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Magnesium... Could you be deficient?

Could you be deficient?

Do you suffer from one or more of the following? If so, the chances are you may be low in magnesium.

  • Poor sleep
  • Fatigue
  • Restless legs
  • Eye twitches
  • PMT
  • Anxiety
  • Muscular cramps

Recent research published in Open Heart, a British Medical Journal publication, has identified “rampant” sub-clinical magnesium deficiency (i.e. a deficiency not detected by a lab test) and stated that this undiagnosed magnesium deficiency is “one of the leading causes of chronic disease, including cardiovascular disease and early mortality around the globe, and should be considered a public health crisis.”

Why might you be low in magnesium?

The bad news is that since 1940, largely due to intensive farming methods, the magnesium content of a variety of foods has considerably declined. As an example, a 24% loss of magnesium has been reported in vegetables and a 21% loss in milk. Refined foods such as white flour and polished rice are also depleted in magnesium during processing. Moreover, if your diet is high in sugars and refined carbohydrates with regular caffeinated drinks, more magnesium will be excreted from the body via the kidneys, which largely control the levels of magnesium and other important minerals. Additionally, magnesium is rapidly depleted in the body by excessive alcohol intake as well as by certain prescription medications, such as diuretics and painkillers. Chronic stress, whether physical or emotional, also increases our need for magnesium, as magnesium works alongside vitamin C, B6, zinc and pantothenic acid to maintain adrenal health and produce adrenal stress hormones.

This often overlooked but vital mineral is needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body, playing a key role in areas such as energy metabolism, the maintenance of strong bones and a healthy heart. Sometimes referred to as “nature’s relaxant”, magnesium is necessary for the proper functioning of the muscles and nerves, sustaining normal heart rhythm and helping the body to cope with stress. By helping to stabilise blood sugar, it can also help to prevent the anxiety and nervousness we can feel when blood sugar drops too low. Additionally, magnesium plays an important role in regulation of brain neurotransmitters such as serotonin, helping to keep our mood stable.

Over half of the magnesium in the body is deposited in bones, with the remainder found in the muscle and soft tissues. With only 1% magnesium in the blood, blood tests can be misleading as a normal serum magnesium reading could still mask a magnesium deficiency inside the body’s cells. This is because when intake of magnesium is low, the body maintains normal serum levels by pulling magnesium from the bones and muscles. Increased intake of certain nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D and phosphorous (from phosphate additives in processed meats and phosphoric acid found in soft drinks) also increases our requirement for magnesium.

Did you know that magnesium is needed for vitamin D activation?

Magnesium is needed to convert vitamin D into its biologically active form so that it can be properly used to aid calcium absorption, which in turn is important for the health of our bones.

Recent research published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association suggests that people who have a low magnesium intake may not be able to make full use of vitamin D supplements. Deficiency of magnesium can result in vitamin D remaining inactive and stored in the body, potentially leading to vitamin D deficiency disorders such as cardiovascular and bone diseases. The researchers also warn that calcification of the arteries could occur without sufficient magnesium to activate vitamin D.

So how can you top up your magnesium levels?

Chlorophyll, the green plant pigment, is rich in magnesium which enables the plant to convert light into energy - so eat your greens! Good magnesium sources include green leafy vegetables such as spinach and chard as well as nutrient dense fibrous whole grains such as brown rice, oatmeal or whole grain breads, in addition to beans and legumes. Other good sources of magnesium include avocados, yoghurt or kefir, nuts - especially almonds and cashews - and seeds such as flax seeds, pumpkin, sesame and sunflower. You can even treat yourself to a little dark chocolate now and then to top up your levels!

Magnesium myth

You may be concerned that phytate-rich foods, such as whole grains and beans mentioned above, provide phytic acid, which binds to minerals like magnesium, making it difficult to absorb. Phytic acid is the storage form of phosphorous - but phytate-rich foods also happen to be very good sources of magnesium!   

Phytates are actually very important to the plant, providing energy for the sprouting seed. Our bodies manage to regulate phytate levels pretty well. Urinary magnesium excretion will also drop to compensate for a reduction in readily-absorbable magnesium. It is therefore unlikely that consuming phytate rich foods will lead to significant magnesium depletion. 

The recommended nutrient reference value (formerly known as the RDA) for magnesium - established to prevent deficiency diseases in most people - is between 300 and 420mg/day, however this is not the amount needed to promote optimal health and does not take into account individual needs or lifestyle factors that may alter requirements. Bearing this in mind, you may want to reflect on your own diet and lifestyle and consider supplementing a well-absorbed food state form of magnesium to ensure that you are not going short of this truly magical mineral!

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