Magnesium is one of the most important minerals in the human body. It’s vital for optimal health and wellbeing of humans — as well as most other forms of life on earth.
This unique mineral is the 8th most abundant element in the universe and the 11th most abundant element in the human body. The body requires magnesium to drive, supporting as many as 300 separate enzyme reactions — ranging from DNA and RNA replication to the production of energy within the cell.
Despite how common magnesium is, humans seem to have a hard time getting all the magnesium they need. Some research suggests as many as 45% of adults in the Western world are deficient in this vital mineral.
How can so many people have deficiencies in such a common element?
The problem comes from two fronts:
- Magnesium is becoming depleted in farmlands
- The body doesn’t absorb magnesium very efficiently
In this article, we’ll explore how the body absorbs magnesium after you eat magnesium-rich foods, how supplemental magnesium can help, and how we can make this process more efficient.
Let’s get started.
What is Magnesium Used For?
The human body contains roughly 25 grams of magnesium, 90% of which is found in the muscles and bones.
The reason magnesium is so abundant in these tissues is because we use a ton of magnesium for energy production in the mitochondria of the cell — something that’s exceptionally abundant in skeletal muscle tissue to drive movement and strength. We also need magnesium for the production of new proteins in muscle and for the creation and breakdown of bone tissue.
Outside the muscles and bones, magnesium is essential for DNA and RNA synthesis. This is essential to all life on earth because the DNA are the blueprints for everything the body. RNA is then used to carry the instructions from DNA to other areas in the cell.
Without DNA and RNA transcription, our cells can’t manufacture the proteins needed to keep us alive.
We also use magnesium as an electrolyte in the bloodstream — helping to maintain blood pH, blood pressure, and the ionic gradient in cells.
Summary: What is Magnesium Used For?
- Protein synthesis
- DNA and RNA transcription
- Maintaining ionic gradients of cells
- Balancing blood pressure
- Maintaining proper blood pH
- Energy production
- The creation of new bone tissue
What Causes Magnesium Deficiencies?
There are a few key causes for magnesium deficiencies in the modern world:
- We consume less magnesium in our diets than our early ancestors
- Consumption of elements that compete with magnesium has increased
- Exposure to elements like aluminum that inhibit magnesium absorption has increased
- Absorption of magnesium is notoriously poor
Our body’s regulation of magnesium balance evolved millions of years ago. It’s believed that early humans consumed as much as 600 mg of magnesium every day — obtained from plants growing in magnesium-rich soils. This number is significantly higher than magnesium intake today — which is closer to around 248 mg per day (based on the average 62 kg person).
The problem stems from the depletion of magnesium from our farmlands due to decades of overfarming and the increase of magnesium-binding heavy metals. In the UK, magnesium levels have dropped by 8% in beef, 18% in bacon, 70% in parmesan cheese, 21% in milk, and 24% in vegetables since 1940.
Food refining only exaggerates the problem — removing substantial amounts of magnesium from flour (82%), rice (83%), starch (97%), and table sugar (99%).
The magnesium problem is two-fold — increased dietary intake of calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin D deplete our stores of magnesium much faster. Essentially, we’re getting less magnesium as we need more of it.
Compounding this problem further is the problem of magnesium absorption
The Problem With Magnesium Absorption
Due to the lower prevalence of magnesium in the modern diet and our higher demand for magnesium, we need to take extra measures to get the amount of magnesium we need to thrive. The simple solution is to take magnesium supplements. We can easily hit the recommended daily intake of 300 – 450 mg of magnesium per day when we take supplements such as magnesium glycinate, magnesium threonate, or others.
However, there’s a bit of a problem with magnesium supplementation — stemming from how the body absorbs magnesium.
Interestingly, magnesium absorption changes depending on how much we consume.
Very small amounts of magnesium has a relatively high absorption (80%). This means that even though we’re consuming less magnesium these days, it’s likely that most of it ends up absorbed through the small intestine.
When we consume higher amounts of magnesium at a time (such as in a magnesium supplement), this absorption can drop closer to 25% absorption — or less.
Additionally, we only absorb ionised magnesium, making it essential that the supplements we consume contain an ionised form of the element.
So What Does All of This Mean? How Can I Support Magnesium Homeostasis Through Supplementation?
We know that the modern human is getting less magnesium than our early ancestors — which means our body is adapted to thrive on a much higher magnesium intake than we’re currently getting. This is a big factor for why even mild magnesium deficiencies have been linked with serious chronic health issues like heart disease and diabetes. Our bodies rely heavily on magnesium and isn’t used to working so hard to get it.
In today’s world we have the luxury of having access to modern magnesium supplements, which can provide high doses of magnesium to the body when we need it in forms the body can actually absorb.
However, if we want to get the most from our supplements, we need to remember that the more of this element we take at once, the less we absorb at a time.
There are two main ways to get around this issue, each with their own pros and cons:
Use Magnesium Supplements That Have High Absorption Rates
Magnesium comes in many different forms. You’ll never find magnesium supplements made with elemental magnesium. Instead, you’ll find magnesium paired with another molecule.
Common forms of supplemental magnesium include:
Each of these supplements have a magnesium element attached to another molecule — which gives its name. Magnesium threonate, for example, is a combination of magnesium and the sugar acid threonic acid. Magnesium glycinate is a combination of magnesium attached to a glycine molecule.
Each form of magnesium has a different level of absorption in the body. Some very poor, others much more efficient.
The most common form of magnesium found in nature is magnesium oxide — which is very poorly absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract. This is the form of magnesium our ancestors were most likely to have consumed on a daily basis from fruits and vegetables.
The magnesium you’ll find in supplements have much higher absorption rates than magnesium oxide — the most popular being magnesium threonate, magnesium glycinate, magnesium taurate, and magnesium orotate.
Split The Doses Up For More Efficient Absorption
Another method people are using to get the most out of their magnesium supplements is to split the dose up. If the recommended dose for a magnesium supplement is four capsules per day, try taking two in the morning and two in the evening.
This way you can avoid the loss of absorption efficiency in the gut with higher doses of magnesium.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, magnesium deficiencies should be avoided at all costs. The effects are subtle but can lead to long-term consequences to our health. We need this vital mineral for hundreds of essential reactions in the human body.
Farmlands are becoming continually depleted of magnesium, which leads to reductions in livestock like beef and pork. Modern diets are much higher in elements like calcium, vitamin D, and phosphorous that deplete magnesium from the body. And we’re increasingly exposed to metals such as aluminum that actively prevent the absorption of magnesium through the digestive tract.
All of these factors make it important to supplement magnesium in a form we can absorb if we want to avoid magnesium deficiencies in the future.
To get the most from your magnesium supplements, we recommend splitting doses up to avoid having high concentrations of this mineral in the gut — which effectively lowers the absorption rate.