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Magnesium: Everything You Need to Know

Magnesium is vital to more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body. Here’s how to be sure you’re getting enough.

Magnesium is a necessary and critical component of our bodies. In fact, more than 300 biochemical processes in the body require magnesium. We cannot survive without it. Unfortunately, many Americans struggle to consume enough of this crucial mineral due to our poor eating habits. About half of Americans are estimated to be magnesium deficient in some capacity.

There are multiple ways you can become magnesium deficient — some of which result from lifestyle choices, but others are a result of medical conditions. Magnesium deficiency is difficult to detect, but healthy magnesium levels can be achieved through diet and supplementation.

Here’s everything you need to know about magnesium.

What Does Magnesium Do?

Magnesium is entirely crucial for the human body — not just to function, but also to thrive. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “[Magnesium] helps to maintain normal nerve and muscle function, supports a healthy immune system, keeps the heartbeat steady, and helps bones remain strong. It also helps adjust blood glucose levels. It aids in the production of energy and protein.”

Improves Muscle Movement

One of its major functions in the body is to balance calcium levels. For example, calcium causes muscles to contract. Of course, we need muscles to contract sometimes, but we don’t want them to stay contracted. Magnesium acts as a calcium blocker and allows the muscles to relax.

This is the case with both regular muscles in your body, as well as vital muscles, like the heart.

The balance of calcium and magnesium in the heart regulates your heartbeat, so when that balance is thrown off — when there’s not enough magnesium to relax the heart muscle — your heart can constrict too much or too often, creating a potentially life-threatening irregular or rapid heartbeat.

Additionally, some studies indicate that magnesium could be helpful during athletic performance. A 12-week study of healthy elderly women found that a magnesium supplement aided performance during exercise when compared to those who did not take a supplement. The researchers concluded that their findings suggested that magnesium played a role in “preventing or delaying the age-related decline in physical performance.”

Assists in Brain Function

Magnesium plays a vital role in brain function because it helps relay messages back-and-forth between the brain and the rest of the body. Specifically, the key lies within N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, which assist in learning and memory retention. Magnesium lives inside these NMDA receptors for the purpose of protecting them from overstimulation.

When the NMDA receptors are stimulated often (even by weaker stimuli), they never have a chance to take a break, which “exhausts” them in a sense. This can lead to a variety of health challenges, including depression, trouble sleeping, and migraines.

In a study of nearly 8,900 adults, researchers found that those with low magnesium levels were 22% more likely to experience symptoms of depression. While some evidence seems to point to the idea of magnesium supporting healthy mood, you should speak to your doctor about taking a supplement prior to doing so.

Those who experience occasional anxiety may know how difficult it can be to shut their brains off at night. Sometimes, racing thoughts and overstimulation can make restful sleep a challenge. Therefore, magnesium is sometimes suggested for people who struggle to sleep at night.

A small study of elderly adults found that “supplementation of magnesium appears to improve subjective measures of insomnia such as ISI score [insomnia severity index], sleep efficiency, sleep time and sleep onset latency, early morning awakening, and likewise, insomnia objective measures such as concentration of serum renin, melatonin, and serum cortisol.”

A year-long study of people who suffer from migraines also found that magnesium may help reduce the frequency of migraines. While the researchers of this study concluded that magnesium may support migraine sufferers, more research is needed to determine if magnesium is so closely related to these types of headaches.

Maintains Bone Integrity

Magnesium is a major component of our bones. According to some researchers, about 67% of the body’s total magnesium resides within the bone structure.

Magnesium deficiency has been linked to osteoporosis “directly by acting on crystal formation and on bone cells and indirectly by impacting on the secretion and the activity of parathyroid hormone and by promoting low grade inflammation.”

In other words, magnesium supports maintenance of bone integrity, which is crucial as you age. More than half of the U.S. population over the age of 50 has osteoporosis or low bone mass — and of course, bone degeneration most frequently occurs in women.

Supports Immune Response

Given magnesium’s central role in so many physiological processes, it may not be surprising that researchers are investigating its role in the immune system. Though it’s largely inconclusive, there is emerging research that looks into the way in which magnesium supports the body’s immune response.

However, it’s generally accepted, as these researchers note, that magnesium “has a strong relation with the immune system in both nonspecific and specific immune responses.”

Furthermore, they point out that “Magnesium deficiency leads to immunopathological changes that are related to the initiation of a sequential inflammatory response.”

Regulates Insulin

Magnesium deficiency has been linked to Type 2 diabetes at least in part because “intracellular [magnesium] plays a key role in regulating insulin action, insulin-mediated-glucose-uptake and vascular tone.” Some studies have even suggested that magnesium-rich foods can “significantly” reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

A magnesium deficiency does not necessarily mean that you’ll develop type 2 diabetes, but it also doesn’t help your chances. While diabetes and magnesium deficiencies are frequently congruent diagnoses, they are not dependent upon the other — both can happen on their own.

One possible link could be a poor diet. According to the same review linked above, “low dietary [magnesium] intake has been related to the development of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.”

Major Sources of Magnesium

The most important source of magnesium for anyone is in the food they eat. A healthy, balanced diet (such as the one suggested by the USDA) should provide enough magnesium for the average person.

Magnesium-rich foods include (but are not limited to):

  • Dark leafy greens (such as kale, spinach, chard, mustard greens, collard greens and turnip greens)

  • Bananas

  • Nuts (including nut butter)

  • Avocados

  • Beans, peas and other legumes

  • Potatoes with the skin on (not fried)

  • Seeds

  • Tofu and soymilk

  • Salmon

  • Halibut

  • Whole grains, brown rice, oatmeal, popcorn, whole wheat

  • Milk & yogurt

  • Chocolate & cocoa (dark has more magnesium)

Magnesium Deficiency Signs and Causes

The body works very hard to ensure that magnesium levels in the blood stay stable and will pull magnesium out of bone and other tissues to maintain blood levels within a normal range.This makes it difficult to determine whether someone is magnesium deficient, because a blood test won’t show it.

Additionally, there isn’t a singular test that can provide such an answer. There are multiple methods for checking magnesium levels in patients, but none of them are considered conclusive on their own.

Magnesium Deficiency Symptoms

  • Fatigue

  • Weakness

  • Decreased appetite

  • Nausea

  • Muscle cramping

  • Mood changes

  • Osteoporosis

  • Irregular heartbeat

  • High blood pressure

  • Numbness

  • Tingling

  • Seizures

  • Low blood calcium and potassium levels

It’s highly unlikely that people can self-diagnose a magnesium deficiency. Once a person is experiencing these symptoms, they’re probably already in the hospital, and magnesium deficiency is not going to be one of the things they considered to be the cause.

Possible Causes of Magnesium Deficiency

There are many possible causes of a magnesium deficiency, including:

  • Inadequate dietary intake

  • Excessive alcohol use

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Heart disease

  • Gastrointestinal disease

  • Aging

  • Certain medications, such as corticosteroids, estrogen, diuretics, immunosuppressants

Inadequate Dietary Intake

While some people may get their recommended daily intake of magnesium from the foods they eat, the standard American diet leaves much to be desired when it comes to being “healthy and balanced.” The average household is woefully deficient in following the USDA Dietary Guideline for Americans.

The major areas of concern fall along the lines of whole fruits and dark leafy vegetables. According to a 2013 study from the USDA, the average American only spent 0.5% of their grocery budget on dark green vegetables — far below the USDA-recommended 7%.

Those who participated in the survey also underspent on other healthy foods that happen to be magnesium-rich, such as whole grains, nuts, low-fat dairy and fish.

Given that participants also overspent on refined grains, juice, extra beverages (i.e., soda, alcohol, sugary drinks), candy, and sweets, it’s not surprising that the incidence of obesity in America is now over 40%.

Remember that good health starts with food: eating a healthy and balanced diet is one of the best possible ways to take care of your body.

Medication-Induced Deficiency

Another important item on the list that may cause magnesium deficiency is medication. “Even if you’re consuming plenty of healthy, magnesium-rich foods, a bunch of pharmaceuticals can block the absorption of magnesium or increase its excretion,” says Dr. Lauren DeVille, NMD.

The reason for this is that “Magnesium and [some prescription or over-the-counter] drugs use the same transport and metabolism pathways in the body for their intestinal absorption, metabolism, and elimination. This means that when one (or more) drug is taken, there is always a potential risk of interaction with the magnesium status.”

Be sure you check with your practitioner, pharmacist or nutritionist to see if any medications you’re taking are known to cause magnesium deficiency. If so, they will probably have recommendations for you on how to maintain a healthy magnesium status.

Malabsorption Syndrome

Additionally, DeVille cautions that “if you have a hard time absorbing nutrients in general (a malabsorption syndrome, such as Crohn’s, celiac sprue, or enteritis),” you could have low magnesium levels.

Again, if you have been diagnosed with a malabsorption syndrome, check with a nutritionist to see if they recommend any supplements for you.

Managing Magnesium Deficiency

As previously stated, it’s difficult for you to determine if you have a magnesium deficiency. It’s unlikely that you’d be able to self-diagnose such a problem, but if a medical professional diagnoses you with a magnesium deficiency, one of the first steps to correcting it is likely to be a change in diet. Eating plenty of magnesium-rich foods can help you replenish this mineral that is central to so many vital functions.

DeVille encourages patients to treat the underlying cause of deficiency, as opposed to the deficiency itself. “If you’re not getting enough from your diet, drinking too much alcohol or soda, the solution is obvious.” (In case it’s not obvious — consume more magnesium rich foods and cut back on such beverages, or preferably, cut them out entirely.)

“If you have a malabsorption syndrome, the solution is of course to address the underlying cause. Or if you have type 2 diabetes, the solution is to regulate your blood sugar adequately,” DeVille continues.

If your magnesium deficiency is caused by a medication, your doctor or nutritionist may recommend a supplement.

Can You Get Too Much Magnesium?

The body does filter out excess magnesium just as it flushes out any other waste, but it’s entirely possible to take too much.

If you are taking a magnesium supplement, don’t take anything higher than the RDI (recommended daily intake), which varies according to age and sex (typically, 420 milligrams for men and 320 milligrams for women). And of course, be sure to consult with your practitioner or nutritionist before taking a magnesium supplement, as they’ll have a better understanding of how much to take according to your unique medical history.

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