Do you get crazy sore from training? Does anxiety about work just eat you up inside? Do you find yourself tossing and turning all night, never to get a good night’s sleep?
All these are signs that you’re not getting enough magnesium. This often-overlooked mineral affects more than 300 processes in the body, which is why it can feel like your health (and life!) are falling apart if you don’t get enough.
Magnesium deficiency is rampant—there’s been a gradual decline of dietary magnesium from a high of 500 mg/day in 1900 to barely 225 mg/day today, which is well below the U.S. RDA. The drop is due to changes in diet and soil quality.
Here are some of the most common signs of magnesium deficiency, followed by recommendations for getting your levels up.
#1: Trouble sleeping.
Magnesium has a calming effect on the nervous system. If you are deficient, your heart rate and sympathetic nervous system will be sent into overdrive. Additionally, lack of magnesium has shown to alter electrical activity in the brain, causing agitated sleep and frequent awakenings.
Increasing magnesium intake is one of the most effective ways to improve sleep. For example, it helped a group of stressed-out subjects with chronic insomnia to relax and get better sleep in a 2010 study.
#2: Muscle cramps or excessive soreness.
Magnesium is necessary for your muscles to contract and relax properly. If you’re deficient in magnesium, muscles are more likely to spasm and you may suffer from more severe delayed post-workout soreness.
For example, a 1996 case study, which at first baffled researchers, found that magnesium depletion was the reason for an army soldier’s extreme muscle pain and spasms in his calves that made him unable to walk. The soldier admitted to having exercised over and above his normal army training. He was admitted to the hospital and given intravenous magnesium (along with a daily ECG to monitor heart function since low magnesium can lead to heart attack). Achieving normal magnesium levels quickly solved his extreme soreness and spasms.
Researchers note that magnesium deficiency is often misdiagnosed due to the fact that only 0.3 percent of the magnesium in the body is in blood plasma, whereas the rest is in bone, muscle, and connective tissue. The lack of attention to magnesium deficiency is a shame because it is easy to solve and has a profound effect on health—it’s associated with death from heart attack, which is one reason that the soldier’s heart function was tested daily with an ECG.
#3: You’re overwhelmed by stress.
Magnesium is the most powerful relaxation mineral. Lack of it causes an overactive sympathetic nervous system. This results in excessive cortisol release as part of your stress response, which can cause anxiety and a racing mind.
In fact, it’s a vicious cycle because magnesium is essential for the metabolism of cortisol—without it, you won’t be able to calm yourself and are likely to end up bowled over by stress.
Pair anxiety and poor sleep together and it’s enough to make anyone depressed! Magnesium’s role in keeping your mood up goes further: Serotonin—a brain chemical that elevates mood—is dependent on magnesium. Most anti-depressant drugs try to improve serotonin levels, but getting your magnesium levels up is natural and may be just as effective since it solves multiple problems at once.
#5: You have high blood sugar or are prediabetic.
If you’re doctor has told you you’re prediabetic it’s a good bet low magnesium is involved. For example, in one study of 136 women, those with magnesium deficiency were much more likely to have insulin resistance and be obese compared to those with normal magnesium status.
The mechanism at work has to do with the role magnesium plays in carbohydrate metabolism. During episodes of high blood sugar, the kidneys are unable to retain magnesium creating a downward spiral of magnesium deficiency and subsequently diabetes.
#6: High blood pressure.
Many times people who follow a healthy diet are surprised to find they are pre-hypertensive. Stress is generally thought of as the reason, but it’s actually a symptom, not the cause. Lack of magnesium is the real culprit because both are a result of nervous system overdrive.
In addition, magnesium is necessary for relaxation and dilation of blood vessels. When you have low magnesium, your blood vessels constrict causing high blood pressure. For example, a 2009 study found that supplementing with 600 mg of magnesium daily reduced blood pressure substantially more than a control group that made lifestyle changes (systolic was reduced by 4.3 points and diastolic by 1.8 points more in the magnesium group).
#7: You have trouble focusing.
If you have brain fog or feel like you’re getting more and more ADD, lack of magnesium may be the cause. Magnesium regulates a key receptor in the brain that supports memory and learning. Adequate magnesium content in the cerebrospinal fluid is essential for maintaining the plasticity of synapses. Further, magnesium is necessary for the proper activity of many enzymes within brain cells that control cellular and memory functions.
Supplementing with magnesium has been shown to increase attention span, which researchers suggest is due both to its calming effects and the fact that it improves brain activity.
#8: Bad digestion or constipation.
Your gastrointestinal tract is basically one big muscle, which is why lack of magnesium causes poor digestion and problems going to the bathroom. The bowel isn’t able to relax when magnesium is deficient, but if you overdose on magnesium, especially cheap magnesium chelates like magnesium oxide, you’ll experience the opposite effect—diarrhea and urgency going to the bathroom.
Then you can pad intake with a high-quality magnesium supplement that is not bound with oxide. Instead, magnesium bound with glycinate and taurate are higher quality and better absorbed by the body.
Another way to increase magnesium levels is with transdermal magnesium, which is absorbed through the skin from oils, creams, or a bath. Epsom salts or magnesium chloride flakes added to a bath are convenient alternatives to intravenous magnesium, which is the gold standard for solving clinically low magnesium, because they allow for targeted application on sore muscles. A magnesium bath is also a great way to wind down before bedtime.
Regarding dosing of magnesium, it’s very rare to have high magnesium levels because of the kidneys will excrete any extra magnesium. On the other hand, magnesium homeostasis is easily disordered toward a deficiency, which is why researchers recommend supplementation even if you eat a healthy, well-rounded diet.
Most studies show improvements to symptoms from doses of 400 to 500 mg of magnesium a day, with 1,000 mg a day being an upper limit. Start supplementing slowly so that your body (especially your GI tract) can adjust.