Are you familiar with the mid-morning blues? That feeling that even after eight hours of sleep you could have used at least another two? You may be deficient in magnesium.
Along with sodium, potassium and calcium, magnesium is one of the four macro-minerals, essential to all life. A study in the 1960s by American physician Dr Palma Formica tested the effects of magnesium and potassium supplements on 100 people suffering from fatigue. The study included 84 women and 16 men, all of whom were given extra magnesium and potassium for five to six weeks. The findings were astounding: 87 of the volunteers improved, even those who had been suffering from fatigue for more than two years. The subjects became cheerful, alert and energetic, and some even recorded getting by on six hours’ sleep a night when they had struggled to feel rested on twelve hours’ sleep before they started taking the supplements.1
Magnesium is thought to combat fatigue because it helps release energy in the body. It also plays a role in the production of melatonin, which helps to regulate sleep; this production is disturbed when levels of magnesium are insufficient. As well as being helpful in treating fatigue and insomnia, magnesium plays a role in preventing and treating a host of other common ailments from premenstrual syndrome (PMS) to heart problems.
A MINERAL WITH HEART
Magnesium helps the heart to function, and good levels of this mineral are associated with a decreased risk of heart disease.2
The mineral calcium contracts muscles whereas magnesium relaxes them, so when magnesium levels in the body are low more calcium can flow into the vascular muscle cells, which makes them contract. This contraction causes tighter blood vessels and thus higher blood pressure. Severe magnesium deficiency in the heart causes its muscles to go into spasm, and there is evidence that some heart attacks are in fact not caused by obstruction but by cramping of the coronary arteries, which cuts off oxygen supply to the heart. Good levels of magnesium can prevent these effects, as magnesium is thought to dilate blood vessels and relax heart muscles.
Magnesium also helps to make platelets, the tiny blood cells that form clots, less sticky and so prevents blood clots from forming.
MAGNESIUM FOR ATHLETES
The muscle relaxing properties of magnesium are good news for athletes. In sports medicine, supplementing with magnesium has been shown to help athletes work out for longer; this is thought to be a secondary effect of the role magnesium plays in the body’s energy production. In addition, supplementing with magnesium enhances membrane function when the mineral binds to phosphate groups of the phospholipids on cells and organelle membranes, thus stabilising the membranes and helping prevent exercise-induced injury.3 Magnesium has also been successfully used in the treatment of ‘restless legs syndrome’.
A BONE BUILDER
Around 57% of the magnesium in the body is found in the bones. Magnesium is necessary for bone formation, and many people diagnosed with osteoporosis are found to be suffering from magnesium deficiency. Magnesium is necessary for calcium metabolism and for converting vitamin D to an active form in the body. It also helps to bind calcium to tooth enamel.
MAGNESIUM AND DIABETES
The International Medical Veritas Association (IMVA) has identified magnesium deficiency as one of two major factors linked to the worldwide rise of diabetes, in particular type 2 diabetes, in recent years. The other is chemical poisoning. Magnesium supplementation has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, so magnesium repletion may play a role in delaying the onset of type 2 diabetes and potentially warding off some of its complications such as cardiovascular disease and nephropathy (kidney disease or damage). Without magnesium, insulin is not able to transfer glucose into the cells. Glucose and insulin then build up in the blood, causing various types of tissue damage. The role of magnesium in relation to insulin means that it is also helpful to sufferers from hypoglycaemia.
Magnesium is an intracellular nutrient. It is needed for DNA production and function, and it activates enzymes that are important for protein and carbohydrate metabolism. In fact, magnesium is a co-factor in more than 300 enzymatic processes in the body. The electrical potential across cell membranes is modulated by magnesium, so it affects how nutrients pass back and forth, into and out of the cell.
THE ANTI-STRESS MINERAL
Magnesium is often called the anti-stress mineral because of its role in relaxing skeletal muscles and the smooth muscles of the gastro-intestinal tract and blood vessels. To fulfil these and other functions properly, magnesium must be balanced in the body with calcium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium chloride.
A DETOXIFICATION AID
As magnesium is a crucial factor in the natural self-cleansing and detoxification responses of the body, many detox programmes recommend a warm bath with a handful of Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate); in fact, many commercially prepared bath salts contain magnesium sulphate as one of their main ingredients. Epsom salts in your bath have a relaxing effect on your body because magnesium sulphate, which is absorbed through the skin, is necessary for the production of serotonin, a mood-regulating neurotransmitter that may increase feelings of relaxation and well- being.
Magnesium sulphate can also be used to dehydrate (draw) boils, carbuncles and ab- scesses.
DEPRESSION, MIGRAINES AND MENTAL ILLNESS
Magnesium’s role in the production of serotonin means that it is helpful in the treatment of depression. In addition, a brain that is deficient in magnesium is more susceptible to allergens, foreign substances that bring about symptoms similar to those often found in mental illness.
Studies have also shown that treatment of acute migraine with intravenous magnesium sulphate is effective, safe and well tolerated.4
A HORMONE HELPER
When taken in combination with zinc and vita- min B6, magnesium can help to alleviate many hormone-related problems, including PMS. A study at the Institute of Optimum Nutrition in the United Kingdom, which involved 182 women, found that supplementing magnesium in combination with vitamin B6 was twice as effective as using vitamin B alone.5
Vitamin B6 needs zinc in order to work properly in the body, so taking magnesium (200 to 400 mg), vitamin B6 (100 to 200 mg) and zinc (20 mg) daily can help to balance the hormones and also assists in fertility.
WHAT ELSE IS IT GOOD FOR?
Some hangover symptoms could be caused by magnesium depletion, and it is possible that taking some magnesium and thiamine (vitamin B1) as well as drinking extra water can help prevent some of the symptoms of ‘the morning after’.
A deficiency in magnesium can cause a rise in histamine levels, so supplementing with magnesium could reduce allergic reactions. Magnesium has been successfully used in intravenous solutions with other nutrients to relieve acute asthma attacks, and because of its nerve and muscle relaxing effect it can be helpful in reducing epileptic seizures caused by nerve excitability. This macromineral has also been used in the treatment of eclampsia – seizures in a pregnant woman that are unrelated to brain conditions and usually occur after the 20th week of pregnancy. In some countries magnesium has been used for many years to help prevent premature labour.3
A study conducted in the Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, showed that patients taking oral supplements of magnesium and vitamin B6 experienced relief from recurring kidney stones. It was found that when magnesium was discontinued, the kidney stones returned until supplementation was resumed.6
DEFICIENCY AND TOXICITY
Toxicity due to magnesium overload is almost unknown as any excess is usually excreted in the urine and faeces. However, symptoms of toxicity can occur if calcium levels in the body are too low. These include hyper-excitability and depression of the central nervous system. Magnesium deficiency is more common, and can be caused by stress triggering an increase in magnesium excretion in the body. Adequate magnesium absorption can also be adversely affected by too many meals high in protein and fat, excessive alcohol use, and/or a diet high in phosphorus or calcium (calcium and magnesium can compete with each other).
Deficiency symptoms include fatigue, irritability, PMS, insomnia and a poor memory. If you are taking birth control pills and/or diuretics or are postmenopausal you may well benefit from increasing your magnesium intake.
Good dietary sources of magnesium include seafood, greens, seeds, legumes, GM-free soy flour, tofu, nuts (in particular almonds, pecans, cashews and Brazil nuts), whole grains (especially wheat germ and bran), millet, brown rice, avocado and dried apricots. Magnesium is an alkaline earth mineral like calcium, and is known as the ‘iron’ of the plant world. This mighty mineral is to chlorophyll (the green pigment of plants) what iron is to haemoglobin. As such, magnesium sulphate is often used in agriculture and gardening to correct magnesium deficiency in the soil. The central atom of the chlorophyll structure is magnesium, and this is why eating green veggies (especially dark green ones) is one of the easiest ways to increase your magnesium intake.
Magnesium is best used in combination with calcium (in a 2:1 ratio of calcium to magne- sium) and should be taken between meals on an empty stomach. Both these minerals are alkaline, so they reduce stomach acid and are therefore poorly absorbed if taken with food. Absorption can be improved by taking calcium and magnesium with vitamin C as ascorbic acid. The optimal recommended in- take for adults is between 300 and 400 mg daily, of which 170 to 260 mg should ideally come from your diet, and 75 to 225 mg can be supplemented if necessary.
Editor’s note: Absorption is also improved if a chelated magnesium supplement is taken: the recommended dose is 50 to 100 mg a day.
Magnesium deficiency is easy to correct, and if we are aware of our body’s messages we will notice if we are not getting enough of this powerhouse macro-mineral. Please remember to consult your doctor and a knowledgeable dietician or nutritionist before embarking on any supplementation programme or making any changes to your medication.
As always, the message is to keep a balance in all things, and listen when your body speaks.
- Kenton L. The Powerhouse Diet. London: Ebury Press, Vermilion, 2004: 28.
- Altura B. Magnesium in cardiovascular biology. Scientific American May/June 1995; 28-35.
- Fawcett WJ., et al. Magnesium: Physiology and pharmacology. British Journal of Anaesthesia. 1999; 83(2): 302-20.
- Demirkaya S., et al. Efficacy of Intravenous Magnesium Sulphate in the Treatment of Acute Migraine Attacks. The Journal of Head and Face Pain, American Headache Society. August 2000; (41)2: 171-7.
- Springford M., and Truman L. ION Research Project 1996.
- Gershof SN., and Prien EL. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. May,1967. May.