Photo: Courtesy Of Walgreens.
If the nutrition world were a high school cafeteria, there are a few nutrients that would definitely be holding court at the cool kids' table: obviously, vitamins B12, C and D, and calcium. But, much like in all those teen movies that defined our youth (what up, Freddie Prinze, Jr.), it’s usually the social outcast that goes on to be crowned prom queen. And, at this high school hoedown, that underdog is magnesium.
Magnesium is present in every cell type in every organism. It’s necessary for over 350 enzymatic reactions, including the synthesis of DNA, RNA, and ATP – the main source of energy for our bodies. In fact, ATP must be bound to magnesium in order to work. But, what does that all mean? If your magnesium level is off, your energy could be off — along with a whole host of other unpleasant side effects.
Who’s Missing Out?
According to Morley Robbins, certified nutrition educator, a.k.a. “Magnesium Man,” 70% to 80% of Americans are deficient in magnesium, though he says it’s closer to 100% of the people he sees in his practice. Dr. Rena Ahuja of Newport Beach, CA confirms, saying the deficiency is a fairly common condition these days.
Photo: Courtesy Of Planet Organic.
How Did We Get This Way?
Robbins credits this lack of magnesium to three things: food quality, environmental toxicity, and public health enemy number one: stress.
When food is refined it undergoes processes like grinding, mixing, bleaching, and brominating, stripping out many nutrients. Compounding this deficit is the fact that these foods require nutrients to digest them – since they’re no longer in the food, our body steals them from our stores, further lowering our levels. (And don’t be fooled by the word “fortified” — fortified does mean that nutrients were added back in, but it's often only a fraction of what was removed).
More magnesium is required by our liver to detoxify the toxins we’re exposed to on a daily basis. These include everything from environmental toxins, of which there are over 700 currently reported by the CDC, to byproducts of over-the-counter drugs and prescriptions like birth control, bronchodilators for asthma, tetracycline, and other antibiotics.
Finally, stress — both mental and physical — requires a continuous flow of adrenaline, which uses up magnesium rapidly. And, we all know when we’re under stress, from late nights at the office to the discount eyebrow wax that went awry. Even exercise can be a stress to the system. Robbins says the mineral loss through heavy sweating during endurance sports can be “staggering.” But, here’s the kicker: Magnesium is known as the “anti-stress” mineral because the nervous system depends on it for its calming effects. So, the very mineral we need to relax is the one being used up by stress. This starts a vicious cycle where low levels of magnesium lead to more stress, anxiety, irritability, fatigue, insomnia, and, ultimately, even lower levels of magnesium! It’s stressful just to think about it.
The Calcium-Magnesium Catch-22
Just ask your average kindergartener what calcium does and odds are they’ll tell you “it makes strong bones.” But, according to research published by the Weston A. Price Foundation, calcium needs magnesium to work, as magnesium is responsible for converting vitamin D to the active form that allows calcium to be absorbed and deposited in hard tissues (bones) where it belongs. Robbins compares calcium to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: When magnesium is present, calcium behaves; when it’s not, calcium can’t be absorbed. And, not only does this leave bones weakened, the excess calcium could wind up being deposited where it shouldn’t – in soft tissues creating problems like kidney stones (ouch!).
Making matters worse is the fact that excess calcium actually blocks magnesium absorption, and thanks to the processed food supply, we have an artificial abundance of calcium added to everything from orange juice to pancake mix.
How Do You Know If You’re Low?
Early signs of deficiency include fatigue and irritability – but who doesn’t have that from time to time? One definite indicator you can hang your hat on is muscle tremors or twitching. Ever had one eye suddenly spaz out when you’re stressed out? Magnesium is needed to help muscles relax. Other signs of a potential deficiency: PMS symptoms like excessive bleeding and/or craving chocolate (hello!), migraines, insomnia, restless leg syndrome at night, and stinky feet.
What To Do About It
Both Robbins and Dr. Ahuja recommend testing before any kind of supplementation. The best test is a red blood cell test that can be ordered by your doctor. As for levels, Robbins says “strive for 6.5,” while “seven is heaven.” He cautions against supplementing without testing, as many people who are under a lot of stress can also have low levels of sodium and potassium, and, in this case, supplementing with magnesium could make matters worse.
If you do test and find that your levels are less than ideal, Dr. Ahuja recommends supplementing with magnesium glycinate – as some of the other forms of magnesium, such as magnesium oxide, are not as easily absorbed by the body and could cause diarrhea. She advises starting in the range of 300 to 600mg per day, and says that it might be three to four months before you see improvements. But, good things come to those who wait.
Finally, Robbins and Dr. Ahuja agree that anyone who drinks alcohol or caffeine, consumes excess sugar, or takes birth control pills — so erm, just about everyone? — could do with a little more magnesium. With that in mind, it’s probably a good idea for us all to familiarize ourselves with the main magnesium foods (in order of biggest bang for your buck): black-eyed peas, millet, white beans, lima beans, red beans, wheat bran/germ, barley, beet greens, and spinach. While magnesium might not get all the good press that some other minerals receive, it's a super-important element of a healthy, functioning body.