The answer is an often-overlooked but powerful mineral called magnesium. Problem is, the majority of us could use more of it in our diets to fully reap the benefits.
While very few people are truly magnesium deficient, most of us “are just not getting enough to function optimally. This is called magnesium insufficiency,” says Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, owner of BZ Nutrition. Some research, in fact, suggests that up to 75 percent of Americans are magnesium insufficient.
Here’s why magnesium is so important, why you may not be getting enough (even if your diet is relatively nutritious), and how to ensure you’re reaching your goals.
What magnesium is—and what it does for your body
Magnesium is an essential mineral that’s found naturally in tons of foods—especially plant-based ones that are high in fiber, like green leafy veggies (including spinach and kale), legumes (such as chickpeas and lentils), nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
It's good that magnesium is everywhere because it's hugely important to our health. “Magnesium is involved in more than 300 enzyme systems that regulate a wide variety of reactions in the body,” says Jessica Cording, RD, a registered dietitian and integrative health coach. Your body relies on magnesium for blood glucose control, blood pressure regulation, and converting food into energy. It’s also critical for maintaining bone mass, which is why you’ll often see it combined with calcium in bone-fortifying supplements. Because it plays a role in moving calcium and potassium across cell membranes, magnesium is critical for muscle and nerve function, including normal heart rhythms.
In short: “Every cell in your body actually needs magnesium to function,” says Zeitlin.
Zeitlin adds that magnesium may have many other effects on your health, including reducing your anxiety and stress response, helping you to fall and stay asleep, easing menstrual cramps, and promoting healthy estrogen levels. (It’s also included in many antacids and is a main ingredient in laxatives.)
Why we lack magnesium
Experts recommend that adults 18 and over get between 310 to 420 mg of magnesium per day, with the exact count varying depending on your sex and age. But as mentioned, most people aren’t reaching these goals for a number of reasons.
Researchers have estimated that the magnesium content in various foods has dropped between 25 to 80 percent compared to levels pre-1950. That may be partly because we’ve gotten better at measuring the magnesium levels in our food. But there are also systemic factors at play. For one, conventional farming, which relies on fertilizers and pesticides, has changed soil quality, which has reduced the magnesium levels in the traditionally magnesium-rich crops we grow in the U.S.
In addition, many foods that make up a big part of the American diet—such as refined flours, oils, and sugar—lose magnesium through processing. Unfortunately, our eating patterns tend to rely heavily on exactly these kinds of foods. Research suggests that magnesium levels tend to be low in people who eat lots of processed foods that are high in refined grains, fat, phosphates, and sugar—what some might call the standard American diet. “Those following that eating pattern are likely to fall short of the recommended daily amount” of magnesium, says Cording.
“If your diet is more animal-based or extremely low-carb, or is high-fat, or low in your leafy greens, these put you at risk for magnesium insufficiency,” adds Zeitlin.
An estimated 1 billion people worldwide have vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency, partially due to lower levels of sun exposure in certain climates and possibly from our diet (not getting enough fatty fish, fortified milk, and mushrooms). Since vitamin D also plays a role in the intestinal absorption of magnesium, not getting enough may increase the risk of a deficiency or insufficiency in magnesium.
Additionally, Zeitlin notes that coffee, soda, and alcohol intake can deplete magnesium in your body. She says that alcohol acts as a diuretic, pushing out magnesium as waste, while caffeine in coffee and aspartame in sodas block the absorption of magnesium. “Be mindful of your beverage intake,” she says, suggesting keeping alcohol to one drink a day max, caffeine to 300 mg (about three cups of coffee) daily, and limiting soda intake.
Beyond these systemic factors, some people are also more likely to be deficient in magnesium due to health conditions or other factors. People with gastrointestinal diseases (such as Crohn’s disease and celiac disease) may be insufficient due to chronic diarrhea. People with type 2 diabetes are also at higher risk of serious deficiencies because higher levels of glucose in the kidneys due to insulin resistance increase the output of magnesium in the urine.
Medications may impact the way the body metabolizes magnesium, which can lead to increased losses through bodily fluids, explains Cording. For example, diuretic medications may increase the risk of magnesium insufficiency as people lose it in urine. Proton-pump inhibitors are another culprit, adds Zeitlin.
Finally, the risk of magnesium insufficiency increases as we get older for multiple reasons, including that the gut becomes less adept at absorbing magnesium with age.
The risks of low magnesium intake over time
The effects of a low-magnesium diet build up over time. Research suggests that people who have chronically low magnesium intake are at higher risk for high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and even migraine headaches.
Because magnesium plays such an essential role in so many body functions, you may notice subtle effects of consistently low magnesium intake, notes Zeitlin, such as mood swings, feelings of stress and anxiety, poorer quality of sleep, and constipation and bloat.
Can you get enough magnesium from foods, or should you supplement?
Zeitlin and Cording agree: It is possible to get enough magnesium simply by eating enough of the right foods.
To ensure you’re on track, incorporate magnesium-rich foods into each meal and snack, suggests Cording. She and Zeitlin note the following foods are great sources of magnesium:
- Dark leafy greens (spinach, chard, kale)
- Nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts)
- Seeds (pumpkin, chia, hemp)
- Whole grains (quinoa, oatmeal, whole wheat bread)
- Fish (salmon, halibut, mackerel)
- Dark chocolate with at least 72% cacao
Remember that your soda, coffee, and wine intake will reduce the amount of magnesium your body is able to hold on to. Zeitlin says if you’re concerned, ask your doctor if you should take a blood test to check your levels at your next appointment. If you have a mild insufficiency, she adds, you can likely remedy it with diet alone. “But a supplement could not hurt!” she says. Some research even suggests that people who take supplements are more likely to meet or exceed their daily magnesium requirements.
Just know that as with any supplement, it is possible to get too much of a good thing. Too-high doses of magnesium can cause cramping and diarrhea. It might also potentially interfere with certain health conditions you have or medications you take, so be sure to work with your doctor and follow dosing recommendations if you go that route.
If you decide to invest in magnesium supplements, chose those in aspartate, citrate, lactate, or chloride forms. Some research suggests these forms are absorbed and used by the body better than magnesium oxide or magnesium sulfate. Great brands to try (if that's your thing) include Ned Mello Magnesium ($48), Nuun Rest ($23 for four-pack), and Now Magnesium Citrate ($17).
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