If you could only supplement one nutrient, magnesium would be a good choice. Magnesium 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.
Most people aren’t. Surveys show that more than 50 percent of the U.S. population is deficient in magnesium, consuming less than the U.S. government recommended intake of 400 mg per day. Not only is your magnesium intake probably inadequate, research shows that many situations warrant a higher magnesium intake than the U.S. RDA.
This article will go into how magnesium protects your body and give you five situations in which you need more of this essential mineral.
Reason #1: To Balance Blood Sugar & Prevent Diabetes
Magnesium is well known as the mineral of insulin sensitivity, helping insulin to bind with cell receptors. Magnesium also increases expression of GLUT 1 and 4, which are molecules that act like buses, shuttling glucose into your cells so that it can be used for energy or stored as glycogen.
Studies show that magnesium has a protective effect against diabetes, with the greatest benefit in people who have an unhealthy diet that is high in refined carbs and low in fiber. For example, one massive survey of over 150,000 Americans found that magnesium intake was inversely associated with diabetes risk, and the effect was greatest in the context of a high-carb, low-quality diet.
Take Away: For many Americans, simply getting their magnesium intake up to par could go a long way in slowing the diabetes epidemic and keeping people healthy.
Reason #2: To Counter Stress & Balance Cortisol
Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released by the adrenals. It is essential for life, raising blood sugar to help you get through stressful experiences. But you don't want it hanging around in your bloodstream for a long time once the stress is gone because it has a catabolic, inflammatory effect, degrading muscle and damaging cells and DNA.
That’s where magnesium comes in. Magnesium is necessary for the metabolism of cortisol, and it has a relaxing effect on the sympathetic nervous system. For people who are deficient in magnesium, supplementing can calm anxiety and improve sleep, while also lowering heart rate and countering the flight-or-fight response.
Take Away: A simple solution to counter the negative effects our high-stress society is to supplement with magnesium.
Reason #3: To Prevent Depression
Magnesium is one step in the neurotransmitter cascade that produces serotonin, the chemical that regulates mood and helps you feel calm and optimistic. Most anti-depressant drugs try to improve serotonin levels, but getting your magnesium up may be just as effective since it solves multiple problems at once.
For example, a new study that tested 6 weeks of supplementation of 248 mg of elemental magnesium per day found a significant decrease in depressive symptoms compared to a control group. Researchers concluded that magnesium is effective for mild-to-moderate depression in adults and that it works quickly and is well tolerated without the need for close monitoring for toxicity.
Take Away: If you’re feeling down in the dumps for any period, your first line of defense should be to get your magnesium status up to par.
Reason #4: To Optimize Physical Performance
If you train regularly or are an athlete, your magnesium requirements skyrocket. The body uses magnesium to sustain muscle contractions and deliver oxygen to working muscles. It also plays a role in recovery, impacting protein synthesis and your ability to tamp down inflammation that coincides with intense training.
For athletes with a high-carb intake, magnesium needs are even greater due to the role this mineral plays in metabolic function and insulin sensitivity. One reason that many serious athletes may have suboptimal blood sugar control is lack of magnesium intake.
Take Away: If your blood sugar is off, you are having trouble recovering, or you just don’t feel like you’re getting everything possible out of your training, get your magnesium levels measured.
Reason #5: Strengthen Bones & Prevent Fracture
Calcium is necessary for bone building, but it does nothing if you don’t have adequate levels of magnesium and vitamin D. Magnesium activates cellular enzyme activity, allowing the body to convert vitamin D into its active form to help with calcium absorption and bone building.
Magnesium also leads to the release of the hormone calcitonin, which helps to preserve bone structure and draws calcium out of the blood and soft tissues and back into the bones. Further, magnesium suppresses parathyroid hormone, which breaks down bone.
Studies point to the importance of calcium and magnesium in a near equal ratio. However, the average person has a skewed intake, getting much more calcium than magnesium. Vitamin D is also important due to the integrated role of vitamin D in bone health.
Take Away: If you’re supplementing with calcium, combine it with magnesium in equal doses—and don’t forget about vitamin D!
How To Get Enough Magnesium:
Magnesium is available in leafy greens, almonds and sunflower seeds, and grains, however, the bioavailability from grains is low.
Supplementation should happen slowly so that the body can adjust. Magnesium has a relaxing effect on the bowel and if you take too much too quickly, it can lead to diarrhea or urgency going to the bathroom.
For most people, the optimal dose will be around 10 mg/kg of body weight of magnesium daily (400 to 1,200 mg).
When supplementing, opt for magnesium chelates. A chelate refers to whatever molecule the magnesium is bound with. Chelates such as glycinate, malate, and fumarate are a few that are more easily absorbed than oxide, which is cheap and the form typically found in supplements.
When testing for magnesium, you need to do a red blood cell magnesium test. The standard test used by medical doctors for magnesium measures serum magnesium levels in the blood, but only about one percent of this mineral is found in the blood. Rather, about 66 percent is found in bone and 33 percent found in skeletal and cardiac muscle. Testing red blood cell magnesium reflects how it is used by the body.
Hruby, A., et al. Magnesium Intake, Quality of Carbohydrates, and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: Results From Three U.S. Cohorts. Diabetes Care. 2017. Published Ahead of Print.
Rosanoff, A., et al. Suboptimal magnesium status in the United States: are the health consequences underestimated? Nutrition Reviews. 2012. 70(3):153-64.
Tarleton, E., et al. Role of magnesium supplementation in the treatment of depression: A randomized clinical trial. PLOS One. 2017. 12(6):e0180067.