Jul. 26. 2017
Nutrition Articles
McKel (Hill) Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel (Hill) Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Dietitian, Founder

Discover the nutrition science behind the important mineral Magnesium.

Why is magnesium important and why do you need it in your diet? What food sources are rich in magnesium and when, if at all, do you need to supplement with magnesium? Let’s take a look at the nutrition science behind this important mineral and make sure you’re getting enough!

Why is Magnesium Important?

For as little as magnesium is talked about compared to macronutrients like protein or carbohydrates, it’s actually an incredibly important part of a functioning body (let alone a healthy, thriving one!). Over 300 enzymes use magnesium for important processes like ATP and synthesizing DNA, RNA, and proteins. Yes, we all know in theory that those processes are important, but what does it really mean when translated into our actual lives?

Our body contains about 25 grams of magnesium, over 60% of that amount of magnesium is found in the skeleton, 27% is found in muscle, 6% to 7% is found in other cells, and less than 1% is found outside of cells (1).  Healthy magnesium levels help us sleep better, contributes to healthy thyroid function, promotes healthy blood pressure and cardiovascular health, plays an important role in insulin sensitivity, and normal magnesium levels are linked to improved mental health.

Magnesium Deficiencies:

As important as magnesium is, a good portion of the US population is magnesium deficient.

First, because most people don’t eat enough magnesium-rich foods. Magnesium levels are highest in foods like dark leafy greens, nuts, beans, and other raw plant foods that aren’t necessarily front-and-center in a conventional Western diet.

Second, absorbing magnesium without the right complimentary vitamins—B12, D, and selenium—isn’t the easiest thing for our bodies to do, so not all of the magnesium we take in may necessarily be absorbed.

Last, magnesium levels decrease with excess intake of alcohol, salt, coffee, phosphoric acid in sodas, and stress. Certain groups may be at a higher risk for low magnesium such as folks with diabetes, athletes, those who consume alcohol, those with digestive disorders, and older populations.

These factors (especially for high-risk groups) may create a recipe for magnesium deficiency, which has been linked to:

  • muscle cramps
  • joint pain
  • headaches and migraines
  • acid reflux
  • heart arrhythmias
  • insomnia
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • hypothyroidism
  • hypertension
  • neuropathy
  • and many others!

If you feel any of these, you may try incorporating more magnesium in your diet and see how you feel and of course, get checked out by your physician and make an appointment with a Registered Dietitian who can give you nutrition coaching to meet your needs!

Magnesium and Your Health

  • Heart Health: One of the most important roles of magnesium is promoting and ensuring a healthy heart. Magnesium has been linked to regulating blood pressure in those with hypertension and regulating heart arrhythmias (2).
  •  Thyroid Health: So many thyroid problems go undiagnosed, and low levels of magnesium have been found to correlate with thyroid issues (3). Signs of hypothyroidism include fatigue, weakness, headaches, and muscle cramps, which are also indicators of a magnesium deficiency. I’ve found nutrition-based approaches to help manage hypothyroidism, including magnesium, to be incredibly effective with my clients, so check out the list below of magnesium-rich foods if you struggle with these symptoms.
  • Sleep: Magnesium deficiency enhances stress and inflammatory problems as it is linked to reducing the quality and time of sleep (4). Sleep is one of the most important parts of a healthy routine, and magnesium is often supplemented to promote healthful rest. Another way to relax at night and prepare for restful sleep is to take an Epsom salt bath. Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate, and, although it’s difficult to truly measure how much magnesium is absorbed in a bath (5), it’s still a great way to naturally calm down and quiet your mind. If baths aren’t your thing, also love this tea for night time!
  • Bone Health: As 50-60% of stored magnesium is found in our bones, it’s pretty clear that magnesium levels affect our bone health. Several population studies have shown a link between magnesium intake and bone density in both men and women (6). Of course, magnesium isn’t the only factor important to bone health (hello, calcium!), however, this mineral is definitely worth paying attention to if you are at high risk for osteopenia or osteoporosis.
  • Migraines: Magnesium deficiency is linked to vein constriction and neurotransmitter release, which can result in headaches or migraines. Some studies have found that supplementing with magnesium can help prevent them (7), I know this to be true with my history of migraines. Make sure you’re staying hydrated , too!
  • PMS: Muscle cramps are a common sign of magnesium deficiency. In particular, low levels of magnesium have been linked to extreme cramping in pregnant women (8). A magnesium supplement can help ease cramps, I recommend the Natural Calm to my clients and lots of rest with a warm bath to further relax muscles.
  • Diabetes: Type I and type II diabetics are at high risk for magnesium deficiencies. Magnesium has been shown to help with regulating blood pressure and managing neuropathy in diabetics. If diabetes is part of your life, make sure to choose foods high in magnesium at meals, or talk to your doctor and dietitian about supplementing with magnesium.

How much do we need?

Recommended daily intake of magnesium is about 400 mg/day, with some suggesting as high as 800 mg/day if you have trouble absorbing magnesium effectively. Of course, intake varies depends on how much magnesium your body needs! As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, my first piece of advice to clients (and you) is to eat foods high in magnesium and then fill in the gaps where you may need to through supplementation. Adding supplements can also help if you have any health challenges that cause issues with magnesium absorption or utilization.

Foods rich in magnesium:

  • Dark, leafy greens
  • Seaweed
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Almonds
  • Cashews
  • Pecans
  • Walnuts
  • Figs
  • Dates
  • Avocado
  • Parsley
  • Garlic

For those of you who require more magnesium than can be provided with food-based sources, you can take a magnesium supplement. The easiest magnesium supplements for our bodies to absorb are magnesium citrate and magnesium glycinate, since gastrointestinal side-effects (hello, bathroom!) are more common with supplements like magnesium oxide or magnesium chloride.

Recipes high in magnesium: 

Give these a try, and let me know what you think! I hope this post helps you better understand the role of magnesium, and how the right intake of this mineral will help you live better and feel amazing! If you have any questions that weren’t answered in this post, feel free to post in the comments below.