Magnesium: Health Benefits and Best Ways to Supplement
From cardiac patient to competitive athlete, depressed to diabetic, growing up to growing old…you need magnesium. And you need more than you’re probably getting.
At least two-thirds of adults get less than the paltry RDA, which is 400-420 mg for men and 310-320 mg for women, making magnesium the second most-common micronutrient deficiency, next to vitamin D.
- Why Is Magnesium So Important?
- Cardiovascular Health
- Energy Production
- Blood Sugar, Insulin Resistance, and Diabetes
- Muscle Function and Bone Health
- Depression and Anxiety
- Learning and Memory
- Magnesium and Exercise
- What Causes Low Magnesium Levels?
- How to Increase Levels
- My Magnesium Recommendations
If you hope to meet your magnesium needs through food alone, good luck with that. Most people need to supplement to get enough.
Before you stop into a retail store and buy the lowest-priced supplement you can find, read through this article so you know what to look for.
The last thing I’d want for you is to buy the cheap stuff and end up with diarrhea in the middle of your squat workout, or when you’re in the window seat on an airplane.
I’ll cover why it’s so important, why we don’t get enough, how to choose the right magnesium supplement, and what I use myself. You’ll understand why magnesium is part of our Foundational Five, the five foundational supplements for (almost) every nutrition program.
Why Is Magnesium So Important?
At any given time, you store about 25 grams of magnesium in your body, a little less than an ounce. About half is stored in your bones, half in organs and tissues and about one percent in your blood.
Inflammation is a major factor in heart disease.
Magnesium supports normal inflammation levels through multiple pathways. In fact, low-grade inflammation from insufficient magnesium could contribute to a whole host of health problems.
Studies show those with low magnesium are more likely to have elevated C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), the main marker of systemic inflammation. And correcting low magnesium levels can lower CRP levels.
Elevated blood sugar and blood pressure also increase cardiovascular risk, both of which can be improved by meeting your magnesium needs.
Magnesium plays a role in energy production, assisting with the extraction of energy from food. It supports the proper utilization of amino acids, fat, or carbohydrates. It also aids in the creation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy currency of every cell in your body.
Nerve impulse conduction requires magnesium. No nerve impulse, no ability to move a muscle, control your heart rhythm, or have a functioning brain.
Magnesium is required for the utilization of other micronutrients, such as B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, and vitamin E.
Blood Sugar, Insulin Resistance, and Diabetes
Magnesium supports normal blood sugar levels and is needed for proper insulin metabolism. Those with insulin resistance, diabetes, and/or metabolic syndrome are often deficient.
Elevated blood sugar is toxic to the body, so insulin is secreted when blood sugar levels rise. Over time, the body becomes numb to the effects of insulin (insulin resistant), and blood sugar levels don’t come down.
Muscle Function and Bone Health
Magnesium is necessary for muscle contraction. If levels fall too low, nerve conduction and muscle contraction can be affected, which could lower muscle strength and power.
Opposite contraction, magnesium is also necessary for relaxation. Cramps can be an obvious sign of low magnesium, but so is restless leg syndrome.
While calcium is important for bone health, osteoporosis risk jumps when magnesium levels decline. Magnesium, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin K are all important for maintenance of bone density with age.
Depression and Anxiety
In all of my reading and research, I was most fascinated by low magnesium’s connection to depression.
Some believe the neural damage brought on by low magnesium diets can lead to feelings of depression.
Magnesium insufficiency lowers serotonin, which can also contribute to depression. This explains why many people experience a calming effect from magnesium.
It’s not just depression though. Low magnesium, or even an excess intake of calcium compared to magnesium, can lead to feelings of agitation, anxiety, irritability, confusion, sleeplessness, and headaches. Anxiety during PMS also seems to be connected to low levels as well.
Likely connected to the brain and serotonin effects of magnesium, low levels are also tied to migraine headaches and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Learning and Memory
Since low magnesium has such a strong connection to depression, I’m not surprised it also has connection to the progression of neurodegenerative diseases.
Magnesium controls synaptic plasticity, which affects learning and memory.
Developing Alzheimer’s, Lewy Body disease, and other forms of dementia are real fears for aging adults. At this point, there is nothing known to stop or reverse cognitive decline, but some evidence suggests sufficient magnesium intake can help slow the progression.
…all elements of the limbic–hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenocortical axis are sensitive to the action of Mg. Magnesium has also been demonstrated to suppress hippocampal kindling, attenuate the release of, and affect adrenocortical sensitivity to, adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), and may influence the access of corticosteroids to the brain at the level of the blood brain barrier via its action on p-glycoprotein.”Boyle NB et al. The Effects of Magnesium Supplementation on Subjective Anxiety and Stress—A Systematic Review
Magnesium and Exercise
Animal studies show that magnesium deficiency increases free radical production during exercise.
Physical stress also increases the use of magnesium, making competitive athletes and fitness enthusiasts more at risk of insufficiency if they don’t supplement.
Magnesium is necessary for optimal muscle contraction, making it essential for athletes. It also plays an important role in the immune, endocrine (hormones), and cardiovascular systems.
All that said, there doesn’t seem to be a benefit in excessive intake. Once you reach an optimal level, taking more doesn’t create an ergogenic effect.
What Causes Low Magnesium Levels?
Insufficient intake, or excessive magnesium excretion contribute to low magnesium levels.
Increased Excretion or Use of Magnesium
Sugar consumption increases the use of magnesium. So does excessive physical or mental stress.
Proton pump inhibitors like Nexium® and Prevacid® and antacids decrease magnesium absorption, while loop and thiazide diuretics increase magnesium excretion.
Fluoride, commonly found in tap water, and excessive zinc (>142 mg/day) can reduce magnesium absorption as well.
Though higher-fiber intakes are generally considered healthy, partially fermentable fibers like hemicellulose, or non-fermentable fibers like cellulose and lignin can interfere with magnesium absorption.
Also, exercise increases excretion, which may increase daily requirements by 10-20%.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to consume sufficient magnesium through the diet.
Food processing strips most of the minerals found in grains, and fortified foods contain minimal amounts of poorly absorbed forms of magnesium.
Even the best multivitamins rarely contain enough magnesium. The chelates take up so much space, you’d need to take 2-4 additional capsules per day to get an optimal dose of the mineral.
Lastly, the Recommended Daily Allowance is hardly an ideal amount. It is more of an estimate of how much you need to avoid more obvious deficiency symptoms, and is based on questionable research.
How to Increase Levels
You do find magnesium in certain foods:
- Unprocessed whole grains
- Dark leafy greens
- Certain types of nuts.
In addition, proteins, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), and low or indigestible carbohydrates like resistant starch, oligosaccharides, and inulin, enhance magnesium absorption.
However, even with a good diet, you probably won’t get enough from food alone.
Supplementing With Magnesium
Magnesium supplements are available in a variety of forms, which makes it confusing to pick the right one.
I’ll briefly touch on your options, and then share the three we recommend.
Organic vs Inorganic
When describing minerals, “organic” doesn’t have the same meaning you’re familiar with as it relates to food.
Magnesium isn’t found on its own in supplements. It is bound to another molecule or compound (i.e. magnesium glycinate, magnesium malate).
When it is bound to a carbon-containing molecule, it’s considered “organic,” and when the molecule doesn’t contain a carbon atom, it’s considered inorganic.
“Organic” magnesiums are not any safer, so don’t be fooled by a product that boosts “Organic Chelate.” All forms, if you take enough, should raise blood, tissue, and brain levels, but some forms do seem to provide greater advantages for certain tissues than other.
However, some of the organic chelates do have the best absorption. Also, if you take too much of some forms of magnesium, they can cause diarrhea. That’s great if your constipated, but not so great if you’re not, and you suddenly have to go when there’s no place to go.
The Best Magnesium Supplements
The following table outlines the better and best magnesiums. For everyday use magnesium glycinate and magnesium malate are the two we recommend, as they’re the most bioavailable.
|Magnesium Carbonate||Helpful for those with indigestion or acid reflux|
|Magnesium Chloride||Commonly recommended for supporting detoxification and kidney function|
|Magnesium Citrate||Helpful with constipation as it is a mild laxative|
|Magnesium Glycinate||One of best absorbed forms of magnesium|
|Magnesium Malate||One of best absorbed forms of magnesium. Can be helpful for those with fatigue as malic acid is involved in ATP production.|
|Magnesium Oxide||Most common form in over-the-counter constipation medications|
|Magnesium Sulfate||Also known as Epsom Salt, this magnesium is often added to a bath, but can also be used internally, though it does have a laxative effect like magnesium oxide|
|Magnesium Threonate||Seems to have an advantage over other magnesium forms for promoting brain function|
My Magnesium Recommendations
Personally, I’d rather take fewer of the best absorbed and highest-quality forms of magnesium, than take a ton of diarrhea-inducing, lower-quality magnesium pills.
That’s where magnesium glycinate and magnesium malate come in.
Magnesium glycinate is one of best-absorbed form of magnesium. It raises blood, bone, and tissue levels without causing loose stools or digestive upset.
Because the magnesium is bound to glycine, you also get the benefits of glycine along with magnesium. Glycine is an amino acid that supports digestion and healthy joints, as well as calms the mind and supports restful sleep.
Like magnesium glycinate, magnesium malate is absorbed very well. In this form, magnesium is bound to malic acid.
Malic acid is a natural compound found in some fruits. It is involved in cellular energy production, which is why some people who feel fatigued may experience a little more energy when using it.
Malic aid also helps chelate heavy metals like aluminum, so it’s an important part of detoxification.
Magnesium Threonate (Notable Mention)
Low levels of magnesium in the brain contributes to a loss of plasticity, which translates to cognitive decline. However, most forms of magnesium have minimal effect on improving brain levels.*
Magnesium-L-threonate, developed by scientists at MIT, does increase levels in the brain.*
Animal research shows it improves learning abilities, working memory, and short and long-term memory. A mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease showed that magnesium threonate supplementation prevented or reversed synapse loss and memory loss.*
In older adults with existing cognitive problems, supplementing with magnesium threonate increased brain levels of magnesium, as expected. They also experienced improvements in executive function, memory, and problem solving abilities.*
We often dismiss the importance of micronutrients by focusing too much on macronutrients – fat, carbohydrates, and protein.
However, if you fall short on micronutrients like magnesium, you can create some pretty significant health problems.
Being that it’s safe to supplement with and easy to take, it’s one of the five supplements we recommend for almost everyone.