Fun Fact: Your body has over 100 trillion cells and every one of them needs magnesium to function correctly.
Not So Fun Fact: Some studies indicate that as many as 50% of Americans aren’t getting enough magnesium to support optimal health.
Why is This?
As recently as 1905, the average American got 400 mg of magnesium per day. Considering that the Recommended Dietary Allowance for magnesium is between 400-420 for adult males and 320 for adult females, that much magnesium today would completely solve our magnesium deficiency problem.
So what happened? Part of the reason might be that our modern diet is so heavily reliant on processed foods. We’ve all heard that processed foods are unhealthy, but did you know that whole wheat retains only 16% of its magnesium content after being processed into flour? This type of nutrient depletion is happening all over the food pyramid.
Why is Magnesium Important?
Magnesium is a versatile, powerful little helper. More than 800 essential biological functions in your body are dependent on magnesium. Here’s a breakdown of just a few of the most essential.
Our muscles contract a lot. When our brain tells our muscles to move, it activates a reaction which causes calcium to be pumped into our muscle cells. This creates a contraction. Every time we curl a dumbbell or pick up a water bottle, it’s the result of a contraction.
But what would happen if, whenever your muscles contracted, they couldn’t relax again? You’d be stuck! Thankfully, magnesium has you covered. After a contraction, magnesium takes over to help pump calcium back out of your cells, causing your muscles to relax.
Your body is constantly making copies of its own DNA, replacing old strands with new ones. It’s a miraculous process, and one which is shockingly accurate (less than 1 mistake for every billion copies). However, damage to DNA can still occur. Radiation, viruses, and other factors can cause erosion in places, like moths eating holes in a scarf.
To fix these damaged areas, your body sends a specialized team of enzymes to snip away the damaged DNA section and seamlessly stitch in a fresh replacement. Magnesium is an active helper in nearly every part of this process.
Ask a hundred people what their favorite food is, and you’re likely to get a large number of answers. Ask your cells, however, and the response would be a unanimous cry of “ATP!”
ATP is a high energy molecule which allows our cells to do basically everything that they do. How important is ATP? Well, say you’re a person who consumes 2500 calories a day. Between creating new ATP and recycling old ATP, your body will process roughly 53kg of ATP EVERY DAY!
53kg of anything is a lot, but for a microscopic molecule it’s mind-boggling.
And—you guessed it—all the mechanisms your body uses to process this incredible amount of ATP are dependent on magnesium to function.
Proteins are heavy lifters. They’re the blue collar handymen who take care of the structure, function, and regulation of your muscles and organs. Proteins are made up of hundreds or thousands of smaller units called amino acids, and magnesium plays a crucial role in assembling these massive protein structures.
How Does Magnesium Affect Your Health?
Because it is involved in such a wide array of biological processes, nailing down the exact benefits of magnesium can be tricky. Here are a few of the most strongly supported benefits of maintaining a healthy magnesium intake.
Helps Maintain Regular Heartbeat
As with other parts of the body, magnesium helps to regulate the concentration of calcium and potassium in the heart. This creates the regular contractions of your heartbeat.
Low levels of magnesium in the body can disrupt this process and result in an irregular heartbeat.
May Reduce Migraine Headaches
Magnesium also affects your brain’s capacity to send and receive nerve impulses. Just as in your heart, it’s function is regulating concentrations of calcium and potassium in your nerve cells.
Without enough magnesium, your nerve cells can get backed up. This can lead to an overactive nervous system which might result in migraine headaches.
May Reduce Depression and Anxiety
Magnesium’s role in the proper function of neurotransmitters has led many to believe that it is a factor in depression and anxiety. Magnesium is believed to affect a part of the brain called the hypothalamus which helps regulate the glands which are responsible for your response to stress.
Low magnesium levels have been observed in depressed individuals, and the two conditions even share similar symptoms, namely systemic inflammation and a cell-mediated immune response.
One study involving mice found that mice deprived of magnesium showed signs of higher anxiety than those receiving a healthy amount.
May Act as a Sleep Aid
Magnesium has been shown to play at least some role in the regulation of sleep. One study involving elderly subjects showed statistically significant improvements in several subjective measures of sleep quality such as duration and sleep efficiency as well as objective measures like melatonin concentration.
Helps With Blood Sugar Regulation
Magnesium plays a key role in regulating insulin action, and low magnesium has been shown to coincide with worsening insulin resistance in people with diabetes. Low dietary magnesium intake has also been related to the development of type 2 diabetes.
Helps Metabolize Vitamin D
Vitamin D is made in the skin when it’s exposed to sunlight. Like magnesium, Vitamin D deficiency was rare only 100 years ago, but became a widespread problem as people began to spend more and more time indoors.
Vitamin D needs magnesium to be active, so if you’ve been trying to up your Vitamin D but haven’t been seeing results, a magnesium deficiency may be the culprit.
Dietary Sources of Magnesium
Magnesium can be found in its natural form by eating foods from the following list.
- Dark green, leafy vegetables, such as Swiss chard and spinach
- Nuts and seeds, such as pumpkin, chia, and sesame seeds
- Whole, unrefined grains
- Fruits, such as bananas, dried figs, and blackberries
How to Use a Magnesium Supplement
While magnesium from natural sources is easily processed by the kidneys and expelled from the body, supplemental magnesium is not. The National Institute of Health has established the Tolerable Upper Limit of supplemental magnesium as 350 mg for adults.
For reference, the RDA for an adult male is 400 mg. For non-nursing women, the number is 320 mg.
Pay close attention to the label of any magnesium supplement you’re considering. Supplements whose serving sizes exceed this amount could have harmful effects such as diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal cramping and lead to “magnesium toxicity” in the body.
Once you’ve found a healthy option, magnesium supplements can be taken at any time of the day, but their benefits are best experienced over the long term. Consistency is key to minimizing the effects of any magnesium deficiency you may be experiencing.
The Bottom Line
Magnesium is a mineral vital to your health and wellness, and yet there’s a coin flip’s chance that you aren’t getting enough of it in your diet! Low magnesium can result in a wide variety of negative effects, many of which aren’t even fully understood.
It has even been hypothesized that the rise in anxiety and depression are linked to decreasing magnesium intakes worldwide.
But knowing is half the battle! And now that you learned about the importance of magnesium, you can take steps to ensure that you are getting the amount you need to stay happy and healthy.