Magnesium is a mineral that is present in relatively large amounts in the body. Researchers estimate that the average person’s body contains about 25 grams of magnesium, and about half of that is in the bones. Magnesium is important in more than 300 chemical reactions that keep the body working properly.
People get magnesium from their diet, but sometimes magnesium supplements are needed if magnesium levels are too low. Dietary intake of magnesium may be low, particularly among women. An easy way to remember foods that are good magnesium sources is to think of fiber.
Foods that are high in fiber are generally high in magnesium. Dietary sources of magnesium include legumes, whole grains, vegetables (especially broccoli, squash, and green leafy vegetables), seeds, and nuts (especially almonds). Other sources include dairy products, meats, chocolate, and coffee. Water with high mineral content, or “hard” water, is also a source of magnesium.
People take magnesium to prevent or treat magnesium deficiency.
Athletes sometimes use magnesium to increase energy and endurance. Some people put it on their skin to treat infected skin ulcers, boils, and carbuncles; and to speed up wound healing. It is also used as a cold compress in the treatment of a severe skin infection caused by strep bacteria (erysipelas) and as a hot compress for deep-seated skin infections.
How does it work?
Magnesium is required for the proper growth and maintenance of bones. Magnesium is also required for the proper function of nerves, muscles, and many other parts of the body. In the stomach, magnesium helps neutralize stomach acid and moves stools through the intestine.
Helps Increase Energy
Magnesium is used to create “energy” in your body by activating adenosine triphosphate, also known as ATP. This means that without enough magnesium, you don’t have the energy you need and can suffer from fatigue more easily.
Inadequate magnesium intake also means you tire more quickly and need a higher level of oxygen during exercise. One study conducted by the ARS Community Nutrition Research Group found that when magnesium-deficient women exercised, they needed more oxygen to complete low-level activities and had a higher heart rate compared to when their magnesium levels were higher. (4)
Calms Nerves & Anxiety
Magnesium is vital for GABA function, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that produces “happy hormones” like serotonin. Certain hormones regulated by magnesium are crucial for calming the brain and promoting relaxation, which is one reason why a magnesium deficiency can lead to sleeplessness or insomnia.
In a 2012 report published in the Journal of Neuropharmacology, when mice became magnesium deficient, they displayed enhanced anxiety-related behaviors compared to mice given magnesium supplements.
Magnesium deficiency caused an increase in the production of cortisol hormones in the brains of the mice, specifically by activating the paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus (PVN), a part of the brain that controls responses to stress and anxiety. (5)
Treats Insomnia & Helps You Fall Asleep
Magnesium supplements can help slow down a racing mind and make it easier to get a good night’s sleep. Our circadian rhythms shift, especially as we age, because of our decreased nutrient consumption and lower nutrient absorption, which puts many of us at risk for insomnia.
When 46 patients were either given magnesium supplements or a placebo over an eight-week period, the group taking magnesium supplements experienced a significant increase in sleep time, an easier time falling asleep, higher concentrations of melatonin (the hormone responsible for inducing sleepiness) and lower levels of cortisol which are associated with stress.
Researchers who published the 2012 study in the Journal of Research in Medical Science concluded that magnesium supplementation is low-risk and effective for lowering insomnia symptoms; improves sleep efficiency, sleep time and sleep onset; plus it aids in early morning awakening and lowers concentrations of cortisol. (6)
Helps With Digestion by Relieving Constipation
Magnesium helps to relax muscles within the digestive tract, including the intestinal wall, which controls your ability to go to the bathroom. Because magnesium helps neutralize stomach acid and moves stool through the intestines, taking magnesium supplements is a natural way to help you poop!
When researchers from the National Institute of Health and Nutrition in Tokyo studied the effects of magnesium in the diet of 3,800 women, low magnesium intake was associated with significant increases in the prevalence of constipation. (7)
Another study found that when elderly patients experiencing constipation took magnesium supplements, they were more efficient at reducing constipation than the use of bulk-laxatives. (8)
Keep in mind, however, that if you experience a laxative effect when taking magnesium supplements, you may be taking too high of a dose. Taking the proper dose of magnesium should help you go to the bathroom easily on a normal schedule, but shouldn’t cause discomfort or diarrhea.
Relieves Muscle Aches and Spasms
Magnesium has an important role in neuromuscular signals and muscle contractions. When you don’t acquire enough magnesium, your muscles can actually go into spasms. Magnesium helps muscles to relax and contract, and also enables you to move around. (9)
Additionally, magnesium balances calcium within the body, which is important because overly high doses of calcium, usually from supplements, can cause problems associated with muscle control – including controlling the heart.
While calcium is often taken in high quantities, magnesium supplements usually are not taken by most adults. This can result in the potential for intense muscle pains, cramps, contractions, and weakness.
Regulates Levels of Calcium, Potassium, and Sodium
Together with other electrolytes, magnesium regulates diverse biochemical reactions in the body. Magnesium plays a role in the active transport of calcium and potassium ions across cell membranes. This makes magnesium vital to nerve impulse conductions, muscle contractions, and normal heart rhythms. (10)
Magnesium, working with calcium, also contributes to the structural development of bone and is required for the synthesis of DNA, RNA, and the antioxidant glutathione.
Important for Heart Health
Magnesium is very important for heart health. The highest amount of magnesium within the whole body is in the heart, specifically within the heart’s left ventricle. Magnesium works with calcium to support proper blood pressure levels and prevent hypertension.
Without a proper balance of magnesium to other minerals like calcium, a heart attack can even occur due to severe muscle spasms.
Prevents Migraine Headaches
Because magnesium is involved in neurotransmitter function and blood circulation, it can help control migraine headache pain by releasing pain-reducing hormones and reducing vasoconstriction, or constriction of the blood vessels that raises blood pressure. Several studies show that when sufferers of migraines supplement with magnesium, their symptoms improve. (11)
Helps Prevent Osteoporosis
Magnesium is needed for proper bone formation and influences the activities of osteoblasts and osteoclasts that build healthy bone density.
Magnesium also plays a role in balancing blood concentrations of vitamin D, which is a major regulator of bone homeostasis. A higher magnesium intake correlates with increased bone mineral density in both men and women according to several studies. Research also shows that women can help prevent or reverse osteoporosis by increasing their magnesium consumption and preventing magnesium deficiency. (12)
Originally published on Dr. Axe on 2016 revised in 2019.
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