By Gretchen Lidicker
Many of us are on a mission to reduce our use of over-the-counter and pharmaceutical drugs in favor of more natural solutions. If you fall into this category, you already know that it isn’t easy. When it comes to headaches, anxiety, digestive issues, and the other common health woes we all experience from time to time, it’s tempting to reach for what we’re used to and what we know will work and work now.
That said, there’s one natural ingredient on the scene that people swear by for quick, effective relief for ailments like headaches, constipation, periods cramps, and even anxiety. It’s magnesium, and it’s quickly becoming the world’s most famous mineral.
But what is magnesium (Mg)? And how do you know if this supplement will work for you? Read on to get your top five questions about magnesium—answered.
What is magnesium?
This might seem like a simple question, but defining magnesium can actually be tricky. Magnesium is found everywhere; it’s in the earth’s crust, in our oceans, in plants and animals, and inside our bodies, so it can be difficult to pin down. In the context of human nutrition, magnesium acts as an essential mineral, which means we have to get it through our diets because our bodies don’t produce adequate amounts of it on their own.
After we consume magnesium, it gets to work in a major way, playing a role in over 300 biochemical reactions in our body. These reactions are involved in everything from blood pressure and DNA synthesis to energy production, blood sugar regulation, and muscle and nerve function. In other words, it’s really, really important to our health.
What form of magnesium should I take?
If you’re considering supplementing with magnesium, you’ll be confronted with numerous forms of this mineral, including magnesium oxide, magnesium citrate, magnesium glycinate, and magnesium oxalate. If you’re having uncomfortable flashbacks to high school chemistry, don’t panic. Just know that magnesium glycinate supplements are considered the gold standard and are frequently recommended by nutritionists and integrative and functional medicine doctors.
Unlike other forms of magnesium (cough, cough: magnesium oxide), magnesium glycinate will not cause cramping and diarrhea at higher doses and is often described as more bioavailable. In fact, Mark Hyman, M.D., a top functional medicine doctor, says to avoid magnesium carbonate, sulfate, gluconate, and oxide altogether. “They are poorly absorbed (and the cheapest and most common forms found in supplements),” he wrote. You find magnesium in a capsule and as a powder, liquid, or even as intravenous infusion (only recommended if your doctor suggests it).
Expert tip: If you’re shopping for a magnesium supplement, it’s important to buy from a brand that’s third-party lab testing their products for potency and purity. Why? The FDA doesn’t approve supplements before they go on the shelves, which means the responsibility is on the consumer to find a high-quality product.
The brand you choose should be testing the product to guarantee its potency (to make sure the amount of magnesium listed on the label is actually in the bottle) and to verify that it’s free from contaminants like microbiomes, heavy metals, and pesticides.
Can I get tested for a magnesium deficiency?
If you suspect you have a B12 or vitamin D deficiency, you can get a simple blood test to confirm. Unfortunately, diagnosing a magnesium deficiency is a little more complicated. Interestingly, only about 1% of total body magnesium is in our extracellular fluids — the rest is hanging out in our bones and other tissues — so getting a blood test does not give you an accurate picture of the magnesium levels in the rest of your body. Because of this, a magnesium deficiency is typically diagnosed by a doctor who evaluates your symptoms and lifestyle habits.
So what are the symptoms of a magnesium deficiency? According to Mayo Clinic, a lack of magnesium has been linked to irritability, muscle weakness, and irregular heartbeat. It can also be more subtle, as magnesium seems to have a protective effect against diabetes, osteoporosis, and certain heart disease risk factors.
Do I (really) have to supplement?
It’s always a good idea to take a food-first approach to nutrition. For magnesium, this would mean eating plenty of magnesium-rich foods such as spinach and other leafy greens, nuts, and seeds (especially pumpkin and hemp seeds). The good news is that a ton of delicious foods — even fan-favorites like dark chocolate and avocado! — are high in magnesium. The bad news is that consuming these foods on the reg isn’t always enough to prevent a deficiency in magnesium.
For one, our soil has lower levels of vitamins and minerals than it used to, which can make us vulnerable to deficiencies of all kinds, including magnesium. Certain medications and illnesses — such as GI disorders, diabetes, or a history of alcoholism can also put you at higher risk for magnesium deficiency. According to Aviva Romm, M.D., an herbalist, midwife, and Yale-trained physician, coffee, soda, and stress can also deplete our bodies of this mineral. Knowing this, it’s no big surprise that many nutrition experts suggest a magnesium supplement to just about everyone.
So how much magnesium should you take? According to the National Institutes of Health, the recommended daily allowances (RDAs) for magnesium are:
- Infants birth to 3 years of age: 40 to 80 mg
- Children 4 to 6 years of age: 120 mg
- Children 7 to 10 years of age: 170 mg
- Adolescent and adult males: 270–400 mg
- Adolescent and adult females: 280–300 mg
- Pregnant female: 320 mg
- Breast-feeding females: 340–355 mg
This means you should set a goal of consuming the amount of magnesium that’s listed under the category that applies to you, whether that be through food, supplementation, or a combination of the two.
How does magnesium really benefit my health?
Unlike many vitamins and minerals, quite a few high-quality studies suggest that supplementing with magnesium can benefit our health in myriad ways.
For example, a review of the current literature published in 2001 suggested that magnesium supplements can provide relief from painful menstrual cramping. Another clinical trial on around 250 women with functional constipation showed that drinking magnesium sulfate-rich water improved symptoms. Finally, a study from 2018 concluded that there is “emerging data to suggest a protective effect of magnesium for chronic pain, anxiety, and stroke.”
Magnesium deficiency has also been linked to an increase in factors that are known to promote headaches. Knowing this, you won’t be surprised to learn that magnesium is often used as a treatment for headaches and migraines as well. One study, published in the journal Headache, concluded that, “1000 mg of intravenous magnesium sulfate is an efficient, safe, and well-tolerated drug in the treatment of migraine attacks,” and the American Academy of Neurology has declared that magnesium appears to be an effective therapy for migraine prevention.
Magnesium also appears to play an important role in the nervous system. In fact, the authors of a 2017 study wrote that, “Existing evidence is suggestive of a beneficial effect of Mg on subjective anxiety in anxiety vulnerable samples.” This beneficial property has earned it the nickname “nature’s relaxation mineral.”
Clearly, magnesium can do a lot. But are there any downsides to this mineral? As mentioned before, taking too much magnesium at one time can cause digestive upset. Other than that, it’s generally considered safe to supplement with magnesium. Keep in mind that the kidneys control the balance of magnesium in the body, so if you have any kidney issues definitely talk to your doctor before exploring magnesium supplements.