Healthy Eating Tips

Here’s What Happens to Your Magnesium Levels as You Age

Photo: Stocksy/Ivan Gener
In the context of important minerals, calcium and iron claim most of the splashy headlines (and attention) when it comes to making sure we're eating plenty of nutrient-dense foods, but the truth is that they’re far from the only ones that play a critical role in our health. Magnesium is one of those oft-underplayed minerals, despite the fact that it's highly crucial for maintaining optimal functioning.

“Magnesium is one of the most prevalent and important minerals in the body, impacting how we feel and function every day—yet it’s also the second most common nutrient deficiency behind vitamin D,” says nutrition expert Samantha McKinney, RD at Life Time. Magnesium, she explains, plays an essential role in supporting your muscles, nerves, energy levels, and even your brain functioning. “It is a key electrolyte that regulates biochemical reactions, including protein synthesis, blood-glucose control, and blood pressure. Heart function and digestion are also directly affected by magnesium. Even a slight decrease in magnesium status can make a big impact on health and well-being," McKinney says.

Magnesium and aging

You can get magnesium through supplementation, but it’s not necessary for most people, because it's commonly found in many healthy foods. Unfortunately, the average American’s diet is magnesium deficient and the impact of a magnesium-poor diet gets more pronounced as we age. That’s problematic.

“Not only does magnesium help ensure that our body processes work properly, but it has antioxidant properties that protect against free-radical cell damage and it helps keep us asleep, which is especially important as we age and the ability to sleep often declines,” says Jamie Feit, MS, RD, expert at testing.com. Feit highlights a recent study in Nutrients Journal describing multifaceted reasons why there are decreased levels of magnesium as we age. “The most common reason being decreased intake of foods containing magnesium, as well as impaired absorption and increased excretion.”

McKinney also underscores that many of us eat less as we age and/or experience changes in appetite—and as a result, we may not eat enough of the magnesium-rich foods.

But the issue of plummeting stores of magnesium and aging is multifaceted. “Common chronic diseases and issues, like high blood sugar levels or type 2 diabetes, and many medications—such as proton pump inhibitors, antacids for reflux, or certain diuretics for blood pressure—can drain magnesium levels,” says McKinney. “Since loss of lean tissue is common with aging, there’s a lingering risk of blood sugar issues that can develop as a result. This, in turn, can increase our need for magnesium even further." Point being? The relationship between magnesium and aging can become a vicious cycle.

How to get more magnesium into your diet at any age

Keep in mind that the recommended amount of magnesium is 310 to 320 mg for adult women and 400 to 420 mg for adult men, according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS).

When referring to reaping the benefits of magnesium from food sources, Feit says that many actually need more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA), especially elderly people. "This is because the RDA refers to the amount needed to meet the baseline needs for healthy people. It doesn’t account for the often-increased needs of those on medications, those with chronic conditions, or those who may excrete more through higher levels of stress or through daily sweating and exercise,” says McKinney.

As mentioned, while a supplement is an option, eating more of the many foods high in magnesium (like whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and green leafy vegetables) is the best place to start. Plus, McKinney shared some tricks with us to help ensure you’re getting enough.

“If your appetite is low, you can get more volume of these foods in by changing how you serve them,” says McKinney. “For example, sautéing spinach or kale can cook it down to help you consume more than if you were eating it raw. Having some nut butter—like almond butter, cashew butter, or pumpkin seed butter—could also be an easy way to pack more magnesium into each bite."

It also helps to know exactly how much magnesium you'll reap from a single portion of plant-based foods that are naturally rich in the nutrient. “For instance, a quarter-cup of nuts or seeds will provide approximately 100 mg, whereas a serving of fruit or veggies will provide 30 mg to 60 mg. A cup of cooked quinoa, on the other hand, will provide approximately 120 mg,” says Feit. Some of the best sources of magnesium include pumpkin seeds, spinach, salmon, avocado, almonds, and edamame.

If eating sufficient amounts of these foods doesn't seem feasible for your lifestyle or palette, magnesium supplements are effective and there are several types—just be sure to consult a physician or dietitian first. “If taking magnesium to improve sleep, magnesium glycinate would be a good choice, whereas magnesium citrate is a better option to help with digestive issues,” says Feit. Before you get your pill box ready, however, it’s important to make note that there are side effects to ingesting too much magnesium including diarrhea, muscle issues, or arrhythmia. Feit also notes that magnesium is excreted through the kidneys, so it’s especially important for anyone with kidney disease to consult with their doctor before trying any new supplements (magnesium included).

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