Magnesium is a chemical element that chemists refer to by the symbol Mg, but Mg never exists by itself anywhere on the planet. It is embedded in rocks, or molten in earth, or dissolved in seawater.
Magnesium is essential to life, found in every living cell and involved in every physiological process we rely on to live. Our energy currency is called ATP, and magnesium is essential for its production and utilization. Magnesium plays a vital role in the contraction and relaxation of muscles, including skeletal muscles, as well as the of the gastrointestinal tract, and muscles regulating blood flow, blood pressure and breathing passages. Our heart is a muscle, and regulation of the electrical and muscular function of the heart depends on magnesium. Optimal mental and emotional function require adequate magnesium for neurotransmitter and hormone production.
In conventional medical circles, magnesium deficiency is considered rare, but most nutritionally minded physicians recognize the symptoms of potential magnesium deficiency in its many presentations. Magnesium deficiency should be considered as a partial or determining cause in any of the following conditions:
- ADD and ADHD
- Muscle cramps and twitches
- Muscle weakness
- Panic attacks
Magnesium works in partnership with calcium in many physiological functions including nervous and cardiovascular processes and bone-building.
Magnesium deficiency has become widespread, largely because of decades of mineral depleting farming practices. Modern commercial fertilizers do not routinely replace magnesium, so it becomes depleted growing the green leafy vegetables that like to extract magnesium from the soil and make it available for us to eat. Because magnesium is highly soluble, the magnesium that does appear in foods is often removed in any form of commercial processing.
“How do I know if I need magnesium?” Hmm, there’s the rub! The most important magnesium levels are the ones inside your red blood cells and that requires special testing not readily available. Your physician should be able to obtain the red blood cell test for you, although most people can assume they are deficient.
Sounds good, where do I find magnesium?
I am always interested first in the healing power of foods, so let’s start there.
Nuts and Seeds. Nuts, nut butters, or seeds – ideally prepared according to the Crispy Nuts Recipe – are excellent sources of magnesium, supply 150-300 mg in ¼ cup serving. Healthy proteins and fats are an added benefit in nuts.
Leafy greens, vegetables and fruits. Organic produce, grown on healthy soil, can provide 150 mg in a dietary serving. Any food processing depletes magnesium, so eating fruits and vegetables raw or minimally cooked will best preserve their nutritional value.
Food sources work best with an excellent digestive system, rich with digestive enzymes, intestinal pre- and probiotics. Consider supplementation with either enzymes, like Thorne Research Dipan-9 or a symbiotic such as Bio-Immersion Original Synbiotic if you have any symptoms of indigestion, such as burping, heartburn, bloating, diarrhea or constipation.
Supplementation is particularly important to consider for people taking any medications that deplete the body of magnesium including antacids, acid blockers, antibiotics, many blood pressure drugs, steroids and other hormones, including female hormones. (For an excellent discussion of all forms of nutrient depletion associated with use of medications, see Suzy Cohen’s book Drug Muggers.) Also, because absorption is so variable, anything that stresses your physiology can impair magnesium absorption, such as lots of exercise, stress, alcohol or coffee, or any unusual dieting patterns.
How to take it: An important point about magnesium is that it promotes bowel motility. If you take “too much” magnesium, you can get cramping and diarrhea. Magnesium is often balanced with calcium, because “calcium constipates and magnesium moves” when it comes to bowel activity. When supplementing, any dose that causes loose bowels is too high; when magnesium acts as a laxative you are not absorbing the magnesium internally. An estimated dose is somewhere between 3 and 10 mg per pound of body weight.
Other important absorption points are that iron interferes with the absorption of magnesium, so they shouldn’t be taken together. Digestive challenges interfere with mineral absorption, so addressing irritable bowel or indigestion may be necessary to achieve full benefit from magnesium supplementation.
What to take: Magnesium citrate and magnesium malate are two of the best-absorbed forms of magnesium, and Thorne Research makes several excellent forms of easily absorbed magnesium. Magnesium Lactate is the most efficient form in terms of restoring red blood cell levels of magnesium.
For those with bowel sensitivity, the forms magnesium taurate and magnesium glycinate are less stimulating and better absorbed by the body.
For those seeking the increased bowel activity, the most potent bowel stimulating form of magnesium is the magnesium oxide.
Special Use of Magnesium: Of particular interest to many of you might be the special formulation of magnesium in a topical form, Ancient Minerals Magnesium Oil or Lotion. A few sprays rubbed in can be effective with stubborn muscle twitches or painful spasms. People who have intolerance of oral magnesium (stomach rumbling, loose bowels) but suffer from some form of magnesium deficiency can often benefit from applying the oil. The first application can sting (try a different site if it's too bad), and some stickiness can persist on your skin or your hands if you rub it in. You can wash off the stickiness after 15 minutes without diminishing the magnesium absorption.
Magnesium can also be absorbed topically either through bathing in Epsom salts or Magnesium salts, although the amount absorbed is minimal compared to oral or other topical forms.
Tenacity: For those suffering from any of the many conditions associated with magnesium deficiency, finding the right form of supplementation might be difficult. In situations of acute need, such as in the hospital, magnesium is administered intravenously to bypass the problems with oral ingestion. At home, you may need to combine caution (avoid the dosing that can cause diarrhea) and resourcefulness (find a different form of magnesium if you experience side effects) to pursue an adequate level of magnesium for optimal health.
From Dr. Deborah's Desk
Allow me to sing the praises of topical magnesium. I was not a believer, based on some anecdotal evidence, until I had a persistent muscle twitch and a sample bottle of the oil. Two sprays and GONE, or at least it's been gone for the last four months and counting. Rusty is a patient I've known for decades - a crusty kind of fellow with no patience for many of the gentle measures I offer - was suffering with intractable muscle spasms in his upper back after an uncomfortable session of radiation for his bone cancer. Modalities I would usually recommend were of no help, including massage and physical therapy. I sent his wife home with a bottle of magnesium oil and urged her to rub it in, twice daily. When he came to the office a few days later, he said in an aside, "Oh, by the way, that stuff seemed to work." High praise from his mouth!
I have a patient named Ginny, who is as enthusiastic with words as Rusty is sparse, for whom we've never found an effective treatment to calm her Restless Legs Syndrome, although we've tried several. She was glowing and eager to catch my eye when I saw her recently: "My legs are better!" after she tried the magnesium oil for two weeks.
I believe we are all relatively speaking magnesium deficient. The test for magnesium adequacy is not readily available, it requires a measuring of the magnesium content within our red blood cells. Our blood levels (reported in most chemistry panels) do not necessarily reflect the level inside the cells, which is the level that really matters. Yet it is not uncommon for people to have abdominal discomfort when they take oral magnesium, even with a clear deficiency symptom. I am delighted that I have confidence in the forms available for topical administration.