If you’re focusing on maintaining a healthy lifestyle, you have a lot to keep track of. You’ve got to make sure you’re getting the right balance of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. You’ve got to make sure you’re getting the recommended amounts of exercise and spending lots of time outdoors. Then there are the dozens of minerals and vitamins that help your body function at its best. Making sure you’re getting enough of each can be daunting.
Magnesium is an element that is essential to many bodily functions—from mental health to the neurotransmitters that relay messages between your nerves to bone formation. Yet about half of Americans are not getting the optimal amount of magnesium, according to a study published in the journal Nutrition Reviews.
On hearing that statistic, you might be questioning whether you’re getting enough magnesium in your diet. And because this mineral doesn’t often make headlines, you might not even know what foods it’s found in, making it difficult to know whether you’re getting enough each day.
Here’s everything you need to know about magnesium, including the role it plays in your body, where it is found, and what happens if you’re not getting enough.
The Role Magnesium Plays in Your Body
One of your first questions about magnesium might be what systems in your body need this mineral to function well. The answer? Pretty much all of them!
“Magnesium is a mineral needed by every organ in your body to function properly, especially bone,” says Sherry Ross, MD, an OB/GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
Ross explains that magnesium helps your body with metabolism, the process of turning food into usable energy. Because of this, magnesium is important in controlling blood pressure, blood sugar levels, supporting a healthy immune system, and keeping your heart beating regularly. It also helps with nerve messaging and the formation of muscle and bone.
If you are at risk for type 2 diabetes, magnesium is especially important. That’s because having low levels of this nutrient has been shown to predispose people to developing type 2 diabetes (also known as adult-onset diabetes). One study published in the World Journal of Diabetes found that low levels of magnesium increased the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, whereas having higher levels of magnesium offered some protection against developing diabetes.
The same study found that low levels of magnesium increased the likelihood of complications for people with diabetes. In particular, people with low magnesium levels were found to have cardiac hypertrophy (enlargement of the heart) and arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) more often. In general, the study found that having too little magnesium was an indication that patients would have more severe complications from diabetes, including kidney failure.
“Magnesium also helps your body regulate blood sugar, which is especially helpful for those with diabetes or insulin resistance,” Ross says.
This mineral has important health implications for the general population too. A recent review published in the journal Nutrients concluded that existing evidence suggests that magnesium can help relieve anxiety symptoms. A study published in the journal Neuropharmacology had previously found that a magnesium deficiency was associated with increased risk for anxiety.
An important consideration for women is that magnesium is also believed to help alleviate the symptoms of PMS, making anything from cramps to anxiety more bearable. In part that is because magnesium can help keep bloat at bay.
“Magnesium helps with bloating and water retention,” Ross says. “Taking additional magnesium works well for women experiencing disruptive bloating and water retention during the dreaded premenstrual period.”
Finally, magnesium is closely associated with strong bones. In fact, one study published in the journal Nutrients concluded that magnesium was “critical for bone health.” The study found that low levels of magnesium contribute directly to osteoporosis, a disease that causes weak bones and is especially common in older women. Because of this, maintaining adequate magnesium intake over the course of your life is important for women who want to prevent frailty in old age.
How much magnesium do you need?
With all those health benefits, you’re no doubt wanting to incorporate more magnesium into your diet as soon as possible, and you’re probably wondering how much magnesium you need and where this important nutrient is found. Fortunately, if you’re eating a healthy diet you’re probably already getting some of the magnesium that your body needs.
As with many vitamins and minerals, the amount of magnesium that you need depends on your age, sex, and other factors. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), women ages 18 to 30 need 310 milligrams of magnesium a day, whereas women older than age 30 need 320 milligrams. If you’re pregnant, you should consume an extra 40 milligrams of magnesium every day, although nursing moms do not need to consume extra amounts of this nutrient.
When considering whether you’re getting enough magnesium, it’s important to recognize that only 30 to 40 percent of the magnesium that you consume is actually absorbed by your body, according to the NIH. That means you might need to eat double the recommended amount of magnesium—or more—to make sure you’re meeting the recommended daily intake.
So, where can you get all that magnesium? Almonds are the best source, with 80 milligrams per serving—about 20 percent of the recommended daily intake. Spinach is almost as rich in magnesium, with 78 milligrams per serving. There are also many other options.
“As with most vitamins and minerals it’s best to get magnesium through your diet,” Ross says. “Leafy greens, nuts, beans, soybeans, dark chocolate, whole unrefined grains, fish, and low-fat yogurt are great sources of this helpful mineral.” Some tap and bottled waters also contain magnesium.
What is magnesium deficiency?
As we’ve seen, magnesium is incredibly important. However, many people in America are not getting enough. So how would you know if you weren’t getting an adequate amount of this nutrient?
Unfortunately, determining this can be a bit tricky, because the symptoms of magnesium deficiency can mimic the symptoms of many other illnesses.
“Some common symptoms of magnesium deficiency include headaches, low energy, poor sleep, muscle cramps (especially nocturnal), and poor appetite,” says Sally Warren, a naturopath and practitioner at Metro Integrative Pharmacy in New York City. “Magnesium deficiency can also lead to arrhythmia, tremors, seizures, anxiety.”
Certain populations are especially at risk for developing a deficiency she says, including people with Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, or type 2 diabetes, all of which can make it harder to absorb magnesium. People who don’t eat many fresh vegetables or who rely on processed foods are also more likely to be lacking magnesium.
“Most deficiencies are caused by a bad diet lacking in minerals and vitamins,” Warren says.
People who frequently use alcohol are also at increased risk for magnesium deficiency, according to the NIH. Excessive alcohol consumption is often associated with poor diet, and people who abuse alcohol are likely to have gastrointestinal and liver issues that can make it hard to absorb magnesium.
Certain ethnic groups are also at increased risk for magnesium deficiency, according to Christopher Calapai, an osteopathic physician board certified in family medicine, anti-aging medicine, and chelation therapy.
Calapai points out that magnesium deficiency isn’t just a problem for people who are unhealthy or who don’t eat well-rounded diets. In fact, athletes often don’t get enough magnesium, he says.
“People that are extremely active can use up more vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium,” Calapai says. Because of this, he recommends that everyone get their blood tested periodically to measure their nutrient levels and identify any areas where they are deficient.
How to Get More Magnesium in Your Diet
If you are worried that you may be suffering from a magnesium deficiency, you can consult with your doctor and request a blood test that can show what your magnesium levels are. Even before you get the test, it’s okay to increase your magnesium intake, since excess magnesium presents no risks for healthy adults, according to the NIH.
If you want to increase your magnesium intake, the first place to start is with your diet. Increasing your intake of nuts, leafy greens, and beans will help you get more of this nutrient naturally. Keep magnesium-rich almonds in your car or desk for when you need a quick snack. Spinach can be blended in smoothies or put in sauces to boost the whole family’s magnesium intake.
Despite the abundant natural options for getting more magnesium, many people choose to supplement with magnesium tablets.
“Knowing all the health benefits of magnesium would be an important reason to ensure you are getting adequate amounts of magnesium in your diet or through supplementation,” Ross says.
Magnesium supplements come in many different forms, including magnesium oxide, magnesium chloride, magnesium gluconate, magnesium citrate, and magnesium orotate. These supplements contain different amounts of magnesium and various other substances. Your doctor can help you determine what form is best for you.
To absorb the most magnesium when you take your supplement, take it at a time of day when you are not taking other minerals through food or supplements. “Doses of magnesium can be relatively large and should, ideally, be taken apart from other minerals or at different times of the day,” Calapai says.
It’s also important to recognize that certain foods and minerals can also affect your absorption of magnesium. According to Oregon State University, taking magnesium alongside fiber or protein can decrease absorption. Zinc can also make your body absorb less magnesium.
On the other hand, some minerals help boost absorption of magnesium. Vitamin D and calcium can increase your body’s ability to absorb magnesium, so you will often see vitamin D sold in tablets that contain both calcium and magnesium.
All of this can be a little complicated, so working with a doctor or nutritionist who can help you understand magnesium supplements and other minerals that can interact with them is a great idea if you are trying to correct a magnesium deficiency.
Magnesium and Kids
Magnesium is as important for kids as it is for adults, so you’ll want to make sure that your children are getting enough of this nutrient as well. According to the NIH, toddlers ages 1 to 3 need 80 milligrams of magnesium each day, whereas children age 4 through 8 need 130 milligrams. Kids ages 9 through 13 need 240 milligrams, and teen boys need up to 410 milligrams of magnesium each day to keep themselves healthy.
Magnesium has many of the same health effects for children as it does for adults. In fact, children with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders were shown in one study to have fewer symptoms after being treated with magnesium alongside fatty acids and zinc. Another study found that magnesium decreased violence, spasms, and other symptoms in children who were prone to overexcitement.
How to Work Magnesium Into Your Life
Considering all of its health benefits, it’s a good idea to add magnesium to the list of nutrients that you try to get enough of every day. If you find yourself feeling less energetic, experiencing headaches, or sleeping poorly, try increasing your intake of magnesium-rich foods like almonds and spinach (or for an extra treat, dark chocolate).
If you up your intake but still feel that something may be wrong, consult with your doctor about having bloodwork done that can help you determine what your magnesium levels are. After all, magnesium deficiency can have potentially serious health consequences, so if you think that you are at risk, you should advocate for yourself to get the care you need.