Magnesium is the mineral that deserves to be better appreciated. It plays a role in no less than 300 (and thought to be more now) intermediary enzymatic reactions in the human body. Muscles contain around 27 % magnesium and bones around 60 %. It is involved in the vital undertaking of countless on-going and necessary biochemical reactions – many more than other better known or ‘fashionable’ nutrients.
Not a clinical day goes by without me taking the time to educate clients on its necessity for good health and how we can get more into our daily nourishing nutritional regimes. I see it as a foundational nutrient, with which to build a firm structure with. Despite its ‘senior’ position in the world of nutrients, over the years in practice, I have frequently spent time reconciling the gap between how much we need it; and how little we know about it or value it. Thankfully, as time has gone on I am asked more and more about the benefits of magnesium before I have to initiate the subject but still not as often enough as people ask about zinc or B vitamins.
Magnesium is known amongst nutrition professionals as the energy provider. Magnesium contributes to a reduction of tiredness and fatigue and this is because magnesium plays a significant role in the production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) – an energy-bearing molecule. Therefore if you commonly experience lethargy and tiredness, magnesium, amongst other nutrients, should be focused on.
It is also affectionately referred to as ‘nature’s tranquiliser’ – because of its ability to induce a relaxing effect in the body. It regulates the flow of sodium, potassium and calcium in and out of our cells, which makes it important for nerve transmission, and muscle contraction and relaxation. In particular, it helps to regulate the flow of calcium into muscle cells: calcium ions flowing into the cells contract the muscle fibres, but magnesium allows the muscles to relax and thereby is required for normal muscle function. For those who experience stiffness, muscle cramps and ‘twitchy’ restless legs – make sure that you boost magnesium in your daily diet.
So, it has the uncanny capacity to energise us and unwind or ‘soothe’ us if we need it. Magnesium is not just for evening time, so eating magnesium rich foods during the day is necessary too. You will not experience a ‘drowsy’ effect because magnesium is clever enough to juggle between differentiating roles for day and night. For some, it may be helpful for a peaceful decent into the land of nod, if extra is supplemented in the evening. Personally, I also never fly long haul without magnesium as I find it helps to support the unwelcomed disruption of sleep patterns.
It also provides the fuel for the normal function of the nervous system and is involved with neurotransmitter metabolism. Feeling frequently tense, ‘nervy’ or ‘frazzled’ are all symptoms I look for in clients when assessing magnesium status. Magnesium is required for normal psychological function; indeed because of its involvement with our brain function but also that newer and developing research has shown that low levels are found in depressed patients. Magnesium could be called a ‘brain mineral’ because of its relationship with neurotransmitters (brain chemicals that communicate information) but also because research has shown magnesium to have an anti-inflammatory effect. The newest research into depression has highlighted that depressed patients may experience inflammation in the brain.
Magnesium plays a role in the cellular uptake of glucose by insulin and thereby magnesium rich foods enable us to support blood sugar balancing.
If you regularly exercise or play a sport; because magnesium plays a role in restoring electrolyte balance (electrolytes may be lost through exercise and sweating), it should be deemed just as important as essential fats like fish oil, to support recovery from training.
Magnesium is also required for the maintenance of normal bones. If you are supplementing calcium for your bones, you must also take magnesium. Calcium cannot act alone.
In many cases, for many women, they may not be.
From age 50+ your ‘Reference Nutrient Intake’ is 300mg. That’s actually quite a bit of magnesium. If you don’t eat sufficient amounts of vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans and lentils), nuts, seeds and seafood – then your levels may suffer. As good levels may be found in meat and fish, if you avoid those specific foods, you will need to make an extra effort to include what you can eat. But that’s not the only reason magnesium may be low. Not only may your diet be lacking, but ‘good’ levels may be harder to achieve even when eating magnesium rich foods. There is plenty of research to support the general lack of required minerals in today’s soil – just look into another mineral called selenium if you are interested. Further, because magnesium is so commonly necessitated for systematic bodily functions; playing a pivotal role in organs, systems or mechanisms in the body – levels may become ‘taxed’ and ‘exhausted’ by modern day living. The lives we lead (more sugar, more starchy carbohydrates, more stimulants e.g. caffeine, less sleep, more stress and worry, not getting our ‘5 a day’, poorer nutritionally dense food, less active, digestive ups and downs) could mean our levels may be in question.
If magnesium were like gold bars in the vaults of a Swiss bank; you would want to make sure those gold bars were continually replenished by a local gold mine. It’s the ‘nutritional’ account you draw upon when mental and physical resources are compromised. Through research, magnesium has been understood to act upon the hormonal axis that is part of our response to stress. It’s the mineral for busy-bees and those who feel the negative effects of work, personal and social strains.
During the peri and post-menopausal years, some women may become especially tired. Magnesium is also involved in hormone receptor binding making it a crucial female mineral. Osteoporosis, osteopenia and osteoarthritis are all a risk factor for menopausal women. If you already have those conditions; magnesium is a major player in bone health so should be just as important as calcium and vitamin D. Since the newest research tells us that magnesium plays a great role in inflammation balancing and acts as an anti-inflammatory – those experiencing stiffness or arthritic type symptoms should be investing in their magnesium bank account. Blood pressure may increase in peri-menopause or menopausal women (it’s complicated but partly due to lowered levels of the female hormone oestrogen which has a relaxing effect) so magnesium may assist with supporting the heart muscle. In fact, magnesium plays a major role in regulating vasoconstriction (the constriction of blood vessels, which increases blood pressure). But for all the reasons covered in this article, good magnesium levels are vital from the cradle to the grave.
Because it’s also not something that your normal GP will be looking out for or indeed, will be testing for, magnesium deficiency is not something so widely accepted. This is not due to lack of good care by your friendly GP, but more that research has to catch up with many areas of medicine and public awareness. Magnesium testing is not reliable, as a very small amount (around less than 1 %) is found in serum and red blood cells. I almost never check levels in contrast to other nutrients like folate (folic acid) or ferritin (stored iron). Instead, I am looking for symptoms such as restless legs, sleep issues, muscle switches, possible compromised adrenal gland health, low moods, headaches, nervous tension or heart palpitations (that have otherwise been deemed ‘no-risk’ after a proper medical assessment) and the list is endless. Reaching an educated decision that someone may be low should be based on their whole health picture and by examining a client’s food diary (but do not always jump to swift conclusions).
If you use food-state versions of magnesium; the dose does not need to be as high when using synthetic brands (and there is research to back this up to). To give you an idea – around 80 to 100mg of magnesium in food state may be the equivalent of around 300-400mg of synthetic magnesium. Some people may find their bowel movements become loose or increase from supplementation but this is more likely to occur from using synthetic forms, especially citrate or taurate products. It can be safely used with quite a few common medications, but always seek the advice of a professional in that situation. My magnesium enriching programmes include nourishing foods and if necessary for that person, food-state supplemented magnesium.
If you have daughter of child bearing age, encourage them to increase magnesium foods for menstrual support and indeed, as part of a fertility programme under the supervision of a nutritional practitioner. Those with kidney disease or serious kidney conditions should check with their doctor before supplementing. Alcohol if drunk excessively over time may cause serious depletion of this nutrient. Supplements are never a replacement for a balanced diet.
About Lorna Driver-Davies
Lorna Driver-Davies is available for private nutritional therapy consultations, with a special interest in women’s health and hormones, thyroid and adrenal gland conditions, gut health and healthy cleansing. She practices in London at Grace Belgravia Medical Clinic, in Brighton and remotely (for UK and international clients). For more information visit Feel Better Nutrition