Magnesium: Everything you need to know for better health

Do you often feel tired and rundown? Or often find yourself struggling to relax before sleep? It could be a sign that you are deficient in magnesium.

It should be possible to obtain most of the vitamins and minerals you need through your diet. But modern agricultural practices have decreased magnesium levels in foods, meaning that many people are deficient in this essential mineral [1].

Magnesium deficiency has been linked to everything from increased blood pressure and high blood sugar to increased mental stress [2]. Among its many benefits, magnesium is also critical for the optimal conversion and use of vitamin D throughout the body, affecting heart health, metabolism and bone mineral density [3].

If you aren’t supplementing with magnesium, you could be missing a trick when it comes to maximising your physical health and mental well-being.

This guide explores:
• What is magnesium?
• What does magnesium do in the body?
• Which foods are high in magnesium?
• Negative effects of magnesium deficiency on your gut health.
• How much magnesium do you need?
• Do you need to supplement with magnesium?
• How to diagnose magnesium deficiency.
• What are the best magnesium supplements?
• What causes magnesium deficiency? And other FAQs.

Read on to learn the science of magnesium and how it can benefit your health.

 

What is magnesium?

Magnesium is an essential dietary mineral that works as a ‘helper molecule’ for over 300 enzymes [4]. This means that they act to speed up and enable various chemical reactions in the human body.

Magnesium also interacts with other micronutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D, to support processes like maintaining healthy bones, enabling muscle contraction and regulating blood pressure , [5-6].

In addition, magnesium plays a crucial role in producing energy, helping the body to break down, store and use carbohydrates [7]. Magnesium is also essential for cell function, repair and regeneration [8].

 

What does magnesium do in the body?

You may read about the unique benefits of one particular vitamin or mineral.

But many people don’t realise that the nutrients we obtain from food do not act in isolation. Instead, they work in coordination to ensure that multiple processes occur optimally.

Magnesium is no different. Its benefits come not just from the processes that it directly supports but its vital interactions with numerous important physiological processes, including:

 

1. Maintaining healthy bones and teeth

Did you know that almost 60% of the total magnesium in your body is stored in your bones and teeth?[9-11]

And while you’re likely familiar with the importance of vitamin D for bone health, you may not have considered the role of magnesium.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin we obtain through skin exposure to sunlight. Low levels of vitamin D can increase your risk of numerous diseases, affecting the cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and nervous systems [12-16]. This can result in symptoms like fatigue, bone pain, muscle weakness, aches or cramps and mood changes, such as depression [17].

Magnesium plays a critical role in the various stages through which the body converts vitamin D from its storage into its active form [18-19]. This is because magnesium supports the proteins that convert vitamin D into a usable form.

As a result, if you take a daily vitamin D supplement but do not consume sufficient magnesium through your diet or supplementation, you likely will not experience the optimal health benefits [20-21].

Likewise, the relationship between magnesium and vitamin D is a two-way street. Higher amounts of vitamin D’s active form also appear to increase how much magnesium we absorb from food [22].

2. Improved heart health

Magnesium plays a critical role in maintaining a healthy heart by stabilising the rhythm of the heart as well as preventing blood clotting [23-25].

But that’s not where magnesium’s benefits for cardiovascular health end.

Magnesium is critical in maintaining healthy blood pressure. It does so by regulating calcium concentrations, which helps to control the width of blood vessels. Magnesium also stimulates nitric oxide, a compound made by the body that causes blood vessels to widen, helping to reduce blood pressure [26].

Research shows magnesium supplementation to be highly effective at reducing your risk of heart attacks and strokes [27-29]. If you have a history of cardiovascular disease in your family, ensuring you get enough magnesium in your diet should be a top priority.

Magnesium supplementation has also been found to significantly decrease total cholesterol and improve blood lipid profiles in people with high cholesterol [30].

3. Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes

Low levels of magnesium are associated with insulin resistance [31]. Insulin is the hormone that acts to shuttle carbohydrates (glucose) to muscles and other cells around the body, where it is converted for use as energy.

Insulin resistance occurs because of an inactive lifestyle. It refers to the body’s inability to effectively break down, store and utilise carbohydrates as fuel. This increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other chronic health conditions, such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease [32].

Magnesium helps regulate electrical activity and insulin production in the pancreas [33]. As a result, magnesium deficiency can impair the body’s ability to manage insulin effectively, which can lead to the development of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes [34].

However, numerous studies have shown supplementation of magnesium to be highly effective at improving insulin sensitivity in patients with type 2 diabetes and overweight non-diabetic people [35-39].

4. Improved cognitive function and mood

An increasing body of research shows that magnesium levels have a considerable influence on human cognitive performance and brain health [40].

Magnesium plays a key role in cognition partly by helping to convert vitamin B6, which is important for healthy brain development, keeping the nervous and immune systems healthy, and regulating mental function and mood [41].

Magnesium also works with calcium to regulate the nervous system. Low magnesium or calcium deficiency can lead to an increase in nervous system excitability. This may lead to cramps, cardiac abnormalities or even psychological disorders [42].

5. Increased muscular strength and muscle mass

Magnesium’s influence on calcium can help you maximise your physical performance in the gym.

It helps support multiple processes that govern muscle function, such as oxygen uptake, energy production, and the balance of electrolytes such as sodium, potassium and calcium [43]. Any interruption to this chain of events can result in you saying goodbye to those gains.

There is also evidence that even relatively minor magnesium deficiency impairs exercise performance and increases the negative outcomes of strenuous exercise, such as oxidative stress [44]. Oxidative stress can damage cells, protein and DNA, accelerating the ageing process [45].

6. Reduced inflammation and improved immunity

Magnesium plays a crucial role in keeping inflammation at healthy levels in the body. Chronic, low-level inflammation has a hand in everything from accelerated ageing to an increased risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, certain cancers and diabetes [46-47].

Animal models have shown that low dietary intakes of magnesium increase inflammatory responses in the body and lead to excess production of free radicals and oxidative stress [48].

Magnesium supplementation has been shown to decrease levels of C-reactive protein, a marker that increases when there is inflammation in the body [49].

We also need magnesium to make glutathione, the body’s primary antioxidant [50]. Glutathione is critical for protecting your immune cells and helping them to function optimally [51].

6. Improved sleep and recovery

In today’s modern, fast-paced world, nearly all of us could benefit from sleeping a little better and feeling less stressed. Making sure you are consuming enough magnesium is an easy win for boosting recovery.

Magnesium activates the parasympathetic or ‘rest and digest’ nervous system. Its primary role is to conserve the body’s natural activity, such as decreasing heart rate, slowing breathing, and digestion [52].

Activating this system also increases physical and mental relaxation. As a result, magnesium can help to relax the nervous system before bed, helping to promote restorative sleep. Observational studies also show that higher magnesium intakes correlate with improvements in the sleep cycle [53].

If you struggle with taking a long time to fall asleep, daytime napping, snoring or waking in the night, increasing your magnesium intake may help.

Sleep quality

7. Decreased stress

Many of us live with chronic stress, resulting in our sympathetic or ‘fight-or-flight’ response being overstimulated. Magnesium’s effects on the parasympathetic nervous system also make it highly beneficial for minimising the effects of chronic stress.

A long-term randomised control trial examined the long-term influence of magnesium supplementation and strength-endurance training on HRV [54].

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a health marker that measures the variation between consecutive heartbeats. It provides a snapshot of the balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Increasing evidence shows that higher HRV scores are associated with improved mental and physical health [55].

Participants took a 400mg daily magnesium supplement for three months. The results showed a clear increase in parasympathetic activity and activity of the vagus nerve, which controls vital functions such as digestion, heart rate and the immune system [56].

But that’s not all.

Magnesium also plays a crucial role in regulating numerous biochemical reactions in the body, particularly in the brain…

wellbeing at work stress

8. Improved mood and reduced risk of headaches and migraines

Magnesium’s effects on the nervous system make it highly beneficial for easing migraines and headaches. A large body of literature now shows that magnesium deficiency may also increase the occurrence of migraines and tension headaches [57-58].

Key to this is magnesium’s positive influence on neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), which regulate mood, behaviour, sleep and memory [59].

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that control various processes throughout the body. Magnesium deficiency can prevent these systems from functioning optimally, increasing the risk of developing conditions like depression and anxiety [60].

Hopefully, you’re now convinced of the benefits of magnesium. Here’s how you can boost your intake of this key mineral.

Which foods are high in magnesium?

Magnesium naturally occurs in a variety of foods and can also be taken as a dietary supplement. Foods such as bananas, almonds, broccoli, brown rice, whole grains, green vegetables and milk are all good sources of magnesium.

The table below shows the top dietary sources of magnesium and their average magnesium content per 100g (unless specified otherwise).

Table adapted from The USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference [61].

If you eat a balanced, nutritious diet, in theory, you should be able to obtain all the magnesium you need from your food.

But a few key reasons make this almost impossible for most people, even with the best nutritional habits and lifestyle.

Foods today contain 25-80% less magnesium than 50 years ago

Modern farming practices, such as the use of pesticides and fertilisers, as well as changes in soil conditions and quality, mean that many of the foods we eat today are low in magnesium [62].

Moreover, the manufacturing process for foods like refined oils, grains and sugar means that they contain barely any magnesium by the time they reach our plates [63].

And even if you eat mostly single-ingredient, whole foods, it may not be enough to prevent magnesium deficiency.

The UK Government’s ‘Composition of Food Tables’ shows a steady decline in the magnesium content of food over the last century. Between 1940 and 1991, there was a 24% decline in magnesium in vegetables, 17% in fruit, 15% in meats and 26% in cheese [64]. Fast-forward 30 years to today, and these figures are likely to be even higher. Figures also show that the magnesium content in wheat has dropped by 20% since 1968 [65].

As a result, most people who eat a standard Western diet do not consume enough magnesium to meet the recommended daily allowance (RDA). Research consistently shows that people who live in countries with the highest intakes of processed foods high in refined grains, fat, phosphate and sugar are most at risk of deficiency [66].

But the effects of the modern Western lifestyle don’t stop there. Diets that are low in nutrients and high in processed, calorie-dense foods have secondary effects that make magnesium deficiency even more likely.

Magnesium deficiency has negative effects on gut health

Around 30-70% of dietary magnesium is absorbed in the intestine [67]. The bacteria in your gut play a critical role in harvesting, storing and using energy from foods. Even slight disruptions to this delicate ecosystem, which may be exacerbated by diets high in processed and inflammatory foods, can result in the malabsorption of micronutrients like magnesium [68].

We are also increasingly understanding the importance of disruptions to the gut microbiome in the development of obesity. A wealth of research shows a two-way relationship between poor gut health, obesity, chronic inflammation and lifestyle diseases [69-70]. Gut dysbiosis, an imbalance in your gut bacteria, triggers changes in the body that make managing hunger and appetite much harder [71].

Being overweight is itself an inflammatory state that can negatively impact the balance of your gut microbiota [72]. This can make it harder to fully absorb the nutrients in foods [73]. If you are one of the 62% of UK adults who are overweight or obese [74], you may need to supplement, even if you are making positive changes to your diet.

How much magnesium do you need?

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of magnesium is 420mg daily for men and 320mg for women [75].

Pregnant or lactating women should consume at least 360mg of magnesium daily [76].

Taking high doses of magnesium (over 400mg) can cause diarrhoea in the short term. We do not yet know the effects of taking high doses of magnesium for a long time [77].

Most clinicians recommend having roughly a 2:1 balance of calcium to magnesium in your diet [78].

Recommended daily allowance of magnesium by age group and gender.

Your risk of metabolic, inflammatory and cardiovascular diseases increases if this ratio becomes unbalanced due to low magnesium intake [79]. Long-term studies in the United States show that the incidence of type 2 diabetes rose sharply between 1994 and 2001 as the ratio of calcium-to-magnesium intake from food rose from below 3.0mg/L to above 3.0mg/L [80].

Therefore, even though the RDA may be 320mg for women and 420mg for men, you may need more to balance your calcium intake. For example, if you consume the optimal daily intake of calcium for women aged 51+ of 1,200 mg of calcium, you will also need 600 mg of magnesium to balance it [81].

Always check with your doctor before taking magnesium.

 

Do you need to supplement with magnesium?

Statistics show that up to 48% of people consume less than the recommended magnesium intake [82-83]. As a result, it is estimated that up to 20% of people may be deficient [84].

So do you need to supplement with magnesium? If you fall into one of the following categories, you may be deficient without realising it.

 

1. You work out a lot

If you exercise regularly, the amount of magnesium you need rises. Around 15mg of magnesium is lost in sweat each day, which increases when you perform high-intensity exercise [85].

Strenuous exercise increases magnesium requirements by 10-20% [86]. As a result, you may need to supplement with magnesium.

2. You use aluminium-based products

You probably use aluminium products every day without even noticing. Cookware deodorants, over the counter and prescription medications, baking powder, or baked goods; if you use any of these products, you may benefit from a magnesium supplement.

Environmental aluminium toxicity increases the risk of magnesium deficiency because it reduces how much we absorb from the diet by around fivefold. As a result, the body retains up to 41% less magnesium in bone[87].

3. You are a woman

Women have increased magnesium requirements due to reproductive processes.

Magnesium deficiency in women is associated with conditions like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), weight gain, PMS, mood disorders and dysbiosis. During menopause, it may increase the risk of hot flashes, CVD, osteoporosis, insulin resistance, high blood pressure and constipation [88].

And if you’re a woman who struggles with severe PMS, supplementing with magnesium may be a no-brainer. Several studies have shown that women who suffer from PMS have lower magnesium levels than women who do not [89-90]

Magnesium is also highly beneficial for women who suffer from PCOS through its positive effects on insulin sensitivity [91-92].

Likewise, supplementing with magnesium may be necessary if you are at risk of or have been told you have osteoporosis [93].

Read how TV star Alison took control of menopausal weight gain at 58 to feel confident on camera.

 

4. You struggle to follow a healthy lifestyle

People who eat a lot of processed foods high in refined grains, fat and sugar are most likely to be deficient in magnesium [94].

As well as containing low levels of magnesium, these foods are also large sources of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which increase our magnesium requirements. For example, dairy products like cheese have a very high phosphorus to magnesium ratio [95].

Supplementation is a must if you eat a lot of packaged and processed bread and bakery products, sodas and sugary treats, and few magnesium-rich foods.

5. You have poor gut health

Since magnesium is absorbed through the gut [96], malabsorption can result in deficiency [97-98]. High alcohol intake can also increase the risk of low magnesium [99].

You may need to supplement if you have a history of digestive problems. This includes Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, coeliac disease, gastroenteritis, or ulcerative colitis). However, always speak to your doctor before supplementing with magnesium [100].

6. You have high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes or high cholesterol

 

Due to magnesium’s interactions with insulin and heart health, supplementing is crucial if you have any kind of metabolic condition, such as hypertension, diabetes or high cholesterol.

A meta-analysis covering 5,500 patients found that magnesium levels were significantly lower in patients with metabolic syndrome versus controls [101].

Patients with type 2 diabetes have also been found to have lower magnesium levels compared to healthy individuals [102].

7. You use certain medications

If you supplement with calcium, you are more likely to be magnesium deficient. This is because calcium and magnesium compete for absorption [103].

Likewise, over-supplementing with vitamin D may cause magnesium deficiency as it causes excessive calcium absorption, which can cause a build-up of calcium in the arteries [104].

You may be more likely to be deficient if you use diuretics and other medications, such as some heart medicines and antibiotics [105]. Always check with your doctor before taking magnesium if you take any medications.

Diagnosing magnesium deficiency

Magnesium deficiency is known as hypomagnesemia [106].

Magnesium deficiency is very difficult to diagnose as it shares symptoms with many other conditions, and there may be many contributing factors [107-108].

If you or your doctor suspects that you may be deficient in magnesium, they may ask you to take a blood test. Normal blood magnesium levels are between 1.8 and 2.2mg/dL [109].

Anything below this range is considered low, and blood magnesium levels under 1.25mg/dL are classed as severe hypomagnesemia [110].

Common symptoms of magnesium deficiency may include high blood pressure, asthma, migraine, muscle weakness and cramps, and depression.

 

How to supplement with magnesium

Most magnesium supplements are known as ‘chelates’, which means they contain elemental magnesium bound to a carrier molecule bound by two or more attachment points.

The term ‘chelated’ refers to how the elemental magnesium is bound to a carrier, which influences its bioavailability, meaning how much you absorb from it.

Chelated forms of magnesium include:

  • Magnesium citrate
  • Magnesium oxide
  • Magnesium chloride
  • Magnesium lactate (generally used as a food additive)
  • Magnesium malate
  • Magnesium taurate
  • Magnesium l-threonate
  • Magnesium sulfate
  • Magnesium glycinate
  • Magnesium orotate

Studies show that different types of magnesium salts are more ‘bioavailable’ than others. For example, organic magnesium salts, such as magnesium citrate, appear to result in much higher absorption rates than inorganic salts like magnesium oxide [111].

Magnesium glycinate, the key ingredient in UltraMag, has higher bioavailability than other, more traditional forms of magnesium supplementation. As a result, more magnesium is available for use in the body [112].

Not all forms of magnesium are suitable for treating magnesium deficiency. For example, magnesium L-threonate is a highly effective supplement for improving memory and mood as it can reach the brain, unlike other forms of magnesium [113]. However, it does not contain enough elemental magnesium to treat magnesium deficiency effectively.

 

Lifestyle considerations when taking magnesium

Supplements should always support rather than replace a healthy diet. Therefore, if you do not eat many natural sources of magnesium, consider making changes to your diet to include more fresh sources of magnesium-rich foods in addition to supplementing.

If you plan on taking magnesium to assist with sleep and recovery, make sure to combine supplementation with other lifestyle changes, such as following good sleep hygiene and making time for reading or meditation.

 

Magnesium FAQs

“What is magnesium deficiency?”

Magnesium deficiency is when the body does not get all the magnesium it needs for health.

If you don’t consume the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 420mg per day for men and 320mg for women [114], you may be magnesium deficient.

Magnesium deficiency can lead to numerous health problems, including:

  • high blood pressure and heart disease
  • diabetes
  • osteoporosis
  • migraine headaches

 

“What causes magnesium deficiency?”

True magnesium deficiency in healthy people is rare. However, subclinical deficiency – when magnesium levels are low but without obvious symptoms – can be caused by:

  • a poor diet
  • type 2 diabetes
  • digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease
  • vomiting or diarrhoea
  • kidney problems
  • long-term use of diuretics
  • some medicines (for example, fluid tablets and medicines for ulcers or reflux) can cause low magnesium levels if taken for extended periods
  • alcoholism

 

“What is bioavailability?”

Bioavailability refers to how much of a substance the body is able to absorb and make use of. When a medication is injected directly into the bloodstream, its bioavailability is 100%.

However, if you take this same medication as a tablet or pill, its bioavailability decreases as it has to pass through the mouth and digestive system. This is important as it determines how much of the supplement is available for use in the body.

 

“How do vitamin D and magnesium work together?”

Magnesium assists in activating vitamin D, which helps regulate calcium to influence the growth and maintenance of bones. The proteins that enable the conversion of vitamin D require magnesium, which also assists chemical reactions in the liver and kidneys.

 

“How do vitamin B and magnesium work together?”

Magnesium supports the conversion of Vitamin B6. This supports healthy brain development, maintenance of the nervous and immune systems, and mental function and mood [115].

 

“Can you overdose on magnesium?”

In healthy people, the body will only absorb as much as it needs. However, high doses of some magnesium salts like hydroxide, oxide, and citrate act as laxatives. If you take a very high dose, it may cause gastrointestinal problems and diarrhoea.

 

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