It’s not unusual for a naturopath or nutritionist to have a favourite nutrient, and, hands down, mine is magnesium. I’m certain I’m not alone in that as magnesium is having a distinct moment in the sun, (which, by the way, I wholly support). This mineral is truly amazing and I’m about to tell you why. I’ll also spill the dirt on the best forms of magnesium, what to look for in a supplement and why it’s likely you aren’t getting enough.
So, let’s start with just a little bit of background: Magnesium is the 4th most abundant mineral in the body and about 60% of our body’s magnesium is found in bone, 20% in skeletal muscle, 19% in other soft tissues with the last 1% swimming around in extracellular fluid. The magnesium in our bone is a form of storage – around half of it is there as a reservoir to make sure our blood levels keep stable. This is really important as magnesium is needed for well over 300 different enzymatic reactions in the body.
Testing for magnesium status isn’t straight forward – a blood test can’t adequately show sufficiency ( as most magnesium is tucked away in bone, muscle and soft tissue and not in the blood waiting to be tested) and red cell testing has limits, – urine testing of magnesium retention is considered to be the most accurate method but this it is more than a little complicated requiring injections and multiple urine samples.
Functions of Magnesium & Signs of Deficiency
It’s almost easier to list what magnesium doesn’t do than what it does do but here are some of its major functions.
Magnesium is required for:
– Regulation of muscle contraction (the relaxation phase in particular)
– Regulation of blood pressure
– Insulin metabolism & blood sugar level maintenance
– Cardiac excitability and rhythm maintenance
– Nerve transmission
– Neuromuscular contraction
– Synthesis of DNA and RNA
– Protein synthesis
– Vasomotor tone
– Energy production and storage
– Immune function (especially acute allergic reactions)
– Synthesis of some neurotransmitters.
From this list you can see understand how it is that low magnesium can cause or contribute to cardiovascular disease & arrhythmia, hypertension, muscle cramps and twitching, insulin and blood sugar dysregulation, migraine, anxiety, irritability, depression and other mood disorders, lethargy, fatigue, muscle weakness, poor immune function etc.
And because it is so intricately involved with other nutrients, there are knock on effects of being low – magnesium deficiency can lead to hypokalaemia (low potassium), hypocalcaemia (low calcium) and other electrolyte disturbances.
Such an extensive list of issues that so many of us experience (and ignore) regularly without really thinking anything sinister is going on. The take away, according to the National Institutes of Health, is sobering: ‘Habitually low intakes of magnesium induce changes in biochemical pathways that can increase the risk of illness over time’.
Food Sources & Magnesium Sufficiency
Our daily requirement as adults is 320mg for women and 420mg for men (Pregnant women need to up it a bit more). In theory, a wholegrain, plant rich, organic diet should provide sufficiency, however reports show that magnesium intake is lower than optimal in the majority of adults.
Plant foods are the richest sources of magnesium, which is good news for vegans and vegetarians, but a plant-based diet doesn’t totally guarantee you’ll be sufficient. To have sufficient magnesium for optimal functioning, we need to have a diet rich in sources of magnesium that are from nutrient rich soil and have undergone no, or very little, processing (processing can remove up to 85% of the magnesium).
In addition, we need to ensure we can absorb and utilise the magnesium we consume. That means we need to have adequate intake of selenium, vitamins B6 and D3, and to consider if any absorption issues are interfering. We also need to consider conditions that increase our need for magnesium – which could be anything from stress to lots of exercise, from a highly acidic diet to having a medical condition. In those instances, standard dietary intake may not provide sufficiency, so diet changes or supplementation would be important to consider.
If you are ever trying to remember where magnesium is richest, it helps to remember that magnesium is required for photosynthesis in plants, giving plants their green colour. So that means that anything green – especially dark green – will be super rich in magnesium. Other really rich food sources are nuts, legumes (especially soy and including soymilk), avocado, and wholegrains.
Multiple studies into magnesium deficiency states have shown that the effectiveness of magnesium supplementation is ‘beyond controversy’, which is good news if reaching sufficiency through diet is hard for you. But so many supplements are out there, sporting many different forms of magnesium, so how do you choose?
Let’s start by looking at oral supplements, which are probably the most common form of supplementation. Any health food store or chemist will stock more than a few magnesium products, but apples are not apples when it comes to magnesium. For a start, the more inexpensive ones – often found in pharmacies – can have the poorest uptake and are often the form that can lead to the laxative effect many people associate with magnesium supplements. Research has shown that magnesium citrate has one of the highest uptakes of all oral supplementation forms, so is a lovely one to look for, however you might find other forms suit your needs better. For example:
– Magnesium glycinate (my personal favourite) is considered optimal for stress, insomnia, mood disorders, nervous system disorders and is also good for a sensitive gut as it is the least likely to cause digestive upset.
– Magnesium citrate is particularly beneficial for restless legs syndrome and digestive disturbances like constipation and indigestion (it can have a laxative effect).
– Magnesium orotate and Magnesium taurate – are optimal for cardiovascular issues – hypertension, arrhythmia, stroke and general cardiovascular health. The orotate form is also great for nervous system support.
– Magnesium threonate is ideal for nervous system conditions including anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, and to support brain function (especially post injury).
– Magnesium malate is perfect for muscular conditions, including fibromyalgia, but is also supportive for the nervous system
Sometimes, the magnesium in the formulation will be bound to a number of compounds. Like any nutrition label, they will be listed in order of quantity, so the first compound will be the most prevalent.
If you see Magnesium amino acid chelate – that means the magnesium is bound (chelated) to an amino acid, which could be glycine (my fave) or it could be threonine, aspartate, or arginine. I already discussed a couple of them, but generally amino acid chelates are pretty good.
Magnesium in the form of carbonate, gluconate and oxide are generally not recommended, either because of their poor absorption and risk of digestive disturbance. I recommend avoiding supplements containing these – especially if they are the sole form of magnesium.
The most important thing when it comes to supplements is to check what amount of actual magnesium you are actually getting – not what amount of the compound you are getting. By that I mean, you want to know the level of magnesium, not the level of, say, magnesium citrate. The label may refer to the magnesium as elemental magnesium, or it might say, for example, magnesium (as citrate). In both cases, that will be the amount of actual magnesium, which is good. But if it says magnesium citrate – 900mg, that doesn’t tell you how much magnesium is in there, just the total amount of the compound – you need to investigate further.
One lovely feature of magnesium is that forms of it has the potential to be absorbed through the skin, which gives us another great option for supplementing.
The skin, as we all know, is the largest organ of the body, comprising around 10% of our total body mass! And while it acts as a protective barrier, it does allow certain substances to cross under the right conditions. Those conditions are either heat or when in a lipophilic (‘fat-loving’) formulation. Basically, that means in a hot bath, hot foot soak, or in an oil-based preparation.
We all know and love Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate), and for good reason as Epsom salt baths have been clinically shown to increase magnesium levels for several days after bathing. The beauty of this is that you kind of double down on the muscle relaxing and stress relieving features of magnesium as having a hot bath can be beneficial by itself. It also means you completely bypass the risk of any digestive disturbances. (*Please note that if you consume Epsom salts internally – or another magnesium salt like magnesium chloride – it is likely to have a strong laxative effect.)
Magnesium oil, which is typically magnesium chloride in an oil base, is a newer option on the market but has gained rapid popularity. It is considered to be as – or more – effective oral supplementation and, like the bath option, avoids any digestive issues. Companies like Australian owned Amazing Oils produce high quality formulations in both roll on and spray on options, with really high bioavailability of the magnesium. Some people find that their skin will slightly sting or itch after applying magnesium oils, but this is generally considered a sign of low magnesium status and I personally have found that goes away after repeated use (presumably because my magnesium levels have risen). If you find this sensation uncomfortable, you can soothe it with a moisturiser containing aloe vera.
When to Take Magnesium
The general rule of thumb with minerals is if they are calming (and magnesium is a perfect example), take them at night, if they are stimulating (iron is a good example) take them in the morning. I find this absolutely true for magnesium – because it plays such a role in soothing the nervous system it is great to take at night, but having said that, if you are taking it for anxiety, say, you might be best to take divided doses throughout the day and night.
So, there you have it. It is a remarkable nutrient and so easy to enjoy regularly on a plant-based diet. Ideally you would get all you need from your diet – that is always the best option – but when that isn’t possible you are spoilt for choice with options for supplementing.
Please note when reading this that this information is very generalised and not at all medical advice. If you need specific information relating to an existing condition, or if you are on medication, please consult with your health practitioner.