Magnesium at it’s Best

In a supplement industry awash in the latest “superfruits” and “miracle foods,” the long-time nutritional workhorses tend to get the short shrift. Compared to flashy compounds and foods with exotic-sounding names—resveratrol, acai berry, camu camu—it’s all too easy to overlook something as ho-hum as magnesium. But there’s a reason—many reasons, in fact—why magnesium is a long-time workhorse. This humble mineral is a required cofactor for hundreds of enzymes and biochemical reactions too numerous to name.

The very short list of magnesium’s heavy-hitting effects includes improving hypertension and promoting proper skeletal and dental deposition of calcium, while inhibiting calcification of soft tissue. Both of these are due to magnesium’s critical role in balancing calcium. For the same reason, magnesium has also long been recognized as a muscle relaxant and sleep aid. Additionally, magnesium deficiency is now linked to the etiology and exacerbation of diabetes, metabolic syndrome and related pathologies; supplemental magnesium has been shown to improve these conditions. Magnesium is especially critical for cardiovascular health.

But these are widely recognized effects of magnesium. What about some of the lesser-known—and perhaps even “odd,” or surprising—conditions that may be caused or exacerbated by suboptimal magnesium status? It’s often said that chocolate cravings are a sign that the body needs magnesium. Unsweetened cocoa powder is, in fact, a rich source of magnesium. (Just one ounce provides 35% of the daily value for magnesium.) This wouldn’t be a bad way to go to get some more magnesium, but not many people are satisfied by 100% cocoa, which can be fairly bitter. People are more likely to get their chocolate fix along with a hefty dose of sugar and vegetable oil—not the ideal way of course.

Cravings for magnesium-rich foods aside, there are some intriguing signs that point to a need for magnesium. With mood disorders such as depression reaching epidemic levels, not to mention being difficult to treat, it’s interesting to note that magnesium insufficiency may be a contributing factor. This is especially good news for patients, considering magnesium supplementation is safe, simple, and inexpensive, particularly when compared to pharmaceutical drugs, many of which not only have undesirable side-effects, but which are also quite often ineffective. Human and animal models support a relationship between suboptimal magnesium levels and the etiology of anxiety, as well. There’s usually a strong focus on amino acids for ameliorating mood disturbances (via optimization of neurotransmitters); perhaps it might be beneficial to include magnesium in protocols for improving these conditions.

Some practitioners have suggested that marginally low magnesium levels—which do not qualify as clinical deficiency—may lead to hyper-excitability, ultra-sensitivity to noise, and being “high-strung” in general. Anecdotal evidence even points to low magnesium levels making people extra-ticklish. None of these issues is technically a pathological situation, nor a disease, but if it bothers a patient enough to discuss it with a healthcare professional, it might be worth seeing if a trial of supplemental magnesium improves matters. Certainly, magnesium imbalance is documented to underlie “nervous hyperexcitability,” with central and peripheral neuromuscular symptoms. In such cases, supplementing magnesium would be a low-cost intervention with a potentially large benefit.

Physicians have noted a likely role for magnesium insufficiency in panic attacks and phobias. This could be due to electrolyte imbalances that affect the central nervous system, and an additional plausible explanation is magnesium’s role in blood sugar management. The signs and symptoms of panic attacks overlap quite strongly with those of acute hypoglycemia. Several magnesium atoms are required to turn just one glucose molecule into pyruvate during glycolysis, and, as mentioned earlier, magnesium is critical for healthy blood glucose control. Even among non-diabetics, but individuals who do have metabolic syndrome, higher dietary magnesium intake is associated with improvements in insulin resistance.

Some of the lesser-known possible effects of suboptimal magnesium levels have not been corroborated in well-designed scientific studies. But considering the vast array of physiological processes that require magnesium, and the wide range of troublesome conditions that may result from inadequate magnesium intake, there’s little to lose and potentially a great deal to gain through a simple trial of magnesium supplementation.

Rimma Sherman MD