Supplements and vitamins and minerals, oh my! Supplements often play a role in this quest for health, but are they necessary? There is much understandable uncertainty when it comes to supplements. Let’s address one in particular that has been getting a lot of press in recent years – the mineral Magnesium.
Minerals are inorganic compounds that our bodies need to function properly. We don’t make them ourselves, so we have to get them through our diets. Magnesium is an essential mineral that is involved in more than 300 enzymatic reactions in the body. It is necessary for energy production and plays a critical role in processes such as muscle contraction, nerve impulses, maintaining a normal heart rhythm, control of blood sugar, and regulation of blood pressure. Our kidneys control the balance of magnesium and determine how much to hold on to and how much to excrete.
Food sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of magnesium is 320 mg for women and 420 mg for men. It is estimated, though, that more than 50% of Americans do not get enough magnesium each day. Those at greatest risk for magnesium deficiency are individuals with alcoholism, diabetes, gastrointestinal disease such as Crohn’s Disease, and the elderly, but mild deficiency is likely common in the general population.
Severe magnesium deficiency can present with seizures, cardiac arrhythmia, or muscle spasticity. Symptoms from mild deficiency are more subtle. Because magnesium is involved in so many processes in the body, the symptoms of deficiency are vast, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia, headache, muscle cramps, gastrointestinal complaints, insulin resistance, heart palpitations, or abnormal nerve sensations. These symptoms are nonspecific and could be due to more than just magnesium insufficiency. It has been suggested, however, that consistently low magnesium may increase the risk of illness over time. Magnesium deficiency has been linked to medical problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, migraines, asthma, depression, and osteoporosis.
It is not always a simple task to get enough micronutrients through our diets alone. Because of changes in our agricultural system, the micronutrient content of food has declined over the years. The refining of grains removes the bulk of the magnesium content from these foods. People who eat a low carbohydrate diet are at risk for inadequate magnesium intake based on the foods they choose to exclude. Protein is useful for magnesium absorption, so if you are not getting enough protein in your daily diet you may not be absorbing enough magnesium. Medications affect the absorption of magnesium, too. Proton pump inhibitors, for example, prescribed for heartburn decrease the absorption of minerals such as magnesium.
Unfortunately, there is no reliable test for your magnesium status. Most of the magnesium in the body is stored in the bone and soft tissue, so a routine blood test for magnesium does not give an accurate representation of total body stores. Serum magnesium testing is often normal in people who have a mild to moderate deficiency.
So, how do you know if you need more magnesium? Start by ensuring that you are getting the Recommended Daily Allowance of this mineral in your diet. If not, increase your intake of magnesium-rich foods. If there are medical reasons why you may have a magnesium deficiency, such as diabetes or inflammatory bowel disease, address this with your doctor. The additional supplementation of magnesium may be useful in some scenarios. Research has shown that magnesium supplementation may increase the effectiveness of blood pressure medication, decrease the recurrence of kidney stones, prevent migraine headaches, manage the symptoms of asthma, increase bone density, promote better sleep, and relax muscles. Optimizing magnesium status appears to decrease cardiovascular risk and help to maintain a healthy blood sugar level. Magnesium is a calming mineral that may ease anxiety, irritability, and depression.
Talk with your doctor before starting a magnesium supplement and be aware that magnesium supplementation can interfere with the absorption of some medications if taken together. The upper limit suggested for daily magnesium supplementation is 350 mg, primarily because higher doses are likely to cause diarrhea. Magnesium can be obtained easily over the counter in a number of forms. Magnesium oxide is the least expensive but also less bioavailable and the most likely to cause gastrointestinal effects. Magnesium glycinate and malate are examples of more absorbable forms of magnesium that are also gentler on the stomach. Magnesium can be used topically in the form of epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) baths or magnesium gels and lotions, often used for muscle relaxation. Because magnesium is excreted through the kidney, those with kidney disease should not supplement with magnesium without the specific recommendation and oversight of their physician.
Nutrition should be the primary focus of vitamin and mineral intake in general. Supplementation of minerals such as magnesium may be useful in some individuals. Magnesium is an essential mineral involved in numerous processes in the body; therefore, optimizing our intake and body stores is certainly important in our quest for health.