By Dr Will Cole - Functional Medicine Expert/Consultant
Your body is a breathtaking symphony of intricate biochemical pathways working in harmony every second of your life. We often take for granted the many facets which make up our bodies and how these simple elements and chemical reactions compose our very being. One small component of our body’s composition is magnesium. Magnesium, along with calcium, potassium, chloride, and sodium are all electrolytes, needed for our brain, nerves, heart, eyes, immune system, and muscles to function.
We function best when magnesium in our body is at its optimal level. When we are lacking in this mineral our perfect symphony is out of tune, and this disharmony leads us down a path to health problems.
One of the most overlooked nutrient deficiencies that I find as a functional medicine practitioner is magnesium deficiency.
As the fourth most abundant mineralOpens in a new window (1) in your body, magnesium is crucial to accomplishing at least 300 important biochemical reactions. If you are magnesium deficient (like 50 to 90 percent of us are)Opens in a new window, (2) you are most likely experiencing some symptoms.
Why are so many lacking in magnesium? There are four primary reasons:
- Poor nutrition
- Medications that deplete magnesium (such as antibiotics and diuretics)
- Soil depletion
- Chronic gut problems (e.g., leaky gut syndrome), which can compromise magnesium absorptionOpens in a new window
The above reasons are common and are major contributors to the population being so deficient as a whole, but they do not always lead to a deficiency in magnesium. The following list contains common health issues that are tied to magnesium deficiency.
Signs of Magnesium Deficiency
Studies suggest thatOpens in a new window (3) that kids who took 200 milligrams of magnesium daily over six months saw a significant decrease in hyperactivity symptoms compared to children in the study who did not supplement with magnesium.
2. Adrenal fatigue
I have personally dealt with adrenal fatigueOpens in a new window in the past, and I can vouch for magnesium’s role in calming stress levels and rehabilitating hormonal systems. Magnesium helps to regulate cortisol levels, allowing for more balanced hormone production which is essential in our fast paced culture.
3. Depression or anxiety
Magnesium works in the brain to calm down the excitatory NMDA receptor. Without it, calcium and glutamate activate NMDA unchecked, which can lead to depression and anxietyOpens in a new window. (4)
Researchers are suggesting that those who do not include enough magnesium-rich foods in their diet have a higher rate of asthma. One reason could be that magnesium may facilitate healthy bronchodilationOpens in a new window. (5)
5. Chronic fatigue syndrome
In a study published in the prominent medical journal LancetOpens in a new window, (6) researchers found that about fifty percent of the hundreds of participants with chronic fatigue syndrome were magnesium deficient. These participants saw an improvement of symptoms when they received injections of a 580 milligram supplement.
6. High blood pressure
Studies also suggest that those using a magnesium supplement lowered their blood pressure levels by up to 12 pointsOpens in a new window. (7)
7. Heart problems
Every 43 seconds someone experiences a heart attack. A study publishedOpens in a new window (8) in the American Journal of Cardiology found that a lower level of magnesium intake increased the risk of coronary heart disease by 50 to 80 percent. In a separate double-blind, placebo-controlled studyOpens in a new window, (9) participants received either magnesium or a placebo for a period of one year. Over the course of one month, the magnesium group received 6,000 milligrams of magnesium orotate, and 3,000 milligrams of magnesium orotate for another 11 months after. The survival rate of these high risk patients was 76 percent in the magnesium group compared with 52 percent of the placebo group.
Inflammation underlies just about every chronic health conditionOpens in a new window. Magnesium is indicated in decreased CRPOpens in a new window (10) and Nf-kbOpens in a new window, (11) two inflammatory blood lab markers.
9. Migraines and other types of headaches
Half of people in the United States report having a least one headache per month. Millions of others are struck with painful migraines. It is estimated that about half of those who suffer from migraines are magnesium deficientOpens in a new window. (12) Researchers looked into this, and found that 60 percent of chronic migraines sufferers have genetic changes that decrease their body’s ability to metabolize magnesium. Magnesium relaxes blood vessels in the brain. Ionized magnesium administered through an IV significantly reduced pain within 15 minutes in more than 80 percent of patients.
10. Insulin resistance
A massive health concern for so many, half of the US population has some kind of insulin resistance which runs the gamut from metabolic syndrome to type 2 diabetes. A 15 year research study published in the medical journal Circulation showedOpens in a new window (13) that among approximately 5,000 people those who took higher levels of magnesium had a decreased risk of metabolic syndrome. A similar study publishedOpens in a new window (14) in the American Journal of Epidemiology followed more than 1,000 healthy adults for five years. This study suggests that greater magnesium intake improved insulin sensitivity in these individuals. Other studies suggest that magnesium also improves triglyceridesOpens in a new window, (15) another marker of metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
11. Low thyroid hormone levels
Magnesium deficiency is often an overlooked factor when it comes to those dealing with thyroid problemsOpens in a new window. Magnesium is an essential component to the production of thyroid hormonesOpens in a new window. (16)
12. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
People who have OCD were found in studies to have lower levels of magnesiumOpens in a new window (17) compared to individuals in control groups.
13. Muscle cramps and spasms
Spontaneous spasms, cramps in your muscles or “charley horses” are not really random —they are the most common sign of magnesium deficiencyOpens in a new window. (18)
14. Premature aging
The death of human endothelial cells and fibroblasts at a rapid pace contributes to early aging and age-related diseasesOpens in a new window. (19) Being deficient in magnesium is indicated in the acceleration of these processes.
15. Poor memory
Research done at MIT found that magnesium is key in regulating brain receptors that are necessary to learning and memory function, and that supplementing with magnesium helped clear so-called brain fogOpens in a new window. (20) Magnesium also supports the brain’s lifelong function of adapting, healing and adding new neural pathways. Getting enough magnesium may lead to slowed down and reversal of cognitive decline.
16. Skin health
A study in Poland showed that those with skin allergies saw substantial improvements in their skin with magnesium supplementationOpens in a new window. (21)
17. Sleep trouble
Research has foundOpens in a new window (22) that magnesium supplementation helped improve all the major physiological markers associated with insomnia. For instance a neurotransmitter, GABA is key in the body’s regulation of it’s sleep system, and GABA receptors in the brain need magnesium to function properly.
18. Weak bones
In two studies published in the American Journal of Clinical NutritionOpens in a new window (23) a strong correlation between magnesium deficiency and low bone density was found. Low bone density increases one’s risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
When supplemental magnesium (300 mg) was taken for one year by participants in a randomized controlled study bone mineral contentOpens in a new window (24) increased.
Since it is difficult to get adequate magnesium through diet alone, supplementation can still be important, especially when trying correct deficiencies.
The same rules apply for magnesium supplements when choosing which one you should take. You’ll want to ensure that the brand you choose is transparent with where it sources its ingredients from and what their manufacturing procedures are. It also needs to be free from additional fillers and ingredients that could also contribute to symptoms.
You also want to take your starting levels into account to determine how much magnesium you need to be taking. Consider working with a functional medicine practitioner who can test your magnesium levels with advanced nutrient labs. Since the majority of your body’s magnesium is stored in your cells and bones, not your blood, this often contributes to the inaccuracy of conventional nutrient labs.
Overall, magnesium is safe to take, but large amounts could potentially cause GI upset and diarrhea. Go off your doctor’s recommendations or start at a lower dose and listen to your body and gradually increase your amount over time. It is important to check your levels every few months to assess how you are improving to determine what you need to do about dosing. But for healthy individuals the daily recommended amountsOpens in a new window (1) are:
- Infants to 6 months: 30 mg
- 7 to 12 months: 75 mg
- 1 to 3 years: 80 mg
- 4 to 8 years: 130 mg
- 9 to 13 years: 240 mg
- 14 to 18 years: 360 mg for women; 410 mg for men
- 19 to 30 years: 310 mg for women; 400 for men
- 31+: 320 mg for women; 420 mg for men
- During pregnancy: 350 to 360 mg
- While breastfeeding: 310 to 320 mg
There is no “right” time to take magnesium. However, due to it’s calming effects, taking it right before bed can be the best way to capitalize on its ability to boost GABA levels and relax muscles. Magnesium can be found in multiple different forms, so you’ll want to consider this when deciding which one will work best for your specific symptoms.
Since there are multiple different forms, I formulated a magnesium complex that comebines 4 different forms to create a well-rounded and bioavailable option. The MagnesiumOpens in a new window combines Albion chelated magnesium with Magtein ™ (magnesium L-threonate) which boosts the brain’s magnesium levels necessary for healthy cognition, long- and short-term memory, learning, and stress management.
This form is extremely bioavailable and is found in magnesium containing food sources.
This is most commonly used in supplements. Research showsOpens in a new window (25) it only has a 4 percent absorption rate so if you are struggling with absorption issues this is probably not your best option. This low bioavailability gives it an intensive laxative effect that makes it a good constipation remedy.
Magnesium is combined with citric acid to make this from. At 16 percent, it has a higher absorption rate than magnesium oxide, but also makes a great choice for relieving constipation.
Since this form can pass the mitochondrial membrane, research is supporting its ability as a powerful neurological support and a good option for those with depression, anxiety, or brain fog. However, this form is not as readily available.
This is a whole new way to boost your magnesium levels. Instead of ingesting it, magnesium oil is placed directly on the skin. This makes it one of the best options for people with gut dysfunctions that limit absorption. Since it also soothes the muscles in your digestive tract, rubbing magnesium oil on your abdomen can combat an upset stomach.
Another way to get in magnesium is by soaking in epsom salts or magnesium flakes. One study showed that after 12 weeks of topical magnesium therapy – soaks and oils – magnesium increased by 25 percent in participants! No wonder soaking in magnesium is so relaxing – your muscles will be relaxed and you’ll be ready to head directly to bed.
Foods to focus on
There are many foods, mostly plant-based, that contain magnesium. This makes it an easy nutrient for most anyone to obtain through diet. Some of the best food sources include:
- Spinach, 1 cup: 157 mg
- Swiss chard, 1 cup: 154 mg
- Dark chocolate, 1 square: 95 mg
- Pumpkin seeds, ⅛ cup: 92 mg
- Almonds, 1 ounce: 80 mg
- Black beans, ½ cup: 60 mg
- Avocado, 1 medium: 58 mg
- Salmon, 1 fillet: 53 mg
- Kefir, 1 cup: 50 mg
- Figs, ½ cup: 50 mg
- Banana, 1 medium: 32 mg
If you have indications of magnesium deficiency it is wise to check in with your doctor to have your magnesium levels tested. Because the standard nutrient labs are not always accurate, I recommend advanced nutrient labs (a functional medicine practitioner can help you with this) to assess your magnesium level.
As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultationsOpens in a new window for people around the globe.