Magnesium is one of those nutrients we don’t hear quite as a much about as we should. It’s never really been a media darling like protein, calcium or Vitamin B. Yet magnesium is an essential mineral found throughout our body, involved in hundreds of metabolic processes. In fact, every cell in our body contains this mineral and needs it to function. Our muscles need it to contract. Our nerves need it to send and receive messages. It keeps our heart beating steadily, our bones strong, and our immune system healthy. Without it, we couldn’t make protein or regulate blood sugar. Despite its importance, up to 68% of Americans don’t meet the recommended daily intake of magnesium.
From regulating blood sugar levels and energy production, supporting nerve and muscle function, to soothing migraines and depression, magnesium is essential to our daily health and wellness. One of its main roles is to act as a cofactor — a helper molecule — in the biochemical reactions continuously performed by enzymes. It’s the fourth most abundant mineral in our body, involved in more than 300 biochemical reactions in your body, including:
Energy creation: converting food into energy
Protein formation: creating new proteins from amino acids
Gene maintenance: helping create and repair DNA and RNA
Muscle movements: aiding in muscle contraction and relaxation
Nervous system regulation: regulating neurotransmitters which send messages throughout the brain and nervous system
Measuring magnesium levels in the body isn’t as simple as a blood test, because most of our body’s magnesium stores are housed in our bones (50-60 percent) with the rest found primarily in our muscles and soft tissues. Less than 1 percent of our total magnesium is present in blood serum. Based on dietary surveys of people in the United States, it is estimated that more than half of all American adults are consistently consuming less than the recommended level of magnesium and are likely deficient in the mineral.
As a mineral that seemingly “does-it-all,” magnesium is involved in a wide array of health conditions that many of us struggle with. Research results to-date indicate that our long term health and wellness depend on consuming sufficient magnesium. Some of magnesium’s most important benefits include:
Maintaining healthy brain function
Magnesium plays an important role in relaying signals between your brain and body. It acts as the gatekeeper for the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, which are found on your nerve cells and aid brain development, memory and learning. It prevents nerve cells from being overstimulated, which can kill them and potentially cause brain damage.
People with low blood levels of magnesium are more likely to have impaired insulin function, regardless of their weight or other lifestyle factors. Clinical studies have shown that supplementing with magnesium reduces insulin resistance and improves insulin sensitivity, making it is easier for cells to utilize insulin and normalize blood sugar levels.
Magnesium is crucial for maintaining bone health and protecting against bone loss. Low blood levels of magnesium lead to low blood calcium and resistance to some of the beneficial effects of vitamin D, all of which contribute to bone loss. Studies associate lower levels of this mineral with a higher risk of osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones to become brittle and weak. A 3-year study in 358 people undergoing hemodialysis — treatment to help remove waste and water from the blood — showed that those who consumed the least magnesium experienced 3 times more fractures than those with the highest intake. What’s more, one recent review of 12 studies linked high magnesium intake to increased bone mineral density in the hip and femoral neck, both areas that are susceptible to fracture. Magnesium plays a significant role in bone health and anyone with a family history ofosteopenia or osteoporosis should consider supplementing with extra magnesium along with calcium and vitamin D.
Magnesium plays an important role in the sleep-wake cycle and deficiency has been shown to cause restlessness and impact sleep quality. The relaxing effect of magnesium isn’t only physical. Magnesium also plays a role in our nervous systems and affects our emotions as well. Magnesium binds to a neurotransmitter called GABA, which is known to ‘put the brakes on the brain’ to calm our minds and halt anxiousness. Additionally, it plays a role in the release of our sleep hormone, melatonin, so a deficiency may cause difficulty sleeping or as disruption in our sleep-wake cycle. One review in older adults with insomnia found that magnesium supplements lowered the amount of time it took people to fall asleep by an average of 17 minutes. Another study in nearly 4,000 adults linked increased intake of this mineral to improvements in sleep quality and duraion.
Improving physical performance
During exercise, we need more magnesium than when you’re resting. Magnesium helps move blood sugar into your muscles and dispose of lactate, which can build up during exercise and cause fatigue. Studies show that magnesium supplements may be particularly beneficial for improving exercise performance and increased muscle mass in older adults.
Magnesium plays a critical role in brain function and mood, and low levels of the mineral are linked to an increased risk of depression. One clinical study of more than 8,800 people found that those under age 65 with the lowest magnesium intake had a 22% greater risk of depression.
Improving insulin function and blood sugar levels in Type 2 Diabetes
People with Type 2 Diabetes often have low magnesium levels, which may worsen the condition, as magnesium helps regulate insulin and moves sugar out of the blood and into the cells for storage. Preliminary studies show that magnesium may improve insulin sensitivity. Additionally, research indicates that people who consume more magnesium have a lower risk of Type 2 Diabetes. It is believed that magnesium supplements help enhance insulin sensitivity, a key factor involved in blood sugar control. The mineral allows insulin to be more responsive to the sugar in the bloodstream and ferry it into your cells more quickly.
Benefiting heart health
Magnesium plays an important role in keeping our heart healthy and strong. In fact, studies show that magnesium supplements can help lower high blood pressure levels, a risk factor for heart disease. Another review found that magnesium supplements improved multiple risk factors for heart disease, including triglycerides, LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, and systolic blood pressure levels, especially in people with a magnesium deficiency.
Magnesium is well known to help re-establish normal bowel movements. Indeed, many over-the-counter medications and supplements contain magnesium citrate or magnesium oxide, which act as laxatives. It does this by pulling water into the intestines, helping to soften and bulk bowel movements.
Boosting anti-inflammatory action
Low magnesium intake has been linked to increased levels of inflammation, which plays a key role in aging and chronic disease. One review of 11 studies concluded that magnesium supplements decreased levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation, in people with chronic inflammation.
Relieving headaches and migraines
Migraine headaches can be painful and often cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and noise. Some research has shown that people suffering from migraines are more likely than others to have a magnesium deficiency. In fact, several studies suggest that magnesium supplements may even prevent and provide relief from migraine headaches. Research indicates that consuming 600 mg of magnesium regularly in the diet may help prevent headaches
Reducing PMS symptoms
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) often causes symptoms such as water retention, abdominal cramps, tiredness, and irritability. Some research suggests that magnesium supplements help relieve PMS symptoms, as well as other conditions such as menstrual cramps and migraine attacks. This may be because magnesium levels fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle, and may worsen PMS symptoms in those who have a deficiency. As such, supplements may help reduce the severity of symptoms. One older study found that taking 250 mg of magnesium per day helped decrease bloating, depression, and anxiety in women with PMS compared with a control group.
Relieving muscle cramps
Known for its calming effect, magnesium works in conjunction with calcium in the muscles for contraction and relaxation of the muscle fibers, hence its ability to help melt away pain. It counteracts the contracting effects of calcium, so if someone is magnesium deficient, their muscles will not be able to fully relax. Because our bodies also tend to excrete magnesium more rapidly than calcium, our calcium and magnesium balance is often out of whack, leading to chronically tense muscles.
Maintaining a healthy heartbeat
Magnesium is important for maintaining a healthy heartbeat. It naturally competes with calcium, which is essential for generating heart contractions. When calcium enters your heart muscle cells, it stimulates the muscle fibers to contract. Magnesium counters this effect, helping these cells relax. This movement of calcium and magnesium across your heart cells maintains a healthy heartbeat. When your magnesium levels are low, calcium may overstimulate your heart muscle cells. One common symptom of this is a rapid and/or irregular heartbeat, which may be life-threatening.
Some research suggests that magnesium helps treat and prevent anxiety. One study of over 3,000 adults found increased magnesium intake with a lower risk of depression and anxiety. Other research suggests that magnesium deficiency may increase the body’s susceptibility to stress, which may amplify symptoms of anxiety. Magnesium can be beneficial in balancing the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA, which rely on magnesium for its receptors to function properly. GABA is a calming neurotransmitter, while glutamate is an excitatory one, and an imbalance can make you feel on edge and anxious.
The American diet is the primary reason we currently suffer from a magnesium deficiency. Although the mineral is found in abundance in vegetables — especially dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and collard greens — 90 percent of adults aren't eating enough produce, according to the CDC. Whole grains and beans are other top sources, but many people also consume too few of those healthy foods. Active people need to be especially vigilant about their magnesium intake — the mineral is lost through sweat, so if you perspire a lot during exercise, your body may require more.
Stress also depletes our magnesium stores: it typically lives inside cells in the body, but when anxiety strikes, it migrates outside cells as a protective mechanism to help you cope. During fraught times — whether you're feeling overwhelmed with work deadlines or there's a physical stressor such as getting your period — the body excretes magnesium in response. And to make matters worse, some things you might do to help deal with the tension, such as drinking extra coffee to stay energized or several glasses of wine to relax, also impair levels of the mineral. Too much caffeine and alcohol can deplete magnesium in our bodies.
Magnesium deficiency can be hard to pinpoint, since symptoms are also common indicators of a wide array of other illnesses and ailments. Fatigue is one of the first signs of magnesium deficiency. Other early-stage symptoms include weak or stiff muscles, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting or muscle spasms. Without supplementation, a magnesium deficiency can lead to more serious symptoms like abnormal heart rhythms, seizures, changes in personality and tingling or numbness. But there can also be hyperexcitability and/or shaking. Long term, a magnesium deficiency can affect brain function and mood (especially the incidence of depression), bone density and nerve and muscle function.
Natural sources of magnesium
Magnesium is naturally present in many foods, added to other fortified food products, available as a dietary supplement, and even present in some medicines (such as antacids and laxatives). Green leafy vegetables, legumes, bananas and whole grains are all excellent natural sources of the mineral. Nuts such as cashews, almond and hazelnuts, as well as pumpkin or chia seeds, are also good sources of magnesium. Indeed, just one ounce of almonds contains 20% of the daily magnesium an adult needs. Importantly, some types of food processing, such as refining grains in ways that remove the nutrient-rich germ and bran, lower magnesium content substantially.
Ideally, we should all aim to get the magnesium we need via our diet. The following are among the highest, magnesium-rich foods:
Pumpkin Seeds 168 mg per ounce
Almonds 80 mg per ounce dry roasted
Cashews 74 mg per ounce dry roasted
Peanuts 63 mg per ounce oil roasted
Spinach 78 mg per ½ cup boiled
Black Beans 60 mg per ½ cup cooked
Edamame 50 mg per ½ cup cooked
Dark Chocolate 50 mg per ounce serving of 60–69 percent cocoa
Whole-Wheat Bread 46 mg per 2 slices
Avocados 44 mg per cubed cup
Optimizing our diet by eating magnesium-rich foods is the best way to get that nutrient. If you are interested in taking a supplement, work with your healthcare provider so they can consider your specific health concerns and recommend the best type and amount for you. If you are supplementing, choose one from a reputable company that has stringent standards for quality and efficacy.
Magnesium is a mineral involved in hundreds of cellular reactions. It’s important for making DNA and relaying signals between your brain and body. Magnesium is essential for maintaining good health and plays a key role in everything from exercise performance to heart health and brain function. Getting enough is vital to our health.