It’s hours before dawn, and your legs are twitching like you’re running a marathon. During a stressful meeting later in the day, your heart pounds in your chest. Back at home that evening, you recognize the telltale signs of another migraine coming on.
You might chalk up these symptoms to the costs of a busy life. In reality, though, these seemingly unrelated issues could be signs of a magnesium deficiency.
The fourth-most-abundant mineral in your body, magnesium is vital for overall health, including the prevention and treatment of many diseases. Yet only one in three of us gets enough of this mineral through diet. A shortage can manifest in symptoms that are often mistakenly viewed as separate maladies.
“Magnesium works like a spark plug for multiple processes in the body,” explains Kathie Swift, MS, RDN, education director for Food as Medicine at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine and author of The Swift Diet. “It works in partnership with other nutrients as an important catalyst for more than 375 reactions that we need to keep our systems going strong.”
Magnesium is a key electrolyte, and among the biochemical reactions it regulates are protein synthesis, blood-glucose control, and blood pressure. Heart function, digestion, and sleep are also directly affected by it.
The mineral regulates nerve and muscle function, helping your muscles relax. Low levels can cause muscles to tighten and contract — so it’s not surprising that many common symptoms of a magnesium deficiency tend to be neuromuscular, including spasms, cramping, fibromyalgia, and facial tics.
If levels continue to decrease, it may cause numbness, tingling, seizures, mood swings, abnormal heart rhythms, and coronary spasms.
Read on to learn more about this underappreciated mineral, signs of a possible deficiency, and how to get more magnesium-rich foods in your diet.
The Mineral at Work
Magnesium keeps your body running smoothly and is key to your vitality. Here are just a few of the processes that this multitasking electrolyte supports.
“The heart is a muscle — and magnesium is vital to keeping our muscles healthy,” says Romy Block, MD, coauthor with Arielle Levitan, MD, of The Vitamin Solution. As an electrolyte, magnesium aids in the transport of calcium and potassium ions across cell membranes and enables nerves and muscles to work smoothly. “Its role in preventing muscle spasms keeps both the heart and peripheral blood vessels relaxed,” adds Levitan.
The liver is your body’s detox workhorse, neutralizing and removing toxins from your system. “Magnesium, along with other nutrients, helps the liver get the garbage to the curb, in a manner of speaking, and assists in removing toxins from our systems,” Swift says. It does this by activating nutrients, including B vitamins (like thiamine) and glutathione, which are essential for liver detoxification and antioxidant defense.
If your environment is toxic, the mineral is especially important. “Having the right amount of magnesium in your system can prevent possible damage to your body and brain from environmental toxins and heavy metals,” says Claudine Arndt, a Minnesota-based integrative nutrition coach.
Insulin can’t do its job of regulating sugar in the bloodstream without magnesium, which supports proper insulin secretion from the pancreas. If there isn’t enough magnesium in the body, blood-sugar levels can get out of control. Studies show that a magnesium deficiency is associated with insulin resistance, a condition that often precedes type 2 diabetes. Notably, a sufficient level of magnesium has been shown to actually slow or stop a person’s progression from prediabetes to diabetes.
Vitamin D Metabolism
Magnesium helps activate the enzymes that allow vitamin D to be absorbed in the body. It has also been shown to help reverse vitamin D resistance. “Magnesium is crucial in supporting the proteins that transport vitamin D in the blood,” says Andrea Rosanoff, PhD, director of research and science information outreach at the Center for Magnesium Education & Research in Pahoa, Hawaii. (Learn more about vitamin D at “Vitamin D: What You Need to Know“.)
Half of your body’s magnesium is stored in the bones, and the mineral is key to every aspect of bone health. It influences the activities of cells that are responsible for breaking down bone tissue (osteoclasts), as well as those needed for building new bone (osteoblasts). “Many people think that calcium alone contributes to bone health, but magnesium is just as important to treat osteoporosis,” says Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, author of The Magnesium Miracle. “It keeps the bones supple so they are less likely to break.” (We often forget about our skeletal system, but it is essential to our health. See “How to Strengthen Your Bones” to learn how to improve its strength.)
“Magnesium is an electrolyte we can’t live without — and it seems we can’t sleep without it, either,” says Levitan. The mineral has the important job of helping us get high-quality slumber. Block says that it may help stimulate neurotransmitter receptors that affect how our brains relax and fall asleep. “It also helps reduce leg and muscle cramps, which can keep people up at night,” she says.
Whole-Food Magnesium Support
Nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults don’t get the recommended daily intake of 310 to 420 mg of magnesium. If you suspect a deficiency, eating more of these whole foods is a great place to start.
|Quinoa, cooked||3/4 cup|
|Almonds, dry roasted||1 oz.|
|Spinach, fresh, cooked||1/2 cup|
|Swiss chard, fresh, cooked||1/2 cup|
|Pumpkin seeds, roasted||1 oz.|
|Cashews, dry roasted||1 oz.|
|Dark chocolate, 70% to 85% cacao||1 oz.|
|Oatmeal, cooked||1 cup|
|Black beans, cooked||1/2 cup|
|White beans, cooked||1/2 cup|
|Peanut butter||2 tbs.|
|Edamame, shelled, cooked||1/2 cup|
|Potato, baked with skin||5.3 oz.|
|Brown rice, cooked||1/2 cup|
|Halibut, cooked||3 oz.|
When Food Is Not Enough
If you still suspect a deficiency, despite eating magnesium-rich foods (and taking a good multivitamin with minerals), it may be time for more support. But it’s best not to experiment with magnesium supplements on your own, says Cindi Lockhart, RD, LD, CPT, nutrition program manager at LT Proactive Care Clinic in St. Louis Park, Minn.
“It’s important to have the right measures in place through effective testing,” Lockhart says. Start by working with a health professional and getting a magnesium red-blood-cell test. A few other good things to know:
- Form matters: Organic-bound magnesium salts, such as magnesium citrate, gluconate, orotate, and aspartate, have high bioavailability. Lockhart likes magnesium glycinate, “which has been shown to have the best absorption and bioavailability at a cellular level.”
- Dose matters: Depending on your clinical needs, Lockhart suggests starting with 250 to 300 mg. “More is not necessarily better,” she warns. “Minerals work in pairs and balances. Take the least amount needed to create a positive impact, and avoid using any single-nutrient supplement long term.”
- Interactions matter: Many common drugs, including antibiotics and blood-pressure medications, can affect magnesium levels. If you have any issues with kidney disease or compromised kidney function, let your doctor know.
This article originally appeared as part of “Magnesium Your Body’s Spark Plug” in the May 2016 issue of Experience Life.
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