When it comes to staying healthy, many of us are very familiar with some of the essential vitamins and minerals that our body needs. We might feel pretty clued up about the better-known nutrients we need to stay healthy – e.g. iron, vitamin C, and omega-3 – and believe we’re getting enough from our diet. But some other vitamins and minerals aren’t quite as well-known – and one key mineral that’s often overlooked is magnesium. So what exactly is magnesium? Why is it so important, and how can we make sure we’re getting enough?

Here’s everything you need to know about magnesium.

What is magnesium?

Magnesium is a vital mineral that plays an essential role in many of our body’s most important functions. It was named after Magnesia, which is the part of Greece where it was first discovered. Magnesium is known for being the eighth most abundant chemical element in the earth’s crust, and the fourth most abundant within the human body.

Though magnesium wasn’t recognised as a chemical element until 1755, people were aware of its health benefits much earlier. In 1618, a farmer from Epsom found that the water from a local saline spring helped to heal wounds, cuts, and rashes – and later, people discovered that this salty, bitter water was actually magnesium sulfate. Centuries later, ‘Epsom salt’ is still used to soothe and relax painful muscles.

In spite of its importance – and the fact that it’s readily available in many different foods – many of us aren’t getting enough magnesium. Plus, when compared to other minerals like iron and zinc, magnesium is often overlooked – even though we need to eat much less of these minerals than we do magnesium.

What does magnesium do?

Magnesium has many important functions within the body. It helps us maintain healthy heart rhythms, muscle and nerve functions, and glucose control – and it can also act as a natural muscle relaxant. Because it helps turn vitamin D into calcium, it’s vital for maintaining strong bones, and it also helps produce energy and protein.

Let’s take a closer look at some of its most important functions.

1. It can improve bone health

When it comes to bone health, calcium is usually the mineral that people focus on most – but research shows that magnesium is also crucial for maintaining healthy bones. Studies show that getting enough magnesium is linked to higher bone density, better bone crystal formation, and a reduced risk of osteoporosis in older women.

2. It can offer benefits against diabetes

Magnesium has also been shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. A 2015 study in the World Journal of Diabetes found that most people with type 2 diabetes have low levels of magnesium in their system and that because magnesium plays a key role in glucose control and insulin metabolism, it can also help people better manage their diabetes.

3. It can improve cardiovascular health

There’s a lot of evidence proving that magnesium plays a key role when it comes to heart health, too. A 2018 review found that being deficient in magnesium can increase a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular problems – and people who take magnesium after suffering from a heart attack have been shown to have a lower risk of mortality.

There’s also evidence that not getting enough magnesium is linked to many problems associated with cardiovascular health, like high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, atherosclerosis, arrhythmias, and coronary artery disease. For example, doctors sometimes use magnesium during treatment for heart failure to reduce the risk of arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm).

4. It can boost mood

Science suggests that getting enough magnesium may improve mood disorders like depression and anxiety – and there’s also evidence that it can help with other psychological issues like agitation, irritability, and confusion. According to a comprehensive 2017 review, low magnesium levels are linked with higher levels of anxiety, and other studies show that low levels are linked to a higher risk of depression.

Some scientists believe that the low magnesium content in many modern foods is partly responsible for the increased prevalence of depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders. While more research is needed, there’s evidence that among depressed older adults, taking magnesium each day improved their mood just as effectively as antidepressant medication.

5. It can improve sleep

More recent studies have found that there may be a link between magnesium and sleep. In order to fall asleep, both your body and brain need to relax – and magnesium has been shown to activate the neurotransmitters that are responsible for calming the body and mind.

Studies on mice also show that optimal levels of magnesium are essential for normal sleep to occur, which suggests that not having enough magnesium in your system may lead to restless sleep and even insomnia.

Plus, not only can magnesium help you fall asleep, but it can also increase the likelihood of your sleep being deep and restful, too. In one study, older adults who took magnesium supplements compared to a placebo had a better quality of sleep – and they also displayed enhanced levels of renin and melatonin, hormones that help regulate sleep.

For more tips on how to improve your sleep, you might want to check out the sleep and fatigue section of our site.

6. It can improve migraines

Because magnesium deficiency can affect neurotransmitters and restrict blood vessel constriction – factors that are linked to migraines – some doctors and scientists believe that people who suffer from migraines are more likely to be deficient in magnesium.

Plus, a review from 2017 found that taking 600 mg of magnesium appeared to be a safe and effective way to prevent migraines – and the American Migraine Foundation has stated that people often use magnesium supplementation for migraine prevention.

7. It can improve performance

Magnesium can also play an essential role in exercise performance and recovery, and studies show that you need 10–20% more magnesium when you’re exercising compared to when you’re resting. Because magnesium helps send blood sugar to your muscles and get rid of lactic acid, which can form during exercise and cause tiredness and painful muscles, it’s also important in recovering from more strenuous exercise, as well as protecting the muscles from damage.

What can happen if you don't get enough magnesium?

While serious magnesium deficiency is rare, in the UK and much of the West, it’s common for people to not get as much magnesium as they should. A study of 8,000 Brits found that around 70% of participants had low magnesium levels – and the UK Government’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey found that most children and teenagers also weren’t getting the recommended levels.

A person can become magnesium deficient for three reasons: they’re not getting enough from their diet, they’re not absorbing enough, or they’re excreting too much from their kidneys. Because they generally don’t absorb as much magnesium – and also excrete more of it – older adults are more at risk of magnesium deficiency.

Alcoholics and heavy drinkers, people with type 2 diabetes or increased insulin resistance, and people with coeliac and Crohn’s disease are also more likely to suffer from magnesium deficiency. This is because their health conditions can make absorption more difficult, as well as excretion more likely.

Because magnesium plays such an important role in so many different bodily functions, the symptoms of deficiency can be quite varied. They can include tiredness and fatigue, insomnia, mood swings, muscle cramps, feeling weak and dizzy, headaches, irritability of the nervous system, and irregular heartbeat.

How to make sure you're getting enough magnesium

According to the UK government, the recommended daily allowance of magnesium for adults is 300 mg a day for men and 270 mg for women – yet because people over the age of 55 tend to find magnesium more difficult to absorb, older adults may sometimes require more. You should always talk to your doctor if you think you might be deficient in magnesium.

The easiest and best way to ensure you’re getting enough magnesium is to make some dietary changes – and the good news is that magnesium is present in a lot of common, healthy foods. Generally speaking, people who want to get more magnesium through their diet should incorporate more high-fibre foods like cereal and whole grains, as well dark leafy greens. Some of the foods that are highest in magnesium include:

  • Pumpkin seeds: 46% of the RDI in a quarter cup (16 grams)
  • Spinach (boiled): 39% of the RDI in a cup (180 grams)
  • Swiss chard (boiled): 38% of the RDI in a cup (175 grams)
  • Dark chocolate (70–85% cocoa): 33% of the RDI in 3.5 ounces (100 grams)
  • Black beans: 30% of the RDI in a cup (172 grams)
  • Quinoa, cooked: 33% of the RDI in a cup (185 grams)
  • Almonds: 25% of the RDI in a quarter cup (24 grams)
  • Cashews: 25% of the RDI in a quarter cup (30 grams)
  • Mackerel: 19% of the RDI in 3.5 ounces (100 grams)
  • Avocado: 15% of the RDI in one medium avocado (200 grams)
  • Soya milk: 15% of the RDI in a cup (175 grams)

Because nutrients work better when they’re combined with other nutrients, it’s always best to obtain vitamins and minerals through your diet than through supplements. However, if you’re concerned about your low magnesium levels, or you suffer from any health conditions that might reduce your ability to absorb magnesium (or increase the likelihood of you excreting it), then you might want to talk to your doctor about taking a supplement.

Forms of supplementation include magnesium oxide, magnesium citrate, magnesium glycinate, magnesium orotate, magnesium carbonate, and magnesium lactate. While magnesium oxide is found in many of the most popular supplements on the market, it’s also the hardest for the body to absorb. Magnesium lactate is twice as easy for our bodies to absorb as magnesium oxide, which means that you need to take less to achieve the same results.

However, the right supplement for each person can vary, so be sure to speak to a health practitioner before deciding to take magnesium supplements. You can buy magnesium supplements on Amazon or at Holland & Barrett.

It’s worth noting that taking high levels of magnesium (more than 350mg daily)in supplement form can also be harmful. This is because it can build up in the body and cause side effects such as irregular heartbeat, low blood pressure, slowed breathing, and confusion.  So, if you do take a magnesium supplement, then it’s important to follow the Government guidelines, or the advice set out by your doctor.

Final thoughts...

Magnesium is a vital nutrient that plays a key role in many body processes, including muscle, heart, and bone health, improving exercise performance, mood, and sleep. If you don’t get enough of this essential mineral, your body can’t function properly, and magnesium deficiencies are linked to a range of health issues.

The best way to make sure you’re getting enough magnesium is to eat plenty of foods like nuts and seeds, dark green leafy veg, whole grains, and legumes – though if you’re unable to get enough magnesium from your diet, your doctor may recommend taking a supplement.

Do you feel like you’re getting enough magnesium in your diet? Or do you have any additional tips for staying healthy? Join the healthy living conversation on the community forum or leave a comment below.

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