Magnesium: The Forgotten Mineral
Daniel J. Crisafi, ND.A., MH, PhD
When I was a child, my parents made me gulp down massive amounts of Milk of Magnesia. (Admittedly, I'm in my late 50s, so my memory might not be so reliable!) I suffered from constipation and hyperactivity and I used to get leg cramps. Milk of Magnesia clearly helped manage the first symptom, and perhaps the others as well. My interest in magnesium stems from that childhood experience. The word "magnesium" originated in the Greek region of Magnesia, where the mineral is found abundantly in the stone.
After nearly 30 years of clinical practice and three years of university research, I can assure you that magnesium is one of the most neglected essential nutrients in our diet. I decided to write this article to try to restore it to its former glory.
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the human body. Unfortunately, as only about 1% of magnesium is extracellular, it is nearly impossible to determine whether one has normal levels through a blood test. The best way to assess magnesium levels is through a biopsy of muscular or nerve tissue. Ouch! Blood tests do not provide an accurate picture of our magnesium needs.
Role of magnesium
What role does magnesium play in our bodies? This mineral is involved in over 300 enzymatic systems in the human body. Enzymes are catalysts, or substances that speed up various vital chemical reactions. Without this acceleration, we would all be dead! Magnesium also plays a key role in controlling body temperature. It is critical to the normal functioning of muscles and nerves, detoxification, hormone metabolism, bone and tooth formation, energy production and nucleic acids synthesis.
Through these various activities, it plays a key role in several biochemical and physiological functions and its deficiency can lead to medical disorders. Symptoms as varied as muscle cramps, fatigue, osteoporosis, insomnia, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, irritability, kidney stones and high blood pressure are associated with a magnesium deficiency. Researchers have even shown that magnesium can be as effective as statins in lowering LDL cholesterol levels, and without the side effects associated with those medications. An official statement from the American Pharmaceutical Association went so far as to tout it as a nutritional superstar when it comes to cardiovascular disease. From a biochemical perspective, magnesium is just as, if not more, important than calcium and vitamin D for healthy bones. In fact, a magnesium deficiency can prevent calcium from attaching to the bones and hinder the body's ability to produce vitamin D.
Studies show that magnesium deficiency is linked to a higher risk of colon cancer, premenstrual syndrome, ovarian cysts, panic attacks and fibromyalgia. What’s more, in a study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University, magnesium supplements reduced hot flashes by 41.4% in menopausal women and lowered their intensity by half.
Harmful effects of a magnesium deficiency
Few other natural substances have been shown to have so many positive effects on the human body. Magnesium can impact hormonal, emotional and energy levels, as well as the bones and cardiovascular system. Yet, this essential nutrient is rarely talked about. These days, the focus is on calcium, omega fatty acids and vitamin D, which are all important nutrients, but they don't make up for our lack of magnesium.
Magnesium levels in our food are well below the levels we need for optimal health, i.e. to be in top shape. In fact, the data published in traditional texts and recent nutritional analyses show a significant drop in magnesium levels in our food. For example, from 1914 to 1992, an average apple lost over 82% of its magnesium.
This significant drop in nutrition can be explained by several factors. Intensive farming enables us to grow five to six times more food per hectare without enriching the soil. Importing food that has to travel tens of thousands of kilometres and acid rain are also factors that reduce the magnesium levels of our food. Processing food robs it of even more of its magnesium. For example, wheat loses approximately 85% of its magnesium when it's processed. All of these factors, as well as the likely role played by genetic modifications, are responsible for the large drop in this essential nutrient in our diet. It isn't surprising, then, to see a rise in insomnia, anxiety, and cognitive, cardiovascular and hormonal problems, to name just a few. Clearly, a magnesium deficiency isn't the sole cause of these problems, but it is an often forgotten factor that is easy to control.
First, you should eat high-quality vegetables, which are preferably locally grown or organic. Your lunch and dinner should consist of 50% to 60% vegetables. Keep in mind that magnesium is the primary mineral in chlorophyll. Any green vegetable or herb is a good source of magnesium. Other sources include whole grains, nuts (e.g. hazelnuts and almonds), legumes and cocoa. Magnesium is necessary for eliminating estrogen and more is needed during the premenstrual phase, which could explain the chocolate cravings women often experience before their periods.
Second, avoid substances that "rob" your body of magnesium. Acidic foods, refined sugars, soft drinks, alcohol and coffee all have harmful effects on magnesium levels. Emotional, physical, hormonal or immunity stress can also play a major role in decreased magnesium levels. It can be hard to eliminate certain stressors, but you can minimize their impact by learning how to better handle them.
Finally, consider taking magnesium supplements, especially if you tend to suffer from any of the above symptoms. It's also important to be aware that those suffering from diabetes or heart problems need much higher levels of magnesium than the rest of the population. Supplements are necessary to make up for the significant magnesium deficiency in today's food. You can get those supplements through frozen, fresh or powdered green juices, as well as through magnesium supplements. Be sure to buy products that are easily digestible, such as chelated magnesium, magnesium bisglycinate or magnesium citrate.
Magnesium is the most forgotten mineral in our diet but it should be the cornerstone of a nutritional program for optimal health. Here's to your vitality!