Magnesium is an essential nutrient that is deficient in the American diet. Simply put it is lacking in the soil, which means it is lacking in the food. If it isn’t in the soil, and therefore the food, it isn’t in you either. Magnesium deficiency is one of the most common, simple nutrient deficiencies I identify in patients (along with Vitamin D and essential fatty acids).
So why is this a big deal? Magnesium is a cofactor for at least 325 different enzymes and chemical processes in the body. Magnesium is involved in energy production, serotonin and dopamine synthesis, blood clotting, muscle function, nerve function, and bone formation. If magnesium could talk, it would quote Ron Burgundy by saying, “I’m kind of a big deal”.
Symptoms of Magnesium Deficiency
Because magnesium is used in so many places around the body, a lack of magnesium causes a plethora of symptoms. Here is a quick list of conditions and symptoms associated with magnesium deficiencies.
- Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and Depression
2. Migraines and Headaches ,
3. Dysregulated Adrenal Hormones
4. Diabetes/Insulin Resistance/Metabolic Syndrome
5. Fatigue, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
8. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
9. Blood Clots
10. Raynaud’s Syndrome
11. Bowel Disease and Constipation
13. Female hormone imbalances such as PMS, dysmenorrhea, infertility, and preeclampsia .
15. Osteoporosis and Tooth Decay
16. Heart Disease/Angina and Heart Palpitations , ,
I’ll stop the list there. Magnesium is so central to the working of our body and the symptoms so diverse you could write a book on it. In fact many people have. I recommend The Magnesium Miracle by Carolyn Dean if you are looking to read more. Her website is http://drcarolyndean.com/ and she has a great blog with continually updated information.
Functions of Magnesium
In an effort to not make another giant list like the one above, I am going to simply highlight some of the biggest functions of magnesium in the body. This way you may understand how magnesium is related to some of the symptoms we listed above.
Energy: Magnesium is a required cofactor for the citric acid cycle and the production of cellular energy, ATP. Any energy linked nutrient or supplement ultimately comes down to the citric acid cycle and the electron transport chain inside the mitochondria of our cells. The mitochondria are the “Power Houses” of the cell. Magnesium plays a large role in the proper functioning of these mitochondria and the energy pathway. For this reason thyroid hormones, adrenal hormones like cortisol, eating sugar, and any other energy dependent pathway is absolutely linked to magnesium.
- Magnesium is also necessary for sensitizing cells to insulin. This means without magnesium the cells will become insulin resistant. Eating a high sugar, high processed food diet burns through magnesium like it is going out of style. For this reason, I almost never see a patient struggling with weight problems, insulin resistance, or diabetes that does not also have a magnesium deficiency.
Bones and Teeth: Magnesium is structurally bound to calcium and phosphorous in bones and teeth. Roughly 2/3 of the magnesium in our body is stored in our bones and teeth. (The remaining 1/3 of magnesium is mainly in the muscle and nervous system tissue.) This is the first of our three magnesium functions that are extremely related to the calcium/magnesium balance. Magnesium is necessary for calcium to work properly. With too much calcium and not enough magnesium we cannot make strong bones. Paleolithic diet showed a calcium to magnesium ratio in the body of 1:1 or 2:1 rather than our current 5:1 or 15:1 ratio(chapter one source 15).
Muscle function is dependent upon magnesium and calcium. Calcium causes contraction of the muscle and magnesium causes relaxation. If you are cramping during times of relative non-activity (like in your bed) this is caused by an imbalance of calcium and magnesium. What people don’t realize is how many of their problems are caused by an inability to relax their muscles. Contraction of muscles in the arteries will raise blood pressure, causing cramps and possibly chest pain. Calcium, without magnesium to balance it out causes constriction of the bronchial tubes and leads to asthma. Without magnesium, calcium cannot stay in solution and precipitates out into our arteries causing arteriosclerosis and onto our joints causing arthritis. Migraines and tension headaches come from constriction of blood vessels by the brain and over-activation of the sub-occipital muscles in the neck or in the shoulders. Our hardest working muscle, the heart, is severely affected by magnesium deficiency and can cause heart palpitations and angina. One of the most common drugs given to patients with heart disease is a calcium channel blocker, but magnesium is the body’s natural calcium channel blocker[i],[ii],! Magnesium deficiencies also lead to malfunction in the smooth muscles around our intestines. This means they cannot properly move our food through and we end up with constipation and an irritable bowel.
Magnesium and Brain Function: Serotonin, GABA, dopamine, and melatonin are neurotransmitters highly dependent on magnesium. Magnesium is one of the co-factors necessary for the conversion of 5-HTP to Serotonin. Serotonin is then converted into melatonin which is the “sleep hormone”. Magnesium is also a cofactor for the GAD-65 enzyme which converts glutamic acid to GABA, our primary calming and relaxing neurotransmitter[iii]. Magnesium is also necessary for normal MAO enzyme activity which helps for the normal clearance of both serotonin and dopamine.
- Besides the neurotransmitters magnesium also plays a role in the function of the NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptors in our brains. These receptors normally contain a magnesium plug which is removed when a stimulus is sufficiently strong enough. With a magnesium deficiency the NMDA receptor is driven at too high a level which can cause neurotoxicity. This is further compounded when people eat high doses of glutamate (MSG) or aspartate. Another term for this is excitotoxicity. Think of it like getting on a horse and beating it to run harder and faster until eventually the thing just falls over dead of exhaustion. These people have accelerated brain degeneration due to a lack of magnesium. This is exactly what is happening with most of my patients who are sensitive to chemicals and particularly to MSG.
Food High in Magnesium
The easiest way to improve the magnesium in your body is to eat foods higher in magnesium! I suggest Bone meal, Kelp, Almonds, Cashews, Molasses, and Brazil Nuts. It is present in some grains but I generally do not recommend grains, especially wheat to my patients.
- High protein diets (like Atkins or done by some body builders) deplete magnesium. Therefore, if you are on this kind of diet make sure you take some extra magnesium.
Junk food, processed food, and sugar greatly deplete magnesium. It can also be depleted by the phosphates found in soda pop which bind to magnesium and make it unusable in the body. Everyone who comes into my office fills out a diet log. When I make people write down what they actually eat most are surprised at the amount of sweets and sugar that has snuck into their daily eating habits without them realizing it.
There are many different forms of magnesium supplements on the market. I’ll quickly run through which forms I recommend, which forms I do not recommend, and basic dosages.
Dosage: I recommend 3-4.5 mg/lb of body weight per day as does Carolyn Dean in her book The Magnesium Miracle. I have found this to be clinically effective in my patients with children and athletes being up towards the 4.5/lb. This puts most patients in the range of 400-1,000mg/day.
Good supplements: I recommend magnesium glycinate, magnesium lactate, magnesium citrate, and magnesium chloride. Magnesium citrate helps with constipation as citrate is used to purge the bowel (but at a dose of 12,000mg). Magnesium glycinate has the least laxative effects. Magnesium chloride and magnesium malate are also good forms if someone is really struggling with acid production for digestion. Magnesium sulfate is good used in an Epsom salt bath but not typically orally.
- Magnesium oil is also good, but you need to dose it correctly: This is technically not actually an oil but supersaturated magnesium chloride in water. Typically the magnesium oil that is 25-35 percent solution is 13-18 mg of magnesium oil/spray. Therefore you will want around 25 “sprays” to get around a 400mg dose. If the oil feels itchy when it dries you can wash it off after about 30 minutes as most of the magnesium has been absorbed.
Avoid Magnesium glutamate and aspartate as they break down to glutamic acid and aspartic acid which can be neurotoxic. Also avoid magnesium oxide as it is very poorly absorbed. If you are taking iron supplements it may be necessary to take it separately from the magnesium as it can compete for absorption.
In closing, magnesium is an essential nutrient which is deficient in many patients. If you are experiencing these types of symptoms consider a red blood cell magnesium test. I run them for around $20 in my office. Most people see improvement with magnesium within 2-3 months of supplementation and diet changes, although some see benefit within a few weeks.
[i] Iseri LT, French JH. “Magnesium: nature’s physiologic calcium blocker.” Am Heart J 1984; 108:p188-193.
[ii] Seelig MS, “Cardiovascular reactions to stress intensified by magnesium deficit in consequences of magnesium deficiency on the enhancement of stress reactions; preventive and therapeutic implications: a review.” J Am Coll Nutri 1994. 13(5):p429-446.
[iii] Foye WO, Lemke TL, and Williams DA. Principles of Medical Chemistry. Williams & Wilkins. Fourt Ed. 1995.