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Magnesium is a mineral that plays a critical role in keeping the body fully functional and healthy. In fact, it is one of the most abundantly utilized minerals by the human body, which requires it for more than 300 different enzymatic processes. (1)
It is essential for building DNA/RNA, metabolizing insulin, ATP synthesis (for energy production), nerve conduction, and muscle relaxation and contraction, among other key bodily functions. (1)
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the human body, more than half of which is stored in the bones, while the rest is found in different tissues throughout the body. (1)
Signs and Symptoms of Magnesium Deficiency
Early signs of magnesium deficiency are mostly nonspecific and may include symptoms such as lethargy, fatigue, weakness, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting.
Other signs and symptoms include:
1. Muscle spasms, cramps, and weakness
Since magnesium is crucial in all aspects of using and synthesizing ATP in the muscles, magnesium deficiency is often the suspected cause of muscle spasms, cramps, and weakness.
Although there are no studies showing statistical significance in the relief of muscle cramps with magnesium supplementation, anecdotally, many people swear by magnesium for the relief of cramps.
However, there is some evidence to suggest that a lack of magnesium in the body can contribute to poor muscle performance. Plus, several studies have demonstrated a strong and independent link between serum magnesium levels and muscle performance.
According to one study, magnesium supplementation can help improve muscle strength and endurance. (2) Another study, this time in older subjects, noted that magnesium supplementation improved physical performance. (3)
2. Frequent migraines
There is considerable scientific evidence to suggest that people who have low magnesium levels are more prone to tension headaches and migraines.
In fact, a recent study conducted on 40 patients with migraine versus a control group of 40 healthy individuals found that magnesium deficiency can increase the risk of acute migraine headache by a factor of 35 in the subjects. (4)
Meanwhile, many studies have also demonstrated that magnesium supplementation can help ease headaches and migraines.
3. Abnormal heart rhythms
Given the neuromuscular excitability seen with magnesium deficiency, severe magnesium deficiency can present with symptoms of abnormal heart rhythms, (5) known as cardiac arrhythmias.
These include atrial and ventricular tachycardia, an abnormal electrical conduction problem known as prolonged QT interval, and a potentially fatal cardiac arrhythmia called torsades de pointes (6) (which is treated with IV magnesium).
The more common presentation of abnormal heart rhythms seen with magnesium deficiency is usually described as feelings of heart racing or the feeling like the heart is pounding out of the chest.
4. Anxiety and depression
Multiple psychiatric disorders including anxiety, depression, and insomnia have been associated with magnesium deficiency. Multiple enzymatic and cellular reactions involved in the stress response are magnesium dependent.
Magnesium deficiency is known to produce hyperexcitability in the central nervous system. Paradoxically, this can be seen in both anxiety and depression. (7)
Multiple studies have reported inadequate serum magnesium levels in subjects with depression. One study showed that nearly half of all patients screened for stress had latent magnesium deficiency. (8)
One of the proposed mechanisms of increased anxiety with magnesium deficiency is that of hyperexcitability of excitatory neurotransmitters in the brain as well as a decreased activity of inhibitory neurotransmitters. (9)
Some antidepressant drugs have even been suggested to increase intracellular magnesium levels, which may help with depression symptoms secondary to mechanisms mentioned above. According to a systematic review, consuming more magnesium may help reduce the severity and frequency of depressive episodes. (10)
5. Rise in blood pressure
As mentioned previously, magnesium plays a key role in the relaxation of smooth muscles. The entire vascular system is lined with smooth muscles that play a key role in maintaining normal blood pressure.
A study published in 2016 by the American Heart Association found that magnesium supplementation at a moderate dose of 368 mg per day for 3 months was effective in reducing systolic blood pressure by two points. (11)
Another 2017 study showed that magnesium supplementation can help reduce blood pressure in people suffering from insulin resistance prediabetes or other noncommunicable chronic illnesses. (12)
6. Struggling for sound sleep
Magnesium has long been known to help improve sleep quality.
The mechanism behind improved sleep following magnesium supplementation is multifactorial. First, magnesium is a potent NMDA antagonist. (13) Second, it is a natural GABA agonist. (14) Third, it is proposed that magnesium may naturally increase melatonin levels. (15)
By reducing excitatory neurotransmitters, increasing relaxing neurotransmitters, and increasing melatonin levels, sleep quality can be markedly improved.
7. Difficulty concentrating and loss of memory
As the US population continues to age, memory loss is becoming more and more of a problem. Memory tends to decline as one grows older due to the gradual decrease in synaptic plasticity. As your brain receives new information, it evolves and adapts according to it. This phenomenon is referred to as plasticity.
Synaptic plasticity is when this change occurs at the junctions between neurons where they pass on the information. The age-related loss of this ability makes it difficult for the brain to retain information, resulting in memory deficits.
Very few studies have been conducted evaluating the effects of magnesium on cognition in humans, but the ones conducted showed positive results with improved cognition.
A 2014 study evaluating 1,400 healthy men reported that over 8 years, elevated magnesium intake was correlated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment. (16) A 2012 study in Japan showed a 37% decreased chance of developing dementia and a whopping 74% decreased risk of developing vascular dementia.
Another study completed in 2016 showed that magnesium may help elderly adults with memory complaints improve cognition.
Daily Magnesium Requirement
The typical dosing for magnesium is 500–1,500 mg per day. (17) Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (SAD) does not provide the daily recommended intake of magnesium and is therefore associated with hypomagnesemia or magnesium deficiency.
For children, the recommended daily allowance is 80 mg/day up to 3 years of age and 130 mg/day for children 4 to 8 years of age. For children, 9–13 years of age, 240 mg per day is the recommended daily allowance, and this increases to 420 mg a day for adult males and 360 mg a day for adult females. (18)
Unfortunately, as mentioned above, many Americans suffer from insufficient magnesium intake likely from increased use of fertilizers (which binds magnesium, making it unavailable for absorption) and an increased intake of processed foods. According to estimates, about half of all Americans are magnesium deficient.
Foods That Increase Magnesium in the Body
Surprisingly, water accounts for approximately 10% of daily magnesium intake, and chlorophyll, found in leafy green vegetables, is another major source of magnesium.
Other foods with high magnesium content include nuts, seeds, and unrefined grains. (17) Fruit, legumes, meat, and fish are also good sources of magnesium, although not as rich as nuts, seeds, and vegetables.
Factors Hindering Proper Magnesium Absorption
The causes of inadequate magnesium absorption in the body are multifactorial and include vitamin D deficiency, parathyroid hormone deficiency, hypocalcemia, decreased nutrient absorption associated with intestinal permeability, taking over-the-counter medications, alcohol intake, natural aging, illnesses, and stress. (19)
One of the more common culprits in the inadequate absorption of magnesium in America today is the overuse of proton pump inhibitors. Many digestive disorders such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, short bowel syndrome, and intestinal mucosal diseases can lead to decreased magnesium absorption.
Moreover, multiple different types of kidney disease can lead to magnesium wasting and require higher intakes of magnesium to replace the amounts lost.
Treatment for Magnesium Deficiency
The best way to treat magnesium deficiency is to remove any offending agents that might be inhibiting the absorption of magnesium or increasing its excretion.
It is recommended that, to increase your intake of magnesium-rich foods, you should decrease the number of processed foods you consume and try to eat as many leafy green vegetables, whole foods, seeds, nuts, legumes, and unrefined grains as possible. (20) Adequate intake of grass-fed meat and non-farm-raised fish is also recommended.
People at Risk of Magnesium Deficiency
Some people are more prone to magnesium deficiency than others, such as the following:
- Women aged 18 to 22 years
- Postmenopausal women with osteoporosis
- People taking a multitude of pharmaceutical medications, including cardiac medications, high blood pressure medications, proton pump inhibitors, steroids, hormone medications, and antipsychotics (21)
- People with chronic illness, especially digestive tract maladies and kidney disease
- People with excessive alcohol intake
Lifestyle Changes to Increase Magnesium Intake
As mentioned above, dietary changes are almost always recommended first. According to the tenants of functional medicine, “food first” is the best way to increase or decrease positive or negative nutrients, respectively.
If processed food is a mainstay of your diet, it is recommended to decrease this as much as possible. The same goes for alcohol. Small amounts of alcohol should be fine, but excessive alcohol may lead to a multitude of nutrient deficiencies, hypomagnesemia being only one of them. (22)
Again, it is recommended that daily supplementation with magnesium should be part of most everyone’s health and wellness plan.
Important Tips Regarding Magnesium Deficiency
Here are a few self-care measures to prevent or overcome magnesium deficiency:
- Get your magnesium levels tested regularly. Serum tests are considered good and RBC magnesium level tests are considered better, but magnesium loading and urinary excretion tests are supposed to be the most accurate.
- Avoid processed foods at all costs if you are magnesium deficient and as much as possible otherwise.
- Decrease your intake of alcohol, salt, sugar, and carbonated beverages.
- Eat whole foods, grains, and legumes.
- Increase the amount of leafy green veggies in your diet (all veggies for that matter).
- Try to lose weight and increase exercise – a lower body weight requires less Mg and may help decrease/eliminate the need for pharmaceuticals.
- Read pharmaceutical warnings or ask your pharmacist if the medication you are taking depletes magnesium.
- Don’t start magnesium supplements without consulting your doctor first, especially if you have a kidney or heart ailment.
- If your doctor approves magnesium supplementation, take it before bedtime as it is known to help improve sleep quality.
The body requires magnesium to perform a variety of important physiological processes that are essential for good health. For this reason, it is crucial to get enough of this vital mineral through your diet. If you can’t meet your required fill of magnesium through foods alone, ask your doctor to start you on a supplement.
But how will you know if you are meeting your magnesium needs or not? To that end, learning about the symptoms of magnesium deficiency will help you easily identify the problem in the early stages. Plus, it’s always a good idea to get your magnesium levels checked from time to time.
Magnesium deficiency, if left untreated, can lead to serious complications such as cardiac arrhythmias and hypocalcemia and is also known to contribute to the development of various long-term ailments. A proactive approach can help you avoid such unfortunate outcomes.