Magnesium Guide: Deficiency, Foods, Oil, and More

Photo: Pietro Karras

Your body is alive because of brilliant biochemistry. A myriad of intricate pathways is working in symphony every second of your life. It is easy to take for granted the countless facets that have to be for us to be here. One piece of the integral puzzle we call human health is a little guy named magnesium. Magnesium, along with calcium, potassium, chloride, and sodium are all electrolytes, needed for our brain, nerves, heart, eyes, immune system, and muscles to function. When magnesium levels are optimal in our body, we thrive. When we are magnesium deficient, it throws off the balance of our perfectly balanced symphony, and a whole host of health problems can ensue.

One of the most overlooked nutrient deficiencies that I find as a functional medicine practitioner is magnesium deficiency, and that is a serious problem because your body needs magnesium to accomplish 300 incredibly important biochemical reactions. Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in your body, so if you are deficient (like 50 to 90 percent of us are)—then you are probably feeling some symptoms.

There are four main reasons most of us are low in magnesium:

  • Poor nutrition
  • Medications that deplete magnesium (such as antibiotics and diuretics)
  • Soil depletion
  • Chronic gut problems (e.g., leaky gut syndrome), which compromise magnesium absorption

While these are fairly common issues and not always a sign of magnesium deficiency, here are some the things that can happen when you're lacking in magnesium.

1. ADHD

Studies have found that children who took 200 milligrams of magnesium daily over six months had a significant decrease in hyperactivity symptoms compared to children who didn’t take magnesium.

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2. Adrenal fatigue

As someone who has personally struggled with adrenal fatigue in the past, I can attest to magnesium’s role in calming stress levels and rehabbing hormones. Magnesium helps to regulate cortisol levels, allowing for more balanced hormone production.

3. Anxiety or depression

Magnesium calms down the excitatory NMDA receptor. Without it, calcium and glutamate activate NMDA, which can lead to depression and anxiety.

4. Asthma

Research suggests that people who don’t eat enough magnesium-rich foods have a higher rate of asthma. One reason could be that magnesium may facilitate healthy bronchodilation.

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5. Chronic fatigue syndrome

A study published in the revered medical journal Lancet found that out of hundreds of people with chronic fatigue syndrome, half of them were deficient in magnesium, and magnesium injections of 580 mg saw improvements of their symptoms.

6. High blood pressure

Studies have shown that people who supplemented with magnesium were able to lower their blood pressure levels by up to 12 points.

7. Heart problems

Someone has a heart attack every 43 seconds, and one study published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that a lower level of magnesium intake increased the risk of coronary heart disease by 50 to 80 percent. In a different double-blind, placebo-controlled study, people received either magnesium or a placebo for one year. For one month, the magnesium group received 6,000 milligrams of magnesium orotate, and 3,000 milligrams of magnesium orotate for 11 months. Afterward, only 52 percent of the placebo group was still alive, compared with 76 percent of the magnesium group.

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8. Inflammation

One commonality between just about every chronic health problem is inflammation. Magnesium has been shown to decrease CRP and NfKb, two inflammatory blood lab markers.

9. Migraines and other types of headaches

Photo: Sergey Filimonov

Half of people in the United States get at least one headache every month, and millions are debilitated by painful migraines. An estimated 50 percent of those suffering from migraines are magnesium deficient. Research has found that 60 percent of those with chronic migraines have genetic changes that decrease their body’s ability to metabolize magnesium, which relaxes blood vessels in the brain. Ionized magnesium administered through an IV significantly reduced pain within 15 minutes in more than 80 percent of patients.

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10. Insulin resistance

A shocking 50 percent of America has some form of insulin resistance, from metabolic syndrome to full-blown type 2 diabetes. Research published in the medical journal Circulation showed that among approximately 5,000 people over a period of 15 years, those who took higher levels of magnesium had a decreased risk of metabolic syndrome. A similar study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology observed more than 1,000 healthy adults for five years and found that greater magnesium intake improved insulin sensitivity. Other studies have shown that magnesium also improves triglycerides, another hallmark of metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

11. Low thyroid hormone levels

Magnesium is essential to the production of thyroid hormones, and I find that magnesium deficiency is one of the often overlooked factors contributing to thyroid problems.

12. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

People with OCD were found to have lower levels of magnesium compared to control groups.

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13. Muscle cramps and spasms

Random spasms, cramps, and "charley horses" in your legs and other places in your body aren’t actually random—they are the most common signs of magnesium deficiency. In addition, magnesium supplementation has been shown to ease period cramps and other premenstrual symptoms, so it can be important that women get enough magnesium.

14. Premature aging

Magnesium deficiency was shown to speed up the death of human endothelial cells and fibroblasts, leading to accelerated aging and age-related diseases.

15. Poor memory

MIT researchers found that magnesium plays a pivotal role in regulating brain receptors needed for learning and memory function, and that supplementing with magnesium helped clear so-called brain fog. Magnesium can also enhance the brain’s ability to change, heal, and grow new neural pathways, which is essential to slowing down and even reversing cognitive decline.

16. Skin health

A Polish study found that people with skin allergies saw dramatic improvements in their skin with magnesium supplementation.

17. Sleep trouble

Research has found that magnesium supplementation helped improve all the major physiological markers associated with insomnia. One major example: GABA is the calming, restful neurotransmitter, and GABA receptors in the brain require magnesium to work correctly.

18. Weak bones

Magnesium is a key nutrient for producing strong, healthy bones. A randomized controlled study found that 300 milligrams of supplemental magnesium increased bone mineral content when taken for a year. Two American Journal of Clinical Nutrition studies found that the more deficient someone was in magnesium, the lower their bone density was, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.

What to do if you suspect your magnesium is low.

If you have any of the signs of magnesium deficiency, talk to your doctor about getting your magnesium levels tested. Conventional nutrient labs aren’t always very accurate, so I suggest running advanced nutrient labs (a functional medicine practitioner can help you with this) to find out your magnesium level. If you are deficient, boost your magnesium levels by adding more magnesium-rich foods to your diet. Foods high in magnesium include:

  • Spinach, 1 cup: 157 mg
  • Swiss chard, 1 cup: 154 mg
  • Dark chocolate, 1 square: 95 mg
  • Pumpkin seeds, ⅛ cup: 92 mg
  • Almonds, 1 ounce: 80 mg
  • Black beans, ½ cup: 60 mg
  • Avocado, 1 medium: 58 mg
  • Salmon, 1 fillet: 53 mg
  • Kefir, 1 cup: 50 mg
  • Figs, ½ cup: 50 mg
  • Banana, 1 medium: 32 mg

Magnesium supplementation

It’s difficult to replenish your magnesium entirely through diet, so if you feel like you can’t possibly eat more Swiss chard, or are still deficient, take it to the next level with magnesium supplements. I suggest getting around 500 milligrams each day. Check your levels every few months to monitor your progress. Supplementing with magnesium is generally safe but can cause diarrhea and GI upset when taking too much for your body, so start at a lower dosage and work your way up, or proceed according to your doctor’s recommendation. Another way to avoid GI distress is by using magnesium oil rather than oral supplements. When used as an oil magnesium is absorbed through the skin, therefore bypassing the gastrointestinal system. This also makes magnesium oil a great option if you have gut dysfunctions like leaky gut syndrome, which inhibits absorption.

Want to learn more about magnesium? Here's everything you need to know about magnesium supplements.

Ready to learn more about the four diet & lifestyle changes you can make TODAY to eliminate chronic inflammation? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Vincent Pedre.

William Cole, D.C., IFMCP

Functional Medicine Practitioner
Dr. Will Cole, leading functional-medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam at www.drwillcole.com and locally in Pittsburgh. He specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing health programs for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal dysfunctions, digestive disorders, and brain problems.Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional-medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the author of Ketotarian in which he melds the powerful benefits of the ketogenic and plant-based diets.
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William Cole, D.C., IFMCP

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