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Magnesium – The Master Mineral

by Emma Rushe(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 263 - June 2020

Acknowledgment Citation

Reproduced with permission from Issue 6 of Walnut Magazine

 

Magnesium, the seventh most abundant mineral in the earth’s crust, was first recognised as an element by Joseph Black in 1755, and isolated by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1808. The human body contains around 25g of magnesium, with 90% being contained in the muscles and bones. It is widely thought to be the most important mineral in the body, acting as an essential co-factor for many hundreds of enzyme reactions and physiological processes, including the generation of energy in our cells, the metabolism of protein, carbohydrates and fats, detoxification, blood sugar control, the strength of our bones, and the efficient functioning of our nervous, cognitive and cardiovascular systems.

Despite our need for magnesium, a significant portion of the population is magnesium deficient; in fact magnesium deficiency is considered to be the most common nutrient deficiency in the western world today, with much of the population failing to meet even the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) from food, a situation made all the more alarming by the fact that the RDA level may only prevent frank magnesium depletion rather than promoting optimal health.

 

Magnesium

Image by Seb Westcott reproduced with permission from Issue 6 of Walnut Magazine

 

Why have we Become Deficient in Magnesium?

Our requirement for magnesium is clear, but in our modern world it must compete with many factors that reduce our magnesium intake or deplete our reserves, such as reduced soil levels, the popularity of magnesium-devoid processed foods, alcohol intake, gut dysfunction, prescription medications and stressful lifestyles.

When considering the problem of magnesium deficiency, it’s best to start with how our food is grown, or more specifically, the depletion of previously mineral-rich soil by modern farming methods, such as intensive ploughing, the repetitive overuse of soil without rotating crops or allowing for recovery between harvests, as well the use of chemical sprays that disrupt the natural balance of the soil including the microorganisms that should reside there. Plant and cereal crops draw minerals from the soil they are grown in, and so mineral depleted soil naturally leads to mineral depleted food. A recent review-based research study backs this up, showing pronounced declines in the magnesium concentration of cereal crops over the past few decades. Many people who take care with their diet and eat plenty of fresh, plant foods may still not be getting enough if they are choosing produce grown using large-scale, conventional farming methods that don’t prioritize the health of the soil, as is often the case with mainstream fresh foods found in supermarkets. While research is limited, organic food has been found to contain higher levels of magnesium, with organic and locally grown food faring better still, so it’s worth seeking out a local vegetable box scheme or farmer’s market when sourcing fresh food. Our ever-increasing reliance on convenience and processed foods can reduce our intake of magnesium too, because these packaged goods are generally devoid of the nutrients present in real, fresh food, making it all too easy to fall short of even the advised RDA, let alone optimal intake. Additionally, consumption of sugar, tea, coffee and soft drinks may further add to the problem by reducing our body stores of magnesium.

Lifestyle factors that tend to dominate our western world also play a part in depleting our magnesium reserves, especially stress and excess alcohol intake. Research has found that alcohol intake, mental and physical stress promotes the elimination of magnesium from the body through the urine. In fact, a two-way relationship exists between magnesium and stress, with depleted magnesium levels making it harder for our systems to cope with stress, because magnesium is needed for many of the physiological changes that occur during the stress response, such as increased heart rate, muscle function and blood sugar level.

And finally, some of the most commonly prescribed medication, such as diuretics, the contraceptive pill, stomach acid suppressants and tetracycline antibiotics, deplete magnesium. Interestingly, even vitamin D can negatively impact magnesium levels, especially taken in the high doses recommended by many experts, because magnesium is needed to convert the storage form of vitamin D into the active form.

What are the Benefits of Getting more Magnesium?

Magnesium is involved in just about every bodily process and achieving optimal intake through diet and, if needed, supplements, can benefit health in more ways than can be covered in this article. Over the years, however, research has highlighted its efficacy in certain key areas of health.

Bone density and risk of osteoporosis have repeatedly been linked to magnesium intake. In fact, magnesium is every bit as important for bone health as calcium, with research finding that lower magnesium intake is associated with lower bone mineral density of the hip and whole body and an increased risk of fractures, with a magnesium consumption slightly greater than the Recommended Dietary Allowance being associated with increased lower-arm and wrist fractures.

High blood pressure has been shown to be favourably altered by increasing magnesium intake, because magnesium helps to prevent blood vessels from constricting, improving blood flow.

A large meta-analysis study looked at numerous research papers totalling over 2000 participants, and found that magnesium supplements reduced both systolic and diastolic readings in adults with high blood pressure. This suggests an anti-hypertensive effect of magnesium, although the researchers did note that the anti-hypertensive effect of magnesium might be most effective in those with magnesium deficiency. Magnesium is useful for improving cardiovascular health in general, including helping in the prevention of atherosclerosis, as well as treating numerous types of arrhythmia such as tachycardia and atrial fibrillation, thanks to its diverse electrophysiological action on the conduction system of the heart.

 

Magnesium 3

Image by Seb Westcott reproduced with permission from Issue 6 of Walnut Magazine

 

Magnesium has also been found to be helpful for those suffering with insomnia, defined as a difficulty falling asleep, broken sleep, or early morning waking. In one study, magnesium supplementation improved not only subjective measures of insomnia in elderly people, such as falling asleep faster and spending more time asleep whilst in bed, but also favourably altered serum concentrations of the sleep hormone melatonin and the stress hormone, cortisol. An additional factor that appears to be improved by magnesium and can interfere with sleep, is restless leg syndrome (RLS), with multiple research papers linking magnesium deficiency with an increased likelihood of the condition occurring.

Another area of health that has received attention concerning magnesium is Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS), characterised by mood swings, bloating, water retention, tender breasts, food cravings, digestive discomfort and headaches in the weeks leading up to menstruation. Magnesium levels have been shown to decline in the two weeks prior to menstruation, so its unsurprising that numerous studies have found magnesium to be beneficial for PMS, with a study in 2010 demonstrating that magnesium supplementation led to a marked reduction in perceived PMS symptoms, and even better results were noted when magnesium was taken alongside vitamin B6. Magnesium may be effective at reducing PMS thanks to its ability to relax smooth muscle, normalise cortisol (stress) levels, as well as its role in the healthy functioning of the nervous system and the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter we associate with happiness.

Migraine headaches can also be a feature of PMS, although they can also indicate a magnesium deficiency in their own right, independent of hormonal fluctuations. Studies have found that up to 50% of patients during an acute migraine attack have lowered levels of ionized magnesium, and that magnesium deficiency can influence major elements of migraine development, including cortical spreading depression, neurotransmitter release, and the hyper-aggregation of platelets. Restoring optimal magnesium levels may be helpful in preventing or reducing incidence of migraine attacks, and it may also be effective as an acute treatment option during a migraine headache.

The effect of magnesium on blood sugar balance is an area that has sparked much interest, with rates of type 2 diabetes and other blood sugar irregularities soaring in recent decades. Low magnesium levels have been found to occur at an increased frequency among patients suffering from type 2 diabetes and research has consistently shown that restoring magnesium levels improves insulin sensitivity, impacting favourably glucose parameters and metabolic control in people with type 2 diabetes, as well as those at high risk of developing the condition.

Optimal magnesium levels can also benefit exercise performance, because magnesium plays an important role in optimal muscle contraction, skeletal strength and energy production, helping to sustain the high oxygen consumption necessary for athletic performance. Magnesium depletion during exercise can lead to tiredness and muscle fatigue as the body is forced to produce energy anaerobically, an inefficient process that promotes the build up of lactic acid. Magnesium also helps muscle recovery after exercise by enabling muscles to relax, reducing likelihood of post-exercise muscle soreness and cramping.

How do you Know if you are Magnesium Deficient?

You can get a good idea of your likelihood of being magnesium deficient firstly by looking at your diet and lifestyle, and by asking yourself a few questions. For example, do you eat processed foods regularly, and enjoy plenty of tea, coffee and sugary foods and drinks? Do you eat non-organic fresh foods and cereal grains grown using large-scale, conventional farming methods? Are you stressed regularly, and is your stress unresolved/chronic? How many alcoholic drinks do you consume each week? And do you take part in regular exercise of moderate to high intensity? Do you take prescribed medication such as the contraceptive pill or stomach acid suppressants, or do you use high dose vitamin D to keep your levels within the optimal range? Answering yes to some of these questions may make you more vulnerable to magnesium deficiency, simply because you’re not getting enough through your diet, and you may be depleting your magnesium stores because of diet and lifestyle choices. There are also a host of tell-tale signs and symptoms linked to magnesium deficiency, many of which are common complaints experienced by many people of all ages.

  • Constipation
  • Asthma
  • Muscle cramps and pain, including period pain
  • PMS
  • Restless legs
  • Joint stiffness, including chronic back and neck pain
  • Fatigue, lethargy and apathy
  • Nausea and indigestion
  • Insomnia, both difficulty falling asleep and waking in the night
  • Anxiety and mood disorders
  • Brain fog and memory problems
  • Blood sugar problems, including diabetes
  • High blood pressure and heart disease
  • Irregular and racing heartbeat
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Headache and migraine
  • Poor bone density

 

Magnesium 2

Image by Seb Westcott reproduced with permission from Issue 6 of Walnut Magazine

 

How do you Increase your Magnesium Levels?

Looking at lifestyle factors first, it’s crucial to reduce and actively manage stress levels and reduce alcohol intake if necessary, to prevent the excretion of magnesium and reduction of body stores. In terms of magnesium intake, when addressing any nutritional shortfall it’s important to look at food first. Generally, nutrients are better absorbed and tolerated when taken in their most natural food form. Nature’s wisdom wins every time over man made replicas, because within each (natural) food is a range of phytonutrients, many of which are still undiscovered, that work synergistically to promote absorption and efficient utilisation by the body. By choosing wisely, you can boost your intake of magnesium and make a huge difference to your health.  The following foods provide a good source of magnesium:

  • Leafy greens like kale, chard and spinach;
  • Nuts and seeds, especially hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, peanut butter, almonds and cashew nuts;
  • Figs;
  • Beans and pulses;
  • Avocados;
  • Oats, buckwheat and brown rice;
  • Bananas;
  • Cocoa powder / dark chocolate;
  • Blackstrap molasses;
  • Yoghurt and kefir.

Depending on your diet, your health concerns and goals, you may consider taking a supplement to boost your levels of magnesium, but check with your GP or a qualified nutritional therapist first if you have any health concerns, because high doses of magnesium from supplements can cause side effects like gastrointestinal upset or interact with some types of medication, such as anti-hypertensive drugs for high blood pressure. Magnesium also comes in many forms making this mineral very versatile, however some forms are better absorbed than others or more suited to particular health concerns. Depending on your needs, you could choose between the following well-absorbed forms:

  • Magnesium citrate – helpful for those who are constipated, as it has a mild laxative effect. Ideal in the evening before bed;
  • Magnesium malate – great for those suffering with muscle pain, including fibromyalgia. Boosts energy, so it may be best taken in the morning;
  • Magnesium glycinate – very gentle on the digestive system. It is ideal before bed because the presence of glycine has a calming effect and may reduce anxiety;
  • Magnesium threonate – potentially helpful for cognitive health, including memory and learning.
  • Ionic magnesium chloride liquid (containing nano- or pico-meter sized particles) – gentle on the digestive system and superior absorption;
  • Magnesium spray – used topically, absorbed through the skin therefore bypassing the digestive system, which can be beneficial for those with compromised digestive function. Can be used directly on sore muscles after exercise;
  • Epsom salts or magnesium flakes – can be added to a bath to promote magnesium absorption through the skin. Especially beneficial for detoxification, relaxation and after strenuous exercise.

It’s clear to see that attaining and maintaining optimal magnesium levels through considered diet and lifestyle choices, and supplements where necessary, is likely to benefit overall health and may favourably impact both an everyday sense of wellbeing as well as more specific health conditions. Look out for part two of this series about vitamin B12 in the next issue of Walnut.

References Available on Request

Acknowledgment Citation

Reproduced with permission from Issue 6 of Walnut Magazine

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About Emma Rushe

Emma Rushe BSc Nutr Med  EEM-CP is an experienced natural health practitioner, writer and recipe creator with a love of good food and a passion for helping people achieve vibrant health. Emma also co-founded the successful independent health magazine, Walnut, which she publishes with her husband.

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