By now most people have heard of magnesium. It’s one of the most commonly recommended supplements, and is incorporated in a variety of medicinal products ranging from antacids to epsom salts. It also happens to be the 8th most abundant element in the earth’s crust , the 11th most abundant element in the human body  and is an essential component of over 300 different processes in humans .
Despite its significance towards human health and its abundance on earth, magnesium is the second most common nutrient deficiency in the developed world. An American study found that nearly half of its population (48%) aren’t getting adequate amounts of magnesium .
Something just doesn’t add up. How can a mineral as important and abundant as magnesium be deficient so often? Let’s explore this issue starting with exactly WHY magnesium is so important.
What Makes Magnesium So Important?
Magnesium is a reactive metallic element the body uses it for as many as 300 different enzymatic processes inside our cells. It’s reactivity is what makes it so valuable. This reactive nature allows magnesium to strip oxygen atoms from water and has the ability to change the chemical structures of countless other molecules as well. This is one of the main reasons it’s so useful enzymatically. It’s used to transfer atoms from one molecule to another which is a necessary step in nearly every process within the human cell.
Why Do We Need Magnesium?
Magnesium is especially useful for a type of molecules known as polyphosphate compounds. These compounds include some of our most important structures like ATP (used for energy production), DNA (the blueprints of the body), and RNA (the instruction manual the body uses made from copied from DNA). The role magnesium plays in these important compounds make it essential for life to exist, and means it plays an indirect role in nearly every single process in the human body.
Magnesium is used for:
- Maintenance of a normal heart rhythm
- Regulating nerve transmission
- Drug metabolism in the liver
- Energy production
- Glucose regulation
- Blood pressure regulation
- Intracellular enzymatic function
Magnesium Deficiencies Are Common
The recommended daily intake of magnesium as reported by the national diet and nutrition survey is 308 mg for men, and 229 mg for women . This is fairly low when you consider that it’s such an abundant element in the earth’s crust, and can be found concentrated in the photosynthetic cells of plants.
Despite its abundance, magnesium has become the second most common nutrient deficiency in humans. A deficiency in magnesium can result in a series of symptoms that gradually worsen over time, some of which can become lethal.
Symptoms of magnesium deficiency include:
- Lowered cognitive function (both memory and concentration)
- Hyperexcitability (muscle cramping and spasms)
- Loss of appetite
As symptoms progress, more severe signs and symptoms may appear including:
- Heart palpitations
- Personality changes
- Sodium retention
- Tingling or numbness in the extremities
- Tachycardia (rapid heartbeat)
Long term or severe magnesium deficiencies can result in diabetes or death by heart failure. Heart disease currently accounts for as many as 30% of deaths worldwide each year . The number of these deaths that were the direct result of magnesium deficiencies is unknown.
What Causes So Many of us to Become Magnesium Deficient?
Magnesium deficiencies in the developed world are the result of a combination of separate issues, starting with the soil. The majority of the world’s crops are grown on a large scale at giant factory farms where there is no time to enrich the soil between harvests. This overproduction has lead to a widespread depletion of magnesium from our cultivated lands, producing vegetables far lower in magnesium than they once were.
On top of this, the introduction of convenience food and busy city lifestyles has lead us to shift away from eating whole, plant-based foods, which are the main source of magnesium in the human diet aside from supplementation.
Chronic stress, diabetes, alcohol consumption, and medication use can further deplete magnesium levels by placing demand on the systems that use them. All of these factors are common lifestyle habits in the developed world. Simply put, we’re living in a world where magnesium is becoming depleted in our soils, our diets are shifting away from foods that deliver this magnesium, and our lifestyles promote the depletion of this essential mineral.
Where To Find Magnesium
It’s easy to see the importance of ensuring adequate magnesium intake. Incorporating magnesium rich foods into the diet can go a long way towards promoting optimal cognitive, cardiovascular, and metabolic health.
Foods like leafy green vegetables, nuts like almonds, and fermented animal products (such as yogurt and kefir) are all excellent sources of magnesium. Taking soil depletion issues into account, organically grown vegetables grown with traditional plot cycling methods will often provide the most magnesium per gram.
Additionally, supplementation of magnesium is a reliable and effective option to ensure magnesium doesn’t become deficient. As mentioned earlier, magnesium is one of the most recommended dietary supplements in the western world. This is because of its importance in the human body, high level of safety, and because of the widespread health benefits this mineral can offer long term.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Database; CID=5462224, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/5462224 (accessed Dec 20, 2017).
- “Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Magnesium”. Office of Dietary Supplements, US National Institutes of Health. 11 February 2016. Retrieved 13 October 2016.
- Henderson et al (2002) National Diet and Nutrition Survey: adults aged 19 to 64 yrs. The Stationery Office, London
- World Health Organization. (2009). Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs). http://www. who. int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs317/en/index. Html.
- Rosanoff, A., Weaver, C. M., & Rude, R. K. (2012). Suboptimal magnesium status in the United States: are the health consequences underestimated?. Nutrition reviews, 70(3), 153-164.
- Long, S., & Romani, A. M. (2014). Role of cellular magnesium in human diseases. Austin journal of nutrition and food sciences, 2(10).