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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 600 biochemical reactions in the body, including those involved in protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, and blood pressure regulation.1 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.2 3
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.4 As you can see, magnesium is no minor player in whole body health.
Some of the symptoms of magnesium deficiency can manifest as irritability, restlessness, a lack of concentration, and fatigue, also symptoms associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Studies have consistently found that children diagnosed with ADHD are deficient in magnesium and that supplementation improves behavior, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.5 6 Magnesium also interacts with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors, helping to maintain normal transmission of this calming neurotransmitter, while balancing levels of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter.7
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.8 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.9 10 11
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.12 13 14 15
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 was 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.16 17 18 19 20
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change. This flexibility allows our brains to forge new neural connections (synapses) and affects learning, memory, behavior, and general cognitive function. Neuroplasticity plays a fundamental role in how well our brains age, with a loss in plasticity resulting in a loss of cognitive function. Research on neuroplasticity is growing and scientists are discovering that increasing neuronal cell magnesium levels can increase synapse density and plasticity, improving overall cognitive function. It is also showing promise to help “rewire” the brain in cases of traumatic brain injury and anxiety disorders. Magnesium L-threonate is the form used in studies because it has the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier to effectively increase magnesium levels in the brain.21 22
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.23 24 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.25 26 Migraine sufferers are more likely to be deficient in magnesium than healthy, non-migraine controls27 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.28 Two double-blind studies also suggest that oral magnesium supplementation may reduce the frequency of migraine headaches.29 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.30
Research shows that increasing magnesium intake may also reduce inflammation, an immune response that can contribute to a laundry list of health problems and chronic diseases, including anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that both children and adults who consume less than the RDA of magnesium are, on average, twice as likely to have elevated levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a strong indicator of inflammation, compared to those who consume the RDA.31 32 A study published in the Journal of Immunology found that magnesium has a modulatory effect on the immune system and is able to reduce inflammatory cytokine production. This means that consuming more magnesium can help to reduce the inflammatory factors that can lead to disease.33
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.34 In both human and animal models, dysregulation of the NMDA receptors are associated with depression.35 Although more research is needed to find conclusive results, case studies have found that symptoms of depression improve with magnesium supplementation.36
Magnesium also plays a role in regulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), our stress response system, and deficiencies in the mineral have been shown to induce anxiety and HPA axis dysregulation in an animal model.37 Indeed, anxiety is one of the physical symptoms of a magnesium deficiency. In humans, magnesium can suppress the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline and work at the blood-brain barrier to possibly prevent stress hormones from entering the brain.38
In addition to its important roles in bone, cardiovascular, brain, and nerve health and blood sugar regulation, magnesium has also shown promise in promoting healthy lung function39 40; relieving the pain associated with fibromyalgia41 relieving symptoms of premenstrual syndrome42 (specifically bloating, swelling, and breast tenderness) and relieving dysmenorrhea (painful menstrual cramps)43; and promoting healthy sleep.44
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.45
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 must 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 around 50% of Americans don’t get the bare minimum of magnesium each day.46 For most people, adding a magnesium supplement is the best way to ensure adequate intake of this vital mineral.
*Denotes a food that is high in phytates. Phytic acid is the storage form of phosphorus in many plants and phytate is phytic acid bound to a mineral, such as magnesium. When a mineral is bound up to phytic acid its absorption is limited. Because of this, phytate is sometimes referred to as an antinutrient. Healthy individuals eating a balanced diet, high in a variety of foods, need not be overly concerned with phytic acid. However, for those who rely heavily on grains, legumes, nuts and/or seeds for their minerals, phytates can be reduced to varying degrees by soaking, sprouting and fermenting these foods before eating. Phytic acid and phytates might not be all bad, as they also appear to have some benefits for human health.