Magnesium is one of those superhero essential minerals that your body needs to function. What does it specifically do and how, you may wonder, does magnesium help the body? It lends a hand in regulating muscle and nerve function, breaking down sugar, keeping blood pressure in check, producing protein, improving bone mineral density and impacting DNA.
You also need magnesium as it works its scientific magic on more than 300 enzymatic activities. It’s a team player, too, working cooperatively with other minerals like calcium and zinc and vitamins such as D and B.
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And here’s the thing. Despite the fact that magnesium is readily available in food and nutritional supplements, according to statistics, many people are still not getting enough. Other experts focus more on being careful not to get too much magnesium, particularly from supplements or medications. Both issues are important to consider. And we’ll get back to them shortly.
What is Magnesium?
Not only is magnesium considered an essential mineral, but it is also a “major” (aka “macro”) mineral along with six others including calcium, sodium and potassium. Scientific experts tell us that “major” in reference to minerals means that your body stores and uses them in larger amounts than trace minerals, like iron or zinc. Trace minerals are also necessary for good health, but you just don’t need them in the same amounts as major minerals.
Where Does Magnesium Come From?
The mineral is naturally found in our bodies, in every cell, in fact. Our bodies aside, magnesium is also naturally found in the earth, the crusty part, meaning the thin, outer shell of rock and minerals.
For more practical purposes, you can get magnesium naturally in your diet if you eat enough leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale or collard greens, or legumes like lentils, chickpeas, beans or edamame.
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Other good sources of magnesium include almonds, cashews and peanuts, whole grains, wheat or oat bran, wheat germ and fatty fish like salmon. Dark chocolate is also high in magnesium, but don’t use that as an excuse to make that your only food source of magnesium, tempting as it may be.
There are also foods fortified with magnesium, including breakfast cereals. Some mineral and bottled waters can also be a good source of magnesium, as can tap water. But especially with tap water, the amount may be hard to figure out. This article may help.
Are We Getting Enough Magnesium in Our Diet?
Actually, not all of us are.
The amount of magnesium you need is mostly determined by your age and sex, but other factors may come into play, like whether you have health issues that put you more at risk for insufficient magnesium status.
According to this fact sheet, the average daily recommended amounts begin at birth, with 30 milligrams (mg) needed through 6 months. Infants, children and teens need varying amounts ranging from 75 mg (infants) to 360 mg (teen girls) and 410 mg (teen boys). Adult women require 310-320 mg, with pregnancy and breastfeeding potentially upping the ante, depending on age. Men are generally recommended to consume 400-420 mg daily.
Those most at risk for magnesium deficiencies or insufficiencies include those with type 2 diabetes, gastrointestinal disease (such as Crohn’s or celiac), and people with poor diets (especially older adults with poor absorption or taking medications that increase the risk of magnesium depletion). People with chronic alcoholism are also in this category.
While actual magnesium deficiencies in the U.S. may be rare, the Linus Pauling Institute says that nearly 61% of American adults as well as 36% of children and adolescents are falling short of magnesium recommendations.
If you are not getting enough magnesium from conventional or fortified foods, another way to get magnesium from your diet is to add a nutritional supplement to your health routine. Multivitamins usually contain magnesium—some experts say at the least good ones do, while others suggest you are better off taking a magnesium supplement at least two hours away from your multivitamin.
The latter experts make the intriguing argument that magnesium (and calcium, too, for that matter) forces the other minerals into an absorption competition which magnesium will win to the detriment of the small, but still necessary, minerals like zinc, iodine and selenium.
Fortunately, you can also readily find single-mineral supplements—just the magnesium, ma’am—and also combination supplements such as calcium with magnesium (let the macro minerals duke it out)—but actually there are specific reasons related to heart health benefits for combining these two minerals.
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And just FYI, some medicines, including those purchased over the counter like antacids and laxatives, also contain some magnesium. You should be aware of this, especially depending on how regularly you take these products; but don’t take them solely as a means to fulfilling your magnesium needs.
Here are a few more reasons to consider a supplement in order to avoid low magnesium levels. Not everyone eats a healthy diet. For example, this article advises that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that 90 percent of adults aren’t eating enough produce. And, we may not be eating the other healthy food sources of magnesium, like whole grains, legumes and fish.
Exercise, apparently, as well as stress, drains magnesium, while overindulging in coffee, alcohol or sugar are also magnesium-depleters.
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Can You Consume Too Much Magnesium?
You can always consume too much of anything, but in the case of magnesium, there’s not really concern of healthy adults getting dangerous levels from food.
On the other hand, if you are getting magnesium through your medications or supplements, there are a few tips to keep in mind. Magnesium in high doses (from supplements or medications) can cause abdominal cramping, diarrhea, or nausea. In addition, you’ll want to check with your healthcare practitioner to be sure there are not contradictions between your medications and magnesium supplements.
Very large doses (e.g., more than 5,000 mg/day of magnesium) usually from laxatives and antacids have been associated with magnesium toxicity. There are established Tolerable Upper Intake Levels (ULs) for supplemental (either through supplements or medications) for magnesium. In some cases, the ULs are less than the RDAs—this fact sheet explains that is the case because the RDAs include magnesium for all sources—food/beverages, dietary supplements and medications, while the ULs do not cover foods/beverages.
Still, it is not recommended to go beyond the ULs for magnesium unless directed by your physician.
Best to Test
Magnesium deficiency can be sneaky business, especially in the early stages when you may just be experiencing low magnesium levels. The symptoms may be similar to those for any number of health issues and may signal an underlying health condition. You may experience a loss of appetite, weakness, fatigue, nausea and vomiting. And if you’re otherwise healthy, you might not see any symptoms from low magnesium until that condition progresses.
The smart thing to do is get your magnesium levels tested, so you can feel confident that you’re neither getting too little, or too much, magnesium, and can easily make modifications.
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Your doctor has a number of ways to get your magnesium levels tested. Your doctor can send you to a lab for a simple blood test, a urine test, a red blood cell test, or through an EXA Test which checks the magnesium in your cells, specifically in your mouth. If you have thyroid issues, diabetes, a problematic pregnancy or other health issues, your doctor may automatically check your magnesium levels, but it is also a reasonable conversation to have at any time with your healthcare practitioner.
There are also at-home tests to determine your magnesium levels, and as you would expect, different companies offer different methods. At OmegaQuant we don’t currently have an at-home test for magnesium, but we may have more to say on this top in the future. Come back again!