Magnesium always seems to pop up on the list of supplements nutritionists recommend, and for good reason: Around 60 percent of all Americans are not getting their recommended daily intake, and that can cause some pretty major problems.
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But what is magnesium, and why does it matter so much?
As you may remember from your high school chemistry class but probably don’t, magnesium is an element (atomic number 12!) and it helps regulate a lot of the biochemical reactions in your body, including stuff like nerve and muscle function, blood pressure regulation, and protein synthesis. “Magnesium is a foundational micronutrient for hormone pathways and neurotransmitter regulation,” says Taz Bhatia, M.D. Basically, it’s a critical part of the cocktail of minerals that makes your body tick.
What happens when you don’t have enough?
The more scientists delve into the role magnesium plays in different organs, the more crucial we’re realizing this mineral is, especially when it comes to preventing disease. Low magnesium levels have been associated with everything from hypertension to asthma to osteoporosis. And I can vouch for the fact that when I was pregnant, magnesium helped me with a host of problems. Constipation, for instance, cleared right up—and yeah, there’s good evidence that magnesium will take care of that too.
Beyond pregnancy, magnesium helped me at a crucial point in my life: A few years back, I fell down some stairs and ended up with a concussion that triggered migraines for months afterward. At my doctor’s suggestion, I took an increased dose of magnesium daily to help reduce the frequency of those migraines, and I was amazed to find that it helped. This didn’t work just for me out of wishful thinking, either—studies have demonstrated that low levels of magnesium can be associated with migraines.
Why you might be prone to a deficiency (and what to do about it)
So how do you know if you aren’t getting enough of this super-critical mineral? The unfortunate thing about a magnesium deficiency is that it isn’t usually detectable through blood tests because only 1 percent of your body’s magnesium is stored in your blood serum (the rest hangs out in your bones and soft tissues). That means you might not realize how depleted your magnesium levels are, even if your doctor orders a blood test.
But if you experience frequent gastrointestinal problems, drink a lot of coffee or alcohol, or suffer from anxiety, you may be especially prone to a deficiency, says Tara Campbell, ND, NAH. (Which sounds like most of us, TBH.)
The good news is that magnesium is available in a lot of good-for-you foods. “Magnesium-rich foods—including leafy greens, nuts (especially almonds) and dark chocolate are great ways to boost your levels,” Bhatia says.
But if filling your diet with nuts and fish isn’t doable (we don’t judge), you can always go the supplement route. Just be careful which form you take. Many people make the mistake of grabbing whatever magnesium they find at the health food store without checking the label. But some are more easily absorbed in the gut (magnesium lactate, citrate, chloride, and aspartate) than others (magnesium oxide and sulfate).
However, magnesium citrate, which is often used in those powdered nighttime drink supplement meant to relax you, can cause gastrointestinal distress for some folks, Campbell says.
“Supplementing a small dose of magnesium, perhaps 200 mg, in a chelated form, is a good starting step,” Bhatia explains. “Patients are often surprised when magnesium supplementation magically seems to ‘cure’ an ongoing sleep disorder, PMS, or constipation. A small, inexpensive dose can have a profound effect.”
As with everything else related to medicine, it’s cool to learn about stuff and become your own best patient advocate, but definitely check in with your doctor before deciding you need to make a bulk purchase—or even go down too many Google rabbit holes.
Glynis Ratcliffe used to be an opera singer, but after her daughter begged her to stop singing and be quiet for the millionth time, she decided to use her inside voice and write instead. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.