This essential mineral is crucial to healthy bones. Plus it can help with leg cramps, anxiety, high blood pressure, migraines headaches, and constipation, too.
Magnesium is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the modern industrialized diet. Notice I didn’t say “Western” diet. No matter what your native food culture, as soon as you start moving away from fresh and whole foods, and towards refined food products, the magnesium-rich foods are the first to fall behind: dark green veggies, nuts, seeds, whole grains, some legumes and fruits, seaweeds, and unrefined mineral-rich waters. A diet survey in 2009 found that 57% of Americans failed to consume the recommended (minimum) magnesium intake of 400 mg a day.
Our modern lifestyles also put us at higher risk of magnesium deficiency by making us need more in the first place. Inflammatory bowel disease (including celiac and/or leaky gut) lowers our absorption of this mineral. Diabetes increases our need for it. Overuse of alcohol depletes our magnesium. Overuse of calcium supplements, and too much dairy, can prevent magnesium absorption and increase our need. People who use proton pump inhibitor drugs (like Prilosec™ and Nexium™) and diuretics (“water pills”) are also at greater risk of magnesium deficiency. As are the elderly, who absorb less and excrete more.
Finally, one last group at greater risk of magnesium deficiency may be People Who Rely On Their Multivitamin For All Their Nutrition. Magnesium takes up a lot of space in a pill; one-a-day multivitamins simply don’t have enough.
So, what does magnesium do?
Magnesium is famously involved in over 300 enzymes and coenzymes in the human body. So, it does a lot. I want to focus on three things:
- Calcium management. The body needs magnesium to use calcium. The body needs magnesium to activate vitamin D.
- Muscle tension. Muscles can’t relax without adequate magnesium. This is a big deal, and not just for sore, tight shoulders and calves, and muscle cramps; but also the muscles that line the blood vessels. We’ll be talking about blood pressure and migraines in a moment
- Bringing more water into the gut. Magnesium that doesn’t absorb into the bloodstream (and nothing absorbs 100%), stays in the gut and creates a diffusion gradient, drawing more water into the colon. In low doses, this can loosen the stools, making it easier to “go.” In higher doses, the effects can be pronounced.
And what does magnesium help?
Osteoporosis: without magnesium, the body can’t move calcium from the bloodstream into the bones. Taking all those big calcium pills, and slugging back all those glasses of milk, without sufficient magnesium, accomplishes next to nothing. In fact, all that calcium without magnesium may be counterproductive. It is well documented that high-calcium diets may be linked to calcium management problems – kidney stones, thrombi, calcification of soft tissue – without adequate nutrients to support our use of calcium. Magnesium (along with vitamin D and vitamin K) can help offset these risks.
There have been a number of short-term studies showing that magnesium supplementation is correlated with lower bone turnover and higher bone retention. There have also been quite a few large studies correlating dietary magnesium intake with greater bone density, and lower rates of fracture.
A standard dose is 400-800 mg a day. Consider the lower doses to supplement good balanced diets; consider the higher doses otherwise.
Hypertension: magnesium can relax tense blood vessels, lowering blood pressure.
There have been at least a dozen human clinical trials testing magnesium around hypertension. In most off the trials, it has worked. In some, it hasn’t. Generally, the trials where the magnesium didn’t work were the ones that used lower doses, of more poorly absorbing forms, for shorter periods of time. With trials that are better set up to succeed, we tend to see a 5-10 point drop in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Nothing huge, but enough to be noticed. A standard dose is 400-600 mg a day of high-quality magnesium.
Migraine Headaches are causes by tight, spasming blood vessels in the head. A number of small, short-term trials have found that magnesium has reduced the frequency, duration and severity of migraines. I’m a big fan of the migraine formula from the Vitanica company, which contains 500 mg of high-quality magnesium (per four capsules), in addition to solid doses of vitamin B2, and the herbs Butterbur and Feverfew. A standard dose is around 600 mg a day.
Muscle Tension: “Wow, you’re really tense!” says the massage therapist (or the friend or loved one giving you a shoulder rub).
If you’re always tense, look at magnesium supplements internally. (Also look at your posture, and how your office chair is set up). (Also look at herbs to address tension). If you’re only tense acutely, some of the topical magnesium creams and sprays can help pinpoint the stubborn area. If you’re tense all over because it’s been a real tough day, and you really need the help, consider an Epsom salts bath.
A standard dose internally can be between 600-1,200 mg a day.
Muscle Cramps, Eye Twitching, Restless Leg Syndrome: If you have night-time leg cramps, there could be a lot of reasons. Too much sodium? Not enough potassium? Are you simply not getting enough water?
Or, try magnesium, 400 mg at night, or 800 mg over the day. Often, it works within a few hours. It will almost always work within 3-4 days.
Menstrual Cramps: Consider around 1,000 mg a day for the three days before, and first 3 days of, your period. Bonus: you just might find it reduces chocolate cravings.
Emotional Tension and Anxiety: Psychology Today called magnesium “the ultimate chill pill for the nervous system.” This may be a slight exaggeration. It’s not an instant “magic bullet” – it’s not a drug like valium™ or an herb like Kava…
That being said, magnesium is a useful foundation for an anxiety protocol. Especially if you’re already deficient. And especially if you carry a lot of tension in your muscles – if you’re tight.
Debra’s staff member and magnesium advocate Jay suggests 600-800 mg a day of magnesium as magnesium glycinate. “Even if you’re using it for sleep and relaxation at night,” says Jay, “I still recommend dividing the dose, and getting some in the morning as well.” For those that would prefer to absorb their magnesium through the skin, Jay suggests 15 sprays of the Omica™ brand magnesium oil, twice a day. That’s about 230 mg of magnesium.
Cardiac Arrhythmias and other forms of Cardiomyopathy. There’s evidence that low blood magnesium may be linked to increased levels of cardiac arrhythmias, as well as other forms of heart disease. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the specifics of the research. However, it seems reasonable to conclude that moderate supplementation of magnesium should be advised.
Constipation: Consider 500-1,000 mg of a decent- to low-absorbing magnesium. Remember, for this you don’t want the super-best-absorbing forms.
Types of Magnesium:
Magnesium Oil is actually not oil, but magnesium dissolved in water. It’s just so dense, it feels oily. This kind of magnesium is sprayed on, and rubbed into, the skin. Especially useful for local muscle tension.
Epsom salts are a magnesium salt. If you need to relax your entire body, an Epsom salts bath will usually do the trick.
Magnesium oxide is poor-absorbing, but will do fine in a pinch. It’s the most economical. And the most effective, specifically to loosen the stools (where you want a poor-absorbing form).
Magnesium citrate is a common, reasonably priced, average-absorbing form. You can do better, but you can do worse.
Magnesium glycinate is a very well-absorbing form, although more expensive than others. It’s especially useful for tension – emotional, and muscular.
Magnesium Threonate is a form specialized at getting into the brain. The original research strongly suggested a benefit for memory in the elderly, and possibly recovery from injury including concussion. These days, we’ve got a lot of people taking it for migraines.
Magnesium malate: another very well-absorbing form.
Magnesium taurate: has a reputation as being an ideal cardiovascular magnesium.
Other sources of magnesium: I’m a big fan of the Mg Mivela mineral water, which kicks in a whopping 600 mg per 1.5 liter bottle. Plus, it tastes good, and it’s reasonably priced. The trace mineral drops from Trace Minerals Research are made of desalinated Great Salt Lake water. It contains 500 mg magnesium per teaspoon, plus a whole alphabet of other minerals.
 There is, of course, still chocolate… A cup of unsweetened cocoa powder has about 500 mg of magnesium (about 30 mg a tablespoon). But when’s the last time you had a cup of unsweetened cocoa powder? And bear in mind, by the time that cocoa is made into chocolate chips, and those chocolate chips are baked into a cookie, your magnesium may become very dilute indeed…
… Adam Stark