well as a diet high in phosphorus or calcium (calcium and magnesium can compete) may lead to lower magnesium absorption. Also, stress can lead to increased magnesium excretion. 

Functions and health benefits of magnesium:

Magnesium is primarily an intracellular nutrient that is critical for many regulatory enzyme systems controlling muscle, nerve, bone, protein, DNA, glucose, and energy metabolism. It is a regulator of the electrical potential across cell membranes, which allows nutrients to pass back and forth. Magnesium helps with the release of energy by transferring the key phosphate molecule to ATP. It is also required for the activation of the sodium and potassium pump that pumps sodium out of, and potassium into, the cells. Therefore, magnesium deficiency would result in lower potassium within the cell, and thus cell function would be disrupted. Magnesium also functions as a natural calcium channel-blocker because of its ability to block the entry of calcium into vascular smooth-muscle cells and heart muscle cells. As a result, magnesium supplementation may help prevent overstimulation of the cells due to excess calcium, and thus help reduce vascular resistance, lower blood pressure, and lead to more efficient heart function. 

Magnesium is known as the “antistress” mineral. It is a natural tranquilizer, as it helps to relax skeletal muscles as well as the smooth muscles of blood vessels and the GI tract. Magnesium is also thought to dilate the blood vessels.

Here is a summary of the main functions of magnesium in our body:

  • Supports carbohydrate and fat metabolism
  • Involved in DNA and protein synthesis
  • Activates transport of ions across cell membranes
  • Supports cell migration and wound healing

Magnesium and cardiovascular health. Magnesium is absolutely essential in the proper functioning of the entire cardiovascular system. It can have a positive influence on the heart, therefore it is considered important in preventing heart disease, coronary artery spasm (a significant cause of heart attacks). The beneficial effects of magnesium in cardiovascular system are related to its ability to:

  • Improve energy production within the heart
  • Dilate the coronary arteries, which results in improved delivery of oxygen to the heart
  • Reduce peripheral vascular resistance, which creates reduced demand on the heart
  • Inhibit platelets from aggregating and forming blood clots
  • Reduce the size of the blockage
  • Improve heart rate and arrhythmias

The magnesium status has a direct effect upon the relaxation capability of vascular smooth muscle cells and the regulation of the cellular sodium:potassium ratio and intracellular calcium. As a result, nutritional magnesium has both direct and indirect effects on regulation blood pressure regulation and is used therefore to treat and prevent hypertension and its effects. Magnesium can also help in relieving certain kinds of angina

Because magnesium promotes normal muscle contraction and acts as a natural calcium blocker, it helps muscle relaxation. (NOTE: calcium stimulates muscle contraction and magnesium relaxes them). Calcium itself binds to specific proteins, changing their shape and causing the muscle to contract. Magnesium competes with calcium and causes the muscles to relax. Without sufficient magnesium competing with calcium the muscle may contract too much, causing cramps.

Magnesium increases the solubility of calcium in the urine. Therefore, it is being used for prevention of kidney stones formation, especially calcium oxalate stones. Calcium oxalate stones are most likely to form in people who are magnesium deficient. Magnesium citrate is considered the most beneficial form of the mineral in the treatment of kidney stones. Citrate reduces urinary saturation of stone-forming calcium salts because it forms complexes with calcium. It also retards the nucleation and crystalline growth of the calcium salts. 

Migraine and tension headaches. Studies show that low magnesium levels are linked to migraine and tension headaches. People with migraine may benefit from magnesium also because of its ability to improve mitral valve prolapse, which is linked to migraines. Mitral valve prolapse leads to changes in blood platelets, and these changes cause the platelets to release substances that ultimately cause expansion of blood vessels in the head.

Type 2 diabetes. Magnesium plays an important role in the secretion and action of insulin. Therefore, control over the blood sugar levels would be impossible without adequate magnesium levels within the body’s cells. Diabetes leads to increased urinary losses of magnesium, and the subsequent magnesium inadequacy might impair insulin secretion and action, thereby worsening diabetes control. Since magnesium is critically involved in glucose metabolism and can help improve insulin action, diabetics need to maintain proper magnesium levels. Magnesium deficiency is common in people with type 2 diabetes, and supplementation may prevent some complications such as heart disease and retinopathy. 

Osteoporosis. Magnesium is involved in bone formation and also affects the concentrations of both parathyroid hormone and the active form of vitamin D, which are major regulators of bone homeostasis. Women with osteoporosis have lower bone magnesium content than women without osteoporosis. Some researches show that magnesium deficiency might be a risk factor for osteoporosis. Therefore, magnesium supplementation may be as important as calcium supplementation in the treatment and prevention of osteoporosis. 

Supplementing with magnesium has been shown to be helpful in alleviating many premenstrual symptoms (PMS) such as menstrual cramps, irritability, fatigue, depression, and water retention. Magnesium deficiency is strongly associated with PMS. Magnesium is often at its lowest during menstruation, and many symptoms of PMS are relieved when this mineral is replenished. 

Speaking of PMS, we need to mention that magnesium may also be used as a mood-boosting supplement, as it helps to tackle stress and depression. In fact, it’s now believed that low or deficient levels of magnesium can lead to occurrence of mental disorders, as well as depression. Because of the mineral’s nerve and muscle support, it may relieve nervousness, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and muscle cramps. When taken before bed, magnesium also helps people sleep better

Fatigue. Magnesium deficiency can result in chronic fatigue and symptoms similar to chronic fatigue syndrome. Many people with chronic fatigue and chronic fatigue syndrome have low red blood cell magnesium levels. As mentioned above, magnesium is required in many enzyme systems which help restore normal energy levels. Therefore, magnesium supplementation may help improve energy levels. Fatigues are often reduced with magnesium (and potassium) supplementation. Magnesium malate supplementation is used with some success in people with chronic fatigue syndrome, as well as fibromyalgia pains (magnesium deficiency within muscle cells may be a factor in the development of fibromyalgia).

Magnesium promotes relaxation of the bronchial smooth muscles and thus the airways open and breathing is easier. Because of these properties it may also reduce the bronchoconstriction in asthma by relieving tension on the muscle around the bronchial tubes. Intravenous solutions containing magnesium and other nutrients have been used successfully to break acute asthma attacks.

Through its nerve-and muscle-relaxing effect, magnesium may also be helpful in reducing epileptic seizures caused by nerve excitability. Magnesium supplementation is given as part of a treatment for autism or hyperactivity in children, usually along with vitamin B6. Magnesium is also thought to reduce lead toxicity and its buildup, possibly through competing for absorption. 

Magnesium and alcoholism. It is important to note that alcohol consumption causes magnesium loss from tissues and, ultimately, through urine. Therefore, alcoholics tend to have lower magnesium levels, and supplementation can be helpful during withdrawal and to prevent or reduce hangover symptoms. 

Magnesium and pregnancy. During pregnancy, magnesium intake requirements increase. Magnesium deficiency during pregnancy is linked to preeclampsia, preterm delivery, and fetal growth retardation. Magnesium sulfate has been used specifically to lower blood pressure in pregnant women with preeclampsia, which is characterized by edema, hypertension, and hyperreflexia.

These are some of the conditions that may be helped by magnesium supplementation:

  • Alcoholism
  • Angina 
  • Anxiety
  • Arrhythmias
  • Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Atherosclerosis
  • Autism
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Cognitive heart failure
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Fatigue
  • Hyperactivity
  • Hypertension
  • Glaucoma
  • Insomnia
  • Kidney stones
  • Menstrual pain
  • Migraine
  • Muscle cramps
  • Osteoporosis
  • PMS

People with higher risk for magnesium deficiency include:

  • Alcoholics
  • Diabetics
  • Children
  • Elderly
  • Athletes
  • Malnourished 
  • People who have malabsorption
  • Pregnant and lactating women
  • Post-menopausal women with osteoporosis
  • People who undergo long-term antibiotics therapy
  • People who undergo chemotherapy or take immunosuppressive medications
  • People on diuretic therapy

Forms of magnesium supplementation:

There are different forms of magnesium and different bioavailability (absorption) rate depending on the form of the supplement. Usually magnesium types that dissolve in liquid are better absorbed in the gut than less soluble forms. Chelated forms, or when magnesium is bound to other compounds, are considered to be best absorbed, because the compound magnesium is bound to help with the absorption of the mineral in the gut. 

There are different opinions. Some researches show that magnesium in citrate and chloride forms are absorbed better than magnesium in oxide and magnesium sulfate forms. Others show that magnesium glycinate is one of the best absorbable forms, followed by magnesium citrate (it can cause laxative effect in higher doses), aspartate, lactate, taurate, malate. 

Magnesium absorbs water. So when you take straight-up magnesium, like magnesium oxide, it promotes a laxative effect but isn’t really being absorbed into the bloodstream. Magnesium oxide is therefore commonly used as a laxative rather than a supplement.

There are also topical forms like magnesium sulfate and magnesium chloride that can be used in Epsom salt baths, sprays, and creams. 

NOTE: Keep in mind that you need to check with your doc to make sure magnesium is right for you, since it may interfere with some medications. It is also important to note that zinc and calcium can reduce magnesium’s absorption, so be mindful of what you take it with.