The Important Mineral You’re Probably Not Getting Enough Of

You know your body depends on a number of vitamins to properly function, but did you know that certain minerals are also vital for health? Minerals are found throughout the body and work with vitamins, enzymes, and hormones to regulate a myriad of biological functions. Calcium is one mineral that tends to steal the spotlight, but magnesium is just as important, if not more important, when it comes to whole body health. And while many people focus on their calcium intake, they forget about magnesium. Can one simple mineral be that important for health? In short, yes.

Magnesium is a cofactor in more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body, including those involved in protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, and blood pressure regulation. It is also required for energy production and the synthesis of RNA, DNA, and the important antioxidant glutathione. And magnesium is a key player in maintaining healthy bone.1,2 Low magnesium intakes and blood levels have been associated with type-2 diabetes, elevated C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation), hypertension, sudden cardiac death, osteoporosis, migraine headache, asthma, and colon cancer.3 As you can see, magnesium is no minor player in whole body health.

Bone Health

Calcium is often considered the most important nutrient for bone health, followed by vitamin D. But magnesium is necessary for both of these nutrients to work effectively. Magnesium is a co-factor to the enzymes that metabolize vitamin D. In other words, magnesium is required to convert vitamin D3 into its active form so it can carry out its important functions in the body, including calcium absorption; low levels of magnesium can inhibit the body from effectively utilizing vitamin D. Magnesium also activates a hormone that helps pull calcium from the blood and soft tissues into the bones.4 In addition to its relationship with calcium and vitamin D, magnesium also influences the activity of osteoblasts and osteoclasts, specialized cells that build up new bone and break down old bone. Not surprisingly, research has confirmed that women with osteoporosis have lower serum magnesium levels compared to women without the disease.5,6,7

Cardiovascular Health

In its role of transporting potassium and calcium ions across cell membranes, magnesium affects nerve impulses, muscle contraction, and normal heart rhythm. Low magnesium levels are associated with arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat) and heart palpitations. Magnesium also maintains proper smooth muscle function in the blood vessels and promotes endothelial health, helping the lining of the arteries stay smooth and elastic. Through these actions, magnesium may play a role in regulating blood pressure, an important factor in reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke. Animal studies have found that animals on low magnesium diets develop arterial wall degeneration and calcification and an increase in triglyceride levels.8,9,10,11

Blood Sugar Control

While magnesium’s role in bone and cardiovascular health has been known and studied for decades, its role in blood sugar metabolism has only more recently been investigated. The research has found a strong relationship between magnesium and insulin action. A reduction of magnesium in the cells has been found to increase insulin resistance, while daily supplementation with magnesium has shown to improve beta cell function (the cells responsible for storing and releasing insulin) and insulin sensitivity in both type-2 diabetes and non-diabetic subjects with insulin resistance.12,13,14,15,16

Brain and Nervous System Health

Long known as a calming mineral, magnesium plays a key role in the activity of receptors in the brain known as NMDA receptors. These receptors are activated by glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, which opens channels allowing calcium to enter the neuron, making it more sensitive to stimulation. Magnesium has the ability to block the NMDA receptor. This is important because if glutamate and calcium are continually activating these receptors, they can damage the neuron, and eventually lead to cell death. In both human and animal models, dysregulation of the NMDA receptors are associated with depression. Although more research is needed to find conclusive results, case studies have found that symptoms of depression improve with magnesium supplementation. Magnesium deficiency may also be related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In one study, researchers found that out of 116 children with ADHD 95 percent were deficient in magnesium.17,18,19,20

Magnesium’s effects on the brain may also benefit those who suffer from migraines. Magnesium plays a critical role in serotonin function, which has been implicated in the pathology of migraines, and a variety of other migraine-related receptors and neurotransmitters. 21 22 It is also associated with a decreased release and blocking of pain-transmitting chemicals in the brain, like prostaglandins and the neuropeptide known as substance P.23 24 Migraine sufferers are more likely to be deficient in magnesium than healthy, non-migraine controls25 and up to 50 percent of patients have lowered levels of the mineral during an acute migraine attack. When magnesium is administered, rapid and sustained relief of the migraine is experienced.26 Two double-blind studies also suggest that oral magnesium supplementation may reduce the frequency of migraine headaches.27 In one study, those taking 600 mg of oral magnesium saw a 41.6 percent reduction in migraine attack frequency, compared to only 15.8 percent in the placebo group. 28

But Wait! There’s More

In addition to its important roles in bone, cardiovascular, and nerve health and blood sugar regulation, magnesium has also shown promise in promoting healthy lung function29,30; relieving the pain associated with fibromyalgia31; relieving symptoms of premenstrual syndrome32 (specifically bloating, swelling, and breast tenderness) and relieving dysmenorrhea (painful menstrual cramps)33; and promoting healthy sleep.34

Because it is involved in so many biochemical processes, chronically low intakes of magnesium increase the risk of illness over time. And according to the National Institutes of Health, most of us are not getting optimal amounts of this important mineral. This is in part due to a decrease in magnesium content in foods because of industrial farming practices, which deplete magnesium levels in the soil. Additionally, the processed foods that are so prevalent in the American diet lack magnesium. Certain medical conditions can also negatively affect magnesium levels, including gastrointestinal disorders (IBS, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and colitis), diabetes, pancreatitis, hyperthyroidism, and kidney disease, as well as excessive menstrual bleeding. Large amounts of caffeine, processed carbohydrates (including sugar), alcohol, and stress can also lower magnesium levels. Symptoms of magnesium deficiency may include fatigue, restless leg syndrome, sleep disorders, abnormal heart rhythms and palpitations, and muscle spasms and cramping.35

The current RDA (recommended daily allowance) for magnesium is between 320 and 420 mg daily. It is a good idea to also take a B vitamin complex, or a multivitamin containing B vitamins because vitamin B6 promotes the absorption of magnesium in the gut. Note: Many common over-the-counter remedies for upset stomach and heartburn, including Milk of Magnesia® and Rolaids® , contain magnesium as a primary ingredient. You should not rely on these medications as a major source of magnesium, but it is important to note different sources of magnesium you may be ingesting so you don’t overdo it. With the broad health effects of magnesium, and with the majority of Americans lacking optimal levels, there is no excuse to not increase your intake of this important mineral.

Getting More Magnesium 

Since the body can’t make magnesium, it has to get it from food and/or supplement sources. Magnesium is abundant in unrefined natural foods. Especially good food sources include most green leafy vegetables, such as Swiss chard and spinach; seeds, such as pumpkin, sesame and flax; seaweeds; nuts like almonds and cashews; and even some seafood, such as cod, salmon and halibut. Even with this abundance, it is estimated that between 68% and 80% of the American population is deficient in magnesium. For most people, adding a magnesium supplement is the best way to ensure adequate intake of this vital mineral.

Quality Food Sources of Magnesium

Almonds 100 mg / ¼ cup Papaya 58 mg / one medium
Artichoke 77 mg / medium artichoke Potato (w/ skin) 52 mg / medium potato
Avocado 58 mg / one fruit Pumpkin Seeds 191 mg / ¼ cup
Beet Greens 98 mg / cup Scallops 42 mg / 4 ounces
Brazil Nuts 125 mg / ¼ cup Sesame Seeds 126 mg / ¼ cup
Cashews 117 mg / ¼ cup Spinach 157 mg / cup
Collard Greens 40 mg / cup Summer Squash 43 mg / cup
Dark Chocolate 95 mg / ounces Sunflower Seeds 157 mg / ¼ cup
Figs (dried) 51 mg / ½ cup Swiss Chard 151 mg / cup
Fish (mackerel, halibut, cod) 100 mg / 4 ounces Tuna 48 mg / 4 ounces
Flax Seeds 55 mg / 2 tbsps Walnuts 44 mg / ¼ cup
Green Peas 23 mg / cup Yogurt (plain low fat) 42 mg / cup
Molasses 48 mg / tablespoon    


Magnesium Supplements

Magnesium is always bound to another substance. In supplements magnesium can be bound either to a mineral group (e.g., oxide, sulfate, phosphate carbonate), referred to as an inorganic form, or to a substance of biologic origin, referred to as an organic form. These different forms have different degrees of absorption, but the substance that magnesium is bound to is not just an inactive carrier. In many cases it also plays a role in body function. It is for this reason that the different forms of magnesium may have slightly different effects in the body. Use the information below to choose a magnesium supplement that best meets your individual needs.

Inorganic Magnesium

The inorganic magnesium forms are generally absorbed at a lower rate and because of this will draw water to the large intestine more strongly, which is more likely to induce bowel movements. These forms are usually less expensive and contain higher amounts of magnesium per weight so fewer pills are needed.

  • Magnesium Oxide is magnesium bound to oxygen and is poorly absorbed. It is commonly used as a laxative and sometimes as an antacid.
  • Magnesium carbonate is magnesium bound to a mineral group containing carbon and oxygen and is sometimes used as an antacid. It is moderately well absorbed and can have a bowel loosening effect.36

Organic magnesium

The organic magnesium forms are generally well absorbed and will have a less pronounced effect on the bowels. They tend to be bulkier, though, so more pills or powder may be necessary to obtain the desired amount.

  • Magnesium Citrate is the most commonly used form in supplements. It easily dissolves in liquid and is well absorbed. Citrate is involved in energy production and may actually enhance this process.37 Especially in higher amounts, magnesium citrate can have a stool loosening effect.
  • Magnesium Gluconate is magnesium bound to the naturally occurring compound gluconic acid. It is well absorbed and does not cause loose stools. Magnesium gluconate has been shown to fight free radicals and the oxidative stress they cause.38 In this capacity magnesium gluconate may be protective of the cardiovascular system.39,40
  • Magnesium Glycinate is magnesium bound to the amino acid, glycine. It is well absorbed and does not exert a laxative effect on the bowels. Glycine is a building amino acid and also a calming neurotransmitter in the brain. The combination of magnesium and glycine is calming and relaxing.
  • Magnesium L-threonate is bound to threonic acid and appears to cross the blood-brain barrier more efficiently than other forms of magnesium. There it supports memory by improving the mechanisms necessary for brain cells to communicate with each other.41,42
  • Magnesium Malate is magnesium bound to malic acid, which is found naturally in apples and other fruits and vegetables and plays an important role in energy production. Magnesium malate may be especially beneficial to athletes and those suffering from fatigue and musculoskeletal problems such as fibromyalgia.
  • Magnesium Orotate is magnesium bound to orotic acid. Orotates are used by the body to create DNA and RNA and when bound to magnesium may support improved athletic performance as well as protect an already weakened heart.43 Magnesium orotate does not have a laxative effect.44
  • Magnesium Taurate is magnesium bound to the amino acid, taurine. Taurine has a calming effect on the brain and body.45 It also positively influences heart health by slowing the progression of plaque formation in the arteries, modulating blood pressure and heart rate, and supporting healthy blood clotting.46 Magnesium taurate does not affect the bowels.
Other terms you may see when buying a magnesium supplement are:
  • Chelated Magnesium. In chemistry, chelation refers to a particular type of bond, but in dietary supplements the term is used more loosely to describe a mineral complex that has been formulated with amino acids or other organic acids. Magnesium complexes with glycinate, aspartate, and taurine may all be called chelated, even though they may or may not be technically chelated. True chelated minerals tend to be easier on the stomach and bowels and are generally well absorbed.47
  • Ionic Magnesium is magnesium that has been dissolved in a solution (usually water) to free the magnesium from the substance it was bound to. Many claim that ionic magnesium is better absorbed than other forms, but there is currently not much research available to verify this claim. Ionic magnesium can have a bowel loosening effect.

In addition to the pills and powders for internal use, topical magnesium is also available. People have been absorbing magnesium (and other minerals) into the body through the skin for hundreds of years through mineral hot springs or Epsom Salt (magnesium sulfate) baths. Recently several companies have introduced topical magnesium oils and sprays. These products allow you to deliver magnesium directly to sore muscles to take advantage of its relaxing properties or simply as a way to get magnesium into the body while bypassing the digestive system.

References Available Upon Request