Magnesium is the second most abundant mineral in the human body (after potassium), the second most plentiful in seawater (after salt), and actually the ninth most predominant element in the universe. Over 300 of the biochemical processes in our bodies are reliant on our consuming enough of this ‘miracle mineral’, and yet it seems that the majority of us are simply not getting enough.
A UK survey found that 42% of men and 72% of women weren’t hitting the recommended daily allowance for magnesium, which (and RDAs are always very conservative) is 320mg for women and 420mg for men and pregnant or breastfeeding women. According to the World Health Authority, a staggering 80% of Americans are deficient. In fact between 1900 and 2000 our average intake of magnesium dropped by 50%, and this is due to several factors.
Intensive farming has meant that the magnesium content of the soil has declined by 80% since 1950; aside from seafood, magnesium is really only found in plant foods, and more importantly in whole plant foods. The refining process, for example that which turns wheat into white flour, removes nearly all of the magnesium, and we simply eat too much in the way of animal products and processed foods; sugars and processed foods are known as ‘anti-nutrients’ because digesting them actually uses up the body’s stores of nutrients including magnesium; the trend of drinking bottled water has had an impact because, unlike tap water, it contains negligible amounts of magnesium, while fizzy drinks contain phosphates, which bind with magnesium in the gut rendering it unavailable to the cells; certain medications (including those for cardiovascular issues, asthma and acid reflux as well as diuretics, the contraceptive pill and HRT) prompt the kidneys to expel magnesium, as do excess caffeine, alcohol and salt, excess calcium (from dairy produce or supplements), and again sugar/refined grains; factors such as stress, anxiety, depression and a lack of sleep also rapidly deplete the body’s stores, due to the action of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, and it’s a vicious circle because these issues also require more in the way of magnesium.
It can be hard to know if you’re deficient in magnesium, partly because many of the typical symptoms are common to other conditions, and because a blood test can’t tell you much as only 1% of stores are found in the blood (the majority is found in the skeletal system and teeth). This is perhaps why there’s remarkably little publicity about the issue of deficiency, when compared, say, to calcium. But the two minerals work hand in hand, and calcium is actually useless without the presence of magnesium.
The group most at risk of deficiency is the older population, as the body’s ability to metabolise magnesium declines with age, and some experts go as far as to say that many of the degenerative diseases—osteoporosis, loss of muscle mass, raised blood pressure, diminished nervous system function and so on—are at least in part simply manifestations of chronic magnesium deficiency.
There are several mechanisms at work in relation to the myriad benefits of good levels of magnesium, often related to its ability to relax muscles, arteries and other tissues, as well as calm the mind, regulate the hormones, and facilitate many other processes including the absorption/activation of calcium and vitamins B and D, and the conversion of food into energy. Aside from being vital for health bones, teeth and blood pressure, magnesium also: promotes healthy muscle function, including of the heart, lowers levels of blood fats and harmful HDL cholesterol, and aids in cases of angina and congestive heart failure; reduces insulin and sugar cravings and helps prevent insulin resistance, thereby reducing risk of weight gain and type 2 diabetes; reduces the risk of complications if you have diabetes; protects against pancreatic cancer; works as an antioxidant, protecting all the body’s cells from damage, and as an anti-inflammatory, warding off all manner of diseases; eases PMS symptoms and painful periods; helps control body temperature; has a safe, gentle laxative effect; wards off headaches, including migraines; is a treatment for asthma, suppressing histamine production; is essential for a healthy pregnancy and the future health of the child; improves sleep, alleviates stress and anxiety, enhances memory, concentration, and energy levels while calming—hence its success in treating issues such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome; is needed to make proteins and fatty acids and new cells in the body; lowers the incidence of kidney stones (which are caused by a build up of calcium); and to return to a favourite subject of mine, it helps to balance levels of the bacteria in the gut, which has a knock on effect on just about every aspect of wellbeing.
If you’d like to take a supplement, it’s worth knowing that magnesium oxide, the form found in cheaper products, has a very poor absorption rate of around 6%. Look for magnesium citrate, of which around 97% is utilised by the body. Aim for 300mg a day, as excessive intake can cause diarrhoea, and avoid if you have kidney failure or are taking tetracycline (large amounts of magnesium hinder absorption of the antibiotic). Holland and Barrett carry their own Magnesium Citrate 100mg, and also Solgar’s High potency Magnesium Citrate.