Magnesium always seems to pop up on the list of supplements nutritionists recommend, and for good reason. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), about 50 percent of all Americans don’t get their recommended daily requirement.What we eat in America, NHANES 2013 – 2016. (2019).

A lack of this important nutrient can cause some pretty major problems.

As you might have learned in high school chemistry class but probably don’t remember, magnesium is an element (atomic number 12!). It’s the fourth most abundant mineral in your body, falling in right behind other heavy hitters like calcium and phosphorous.

About 99 percent of all the magnesium in your body is stored in your bones, muscles, and soft tissues.Grober U, et al. (2015). Magnesium in prevention and therapy. DOI: 10.3390/nu7095388 So it’s not so easy for your body to access if you run low and need more.

And you definitely need it. Magnesium is involved in more than 300 different biochemical reactions in your body, including stuff like:Grober U, et al. (2015). Magnesium in prevention and therapy. DOI: 10.3390/nu7095388

  • helping nerves and muscles work properly
  • producing energy
  • making and fixing DNA and RNA
  • regulating blood pressure
  • forming protein

And there’s more. “Magnesium is a foundational micronutrient for hormone pathways and neurotransmitter regulation,” says Taz Bhatia, MD, an integrative health practitioner in Atlanta.

Basically, it’s a critical part of the mineral cocktail that makes your body run smoothly.

The more scientists delve into the role magnesium plays in different organs, the more crucial they realize this mineral is, especially when it comes to preventing disease.

Low magnesium levels are linked to a list of some pretty heavy diseases, including:

If low magnesium contributes to all of these health ills, could bumping up your daily amount help? In the case of high blood pressure, it might.

Researchers did an analysis of 34 different studies on the subject. They found that taking about 370 milligrams of magnesium a day for 3 months lowered both systolic (the top number) and diastolic (the bottom number) blood pressure by around 2 points.Zhang W, et al. (2016). Effects of magnesium supplementation on blood pressure. DOI: 10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.116.07664

Getting more magnesium might also be the key to heading off a stroke.

In one analysis of 15 studies, people with the highest-magnesium diets were 11 percent less likely to have a stroke than those with the lowest-magnesium diets. For each 100 milligram increase in magnesium per day, stroke risk dropped by 2 percent.Zhao B, et al. (2019). The Effect of magnesium intake on stroke incidence: A systematic review and meta-analysis with trial sequential analysis. DOI: 10.3389/fneur.2019.00852

And if you’re constantly reaching for your migraine meds, magnesium might be a safe — and cheaper — alternative. High doses (in the 600 milligram range) can help prevent these attacks of throbbing pain before they start.von Luckner A, et al. (2018). Magnesium in migraine prophylaxis-is there an evidence-based rationale? A systematic review. DOI: 10.1111/head.13217

So how do you know if you aren’t getting enough of this super-critical mineral? True magnesium deficiency is rare. But if you do have one, it’s hard to detect through blood tests.

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.

Most people who are low in magnesium have no clue. And if you are low, you could be at risk for all sorts of health problems, like high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attack, and stroke.DiNicolantonio JJ, et al. (2018). Subclinical magnesium deficiency: a principal driver of cardiovascular disease and a public health crisis. DOI: 10.1136/openhrt-2017-000668corr1

If you’ve got a lot of GI issues, are a big coffee or alcohol drinker, or have anxiety, you may be especially prone to a deficiency, says Tara Campbell, ND, naturopathic doctor at Higher Health Naturopathic Center in Toronto, Canada. (Which sounds like most of us, TBH.)

Warning signs of a deficiency might not appear until you’re really low, but they can look like:

  • appetite loss
  • muscle cramps, twitches, and weakness
  • depressed mood
  • brittle bones
  • fatigue
  • abnormal heartbeat

If you’re so lacking in magnesium that you see these symptoms, it’s time to think about a supplement.

How much magnesium you need each day depends on your gender and age:

  • men ages 19 to 30: 400 milligrams
  • men ages 31 and over: 420 milligrams
  • women ages 19 to 30: 310 milligrams
  • women ages 31 and over: 320 milligrams
  • pregnant women: 350 milligrams (360 mg if you’re age 31 or older)Magnesium (2020).

You should be able to get most of what you need on your daily plate. 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.

You’ll find magnesium in all of these foods:

  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, cashews, peanuts, peanut butter, sesame seeds
  • Vegetables: spinach, baked potato
  • Fruit: bananas, avocado
  • Legumes: black beans, kidney beans, edamame
  • Whole grains: oatmeal, brown rice
  • Dairy: unsweetened yogurt, milk (if you’re vegan, it’s in soy milk, too!)
  • Fatty fish: salmon, mackerel, and halibut

If filling your diet with nuts, legumes, and fish isn’t doable (we won’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 glycinate, citrate, chloride, and carbonate) than others (magnesium oxide and sulfate).

Magnesium citrate can cause gastrointestinal distress for some folks, Campbell says. You’ll find it in those powdered nighttime drink supplements meant to relax you (not so relaxing when your tummy is in turmoil!).

Supplements may not be a good fit if you take certain diuretics, heart meds, or antibiotics. Check with your doctor before you buy them.

“Supplementing a small dose of magnesium, perhaps 200 milligrams, 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.”

A magnesium deficiency can sneak up without you having any idea you’re low. So have a check-in with your doc about your levels. If they are low, a bump in your daily dose may be in order.

Getting your magnesium from foods like nuts, legumes, and fatty fish is always optimal. But if you’re not a fan of foods rich in this nutrient, supplements are a good alternative.

As with everything else related to medicine, it’s cool to learn about magnesium and become your own best patient advocate. But definitely check in with your doctor before you decide to make a bulk purchase — or 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.