The lack of vitamins and minerals in the Western diet is so widely known as to seem mundane. Our knowledge about vitamins and minerals has become simplistic. Sometimes I feel like all that most people know about vitamins is that they are good (as opposed to bad, I suppose). But let us not forget the research and science that brought us to this point.
To illustrate my point, I plan to portray the full power of modern nutritional science in support of one mineral: magnesium.
Magnesium deficiency, bones, and teeth
Let’s begin with the story of magnesium and bone density because this is a story that mainstream nutrition advice has gotten wrong for decades, as well as a story that explains the stress a mineral deficiency can put on the body.
Basically, magnesium “plays an important part in bone growth and helps prevent tooth decay by holding calcium in tooth enamel”1. But let’s look deeper into the process.
Many cells need magnesium. When there is not enough magnesium coming in from the food, other sources of magnesium must be found. First, organs and tissues will be scoured for stored magnesium content. Ultimately, the last source is going to be from the bones and teeth2. As you can imagine, having minerals stripped from your bones on a daily basis is not exactly restorative.
Not getting enough magnesium through diet for one day should not be a problem. The organs have plenty of magnesium reserves for this. Chronic magnesium deficiencies, on the other hand, will almost certainly cause mineral loss in bones and teeth.
You have probably heard that calcium is good of your bones, but unfortunately the truth is just not that simple. Calcium works with magnesium, potassium, boron, and numerous other minerals in order to create a healthy bone matrix2.
Complicating matters, you need to not only consume all of these, but you need to be aware of the ratios among them. One should consume no more than twice as much calcium as magnesium; a one to one ratio may be optimal in some situations2. One might be consuming seemingly high levels of magnesium, but if calcium levels are more than twice as high, the magnesium level will not be adequate. And alongside that magnesium, plenty of potassium is needed (around 3 grams per day—generally available through diet alone)2. Consuming too much sodium chloride can also throw off one’s mineral balance2.
In order to avoid bone density issues, adequate minerals need to be consumed, and depleting factors—which I will discuss later—must be avoided.
Magnesium in the muscle
Magnesium is vital for muscle relaxation. Calcium floods into muscle cells, causing contraction. When calcium leaves, magnesium replaces it, causing relaxation1. Conditions involving aches and pains, such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, are often improved with magnesium use1.
Deficiency of magnesium may lead to the exhibition of muscle spasms, tremors, and convulsions on the extreme end, but other subtle and internal symptoms may arise as well1. A magnesium deficiency may set someone well on the course to heart disease without their realization.. The heart and all blood vessels, of course, have and need functioning muscles to operate correctly.
Think of other muscle functions. One important area is the digestive tract, which relies heavily on the process of peristalsis, a series of automatic muscle contractions that causes motion through the digestive tract. Magnesium is essential for normal peristalsis3. A magnesium deficiency can also cause poor bowel tone3. These problems will severely impair digestion. This might be way magnesium supplementation has the potential to help certain symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), such as muscle spasms3.
Without magnesium, constipation can result, and that can further lead to hemorroids3. Remember: if you don’t have at least one good bowel movement a day, you are constipated.
Magnesium, diabetes, syndrome x, and heart disease
Animal studies correlate magnesium deficiencies with arrhythmias, abnormal electrical activity in the heart, arteriosclerosis, constriction of the arteries, high blood pressure, angina, myocardial infarction, blood clots, and heart valve disorders2.
One theory is that magnesium—alongside sodium, potassium, and calcium—affects the muscle tone of the blood vessels1. Numerous studies have shown that giving more than 400 mg of magnesium to people with low magnesium and high blood pressure levels improved their blood pressure1, 2. People suffering from angina were shown to benefit from magnesium supplementation1.
Mildred Seelig’s The Magnesium Factor takes this quite a bit further. She documents the responses of various cells to low magnesium. Insulin-producing pancreatic cells (beta cells) will release too much insulin, fat tissue and muscle cells become unable to respond to insulin, blood-vessel cells constrict and stiffen, blood platelets become more likely to stick together (clotting), heart muscle cells enlarge and become excessively contractile, adrenal gland cells release too much cortisol, nerve cells overreact to stimuli, liver cells produce too much glucose, and kidney cells increase sodium retention2.
Take high blood pressure. Magnesium makes blood vessels “relax and dilate,” which is vital for normal blood pressure2. Sufficient magnesium levels are also needed for electrolyte balance, which is also necessary for normal blood pressure2. These are only two simple ways magnesium affects blood pressure, not to say that these are the only ways.
In a number of studies, cholesterol was improved by magnesium supplementation1. Ironically and sadly, certain cholesterol lowering drugs (gemfibrozil and simvastatin) actually decrease serum magnesium levels1. And worst of all, this widely available information is rarely taken advantage of by health professionals.
It’s no wonder that magnesium deficiency is correlated with heart disease and diabetes. Syndrome X, an increasingly common combination of heart disease, diabetes, high body fat (especially in the abdominal region), increased blood clotting, and other health problems, can be almost entirely explained by magnesium deficiency2.
Other functions of magnesium
In addition to its involvement with muscle relaxation and bone density, magnesium is needed in all cells and nerves, protein synthesis, the immune and reproductive systems, energy regulation and metabolism, and insulin production1, 4.
It is needed for certain ATP functions, it works with and to create several B vitamins, and it is involved in the synthesis of numerous hormones, including cortisone (a steroid hormone whose deficit is implicated in arthritis)4.
It plays a role in converting ammonia, a byproduct of protein production, into urea in order to transport it out of the system, thus playing a role in detoxification4.
Magnesium deficiency is shown to decrease the number of lymphocytes, particularly the T cells, which impairs the immune system5.
One final but important subject is nerve health. Magnesium plays a role in “breaking down fatty globules into fatty acids,” which is necessary for nerve system functioning4. Relatedly, magnesium “stabilizes cell membranes,” which protects them from overstimulation by excitatory neurotransmitters like glutamate and excitotoxins like MSG and aspartame5.
All that, and there are only four or five teaspoons of magnesium in the body, 70% of which is in the bones4.
Other conditions related to magnesium
Magnesium deficiency has been shown to be common in asthma3. A recent study showed that asthmatic children given magnesium required less medications and experienced fewer symptoms1.
Other studies correlated magnesium supplementation with lower chances of having high levels of c-reactive protein, which is one marker of cardiovascular disease that I believe to be of high utility1.
Boys with depression, schizophrenia, and sleep disturbances were found to have deceased serum magnesium levels1.
Autistic children generally have well below average magnesium levels, and some improve when given large quantities of magnesium alongside vitamin B61.
A number of studies have correlated low magnesium levels and migraine headaches3.
Magnesium deficiency may lead to a loss of sensation in the extremities, and “if severe, tremors, convulsions, muscle contractions, confusion, delirium, and behavior disturbances”1.
Psychiatric patients who attempted suicide had lower magnesium levels than nonsuicidal psychiatric patients and healthy individuals1.
Magnesium may prevent certain pregnancy complications, including “prematurity and intrauterine growth retardation”1.
In treating menstrual problems, magnesium supplementation was found to decrease lower back and abdominal pain as well as missed days from work1.
Sources of magnesium and causes of depletion
Of course, it is possible to get all the magnesium one needs through the diet. It is more than possible to get the generally recommended minimum of magnesium, 400 mg. But you’re probably not.
Let’s look at food processing. Take wheat, for example. When the bran and the germ are removed from a whole wheat kernal, 84% of the magnesium is removed with it3. In other food processing situations, an average of 75% of the magnesium content is lost3.
A century ago, average magnesium intake was over 400 mg per day2. Today, average consumption is around 250-300 mg per day—well under the RDA of 360 mg2. Modern research on traditional societies found their levels of magnesium in the diet to be as much as twenty times higher than ours today6. Fully 80% of American women don’t meet the recommended levels for magnesium3.
Foods with high magnesium content include whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes, leafy green vegetables (lightly cooked or raw), shellfish, coconut, and most types of seaweed2. If you’re not eating high amounts of these foods on a daily basis, you are at risk for a magnesium deficiency.
Again, magnesium works in synergy with calcium. Mildred Seelig recommends a calcium to magnesium ratio ranging from one to one up to two to one as the absolute maximum2. Taking more than twice as much calcium as magnesium is going to be problematic for most people, but is extremely common, especially amongst females supplementing with calcium to prevent osteoporosis.
Now, one thing to keep in mind is that there are a number of depleting factors which can impair magnesium absorption. Consuming an overly acidic diet (especially brought on by sugar, white flour, coffee, etc.) without alkalizing foods (especially raw fruits and vegetables) alongside will create a more acidic digestive system environment. The body buffers out this acidity with alkalizing minerals, such as magnesium. This will increase mineral needs.
Alcohol is especially antagonistic to magnesium4. Additionally, phytic acid (found in unsoaked grains, nuts and seeds) and oxalic acid (found in raw spinach and other foods) have the capacity to bind to magnesium, making it useless to the body4. Pasteurized milk with synthetic vitamin D also inhibits magnesium absorption4.
Stress (emotional, physical, etc.) itself also increases magnesium needs, as hormones released by the adrenal glands activate a number of processes that rely on minerals like magnesium2.
Should I supplement with magnesium?
For most people, it is not necessary to supplement specifically with magnesium. But it might be a great idea to be on a whole foods multivitamin with high levels of vitamins derived from food sources and with sufficient mineral levels, including magnesium. Some things to look for in a quality multivitamin are 400 mg of magnesium, 200 mcg of selenium, 400 IU of vitamin E, and 2 mg of boron. Another telling sign of quality is the inclusion of beta and other carotenes alongside vitamin A. Such multivitamins might not be found in your local grocery store, but they are certainly widely available.
Now, 400 mg is an adequate minimum dose of magnesium for most people. This, of course, is not the recommended dose for people with known magnesium deficiencies or with conditions that can be improved with magnesium. Adele Davis, in fact, recommends 600-900 mg for optimal healthNull.
Shari Lieberman recommends the following doses: 500-100 mg for angina, 500-750 mg for high blood pressure, 500-750 for oral contraceptive use, 500-1000 mg for osteoporosis, 500-750 mg for menstrual problems, and 6-12 tablets of magnesium malate (approximately 300 mg magnesium and 1200 mg of malic acid) for those with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue1. Liz Lipski recommends 600-2000 mg daily of magnesium citrate or magnesium glycinate for migraine headaches3. Chelated magnesium forms—signified by pairing with an “-ate” like citrate—are better used by the body and are better tolerated as well, which is important at higher doses7.
Magnesium utilization can be increased by also supplementing with choline citrate; this will very likely be necessary when taking more than 1000 mg3. The injection of magnesium sulfate may be beneficial in some situations, especially with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome3.
Magnesium can loosen stools; when taking high levels of magnesium, slowly increase the dose until diarrhea arises and then lower the dose to just below the level that causes diarrhea3. The amount may need to be changed over time. The levels recommended here are unlikely to cause health problems unless one suffers from kidney failure, in which case they should talk to their doctor before going on any supplementation program1.
What is this essay about again?
The truth is, I have provided only a cursory glance at the state of magnesium research. The truth is that every single vitamin and mineral in your average multivitamin has a complex story just like this one. And for every benefit listed above regarding magnesium consumption, most every situation also requires a complex of vitamins and minerals alongside magnesium for correct functioning. Magnesium works closely with calcium, potassium, and sodium; these are all needed together and they are needed in proper ratios.
Some people question the utility of multivitamins and the need for vitamins in general, perhaps because the benefits seem to be intangible. The truth is, all vitamins and minerals are useful in a number of specific processes in the body. Without them, these processes cannot be completed efficiently, and the body will be stressed to come up with the needed substances. This has potentially harmful effects, as explained in the section entitled Magnesium, bones, and teeth.
1 Lieberman S., Bruning N. (2007). The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book. New York: Penguin Group Inc.
2 Seelig, M. (2003). The Magnesium Factor. New York: Penguin Group Inc.
3 Lipski, E. (2004). Digestive Wellness. New York: McGraw-Hill.
4 Null, G. (1984). The Complete Guide to Health and Nutrition. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc.
5 Lombard, J., Germano, C. (1997). The Brain Wellness Plan. New York: Kensington Books.
6 Schmid, R. (1997). Traditional Foods are your Best Medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts
7 Pizzorno., J. E., Murray, M. T. (2006). Textbook of Natural Medicine. St. Louis, MO: Churchill
8 Fallon, Sally. (2001). Nourishing Traditions. Washington, DC: NewTrends Publishing, Inc.