Magnesium is a shiny gray metal, and the twelfth element on the periodic table – strong and light, magnesium alloys are often used in jet engines. It’s also a small, but extraordinarily important component of the human diet. Magnesium is an essential factor in hundreds of everyday biological reactions including energy production, DNA synthesis, bone health and more.
We get magnesium in trace amounts from our diets, but roughly 50 percent of Americans aren’t getting enough of the mineral, making low magnesium one of the nation’s most widespread nutrient deficiencies (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021).
Studies have shown that running a deficit of this mineral over the long-term is linked to chronic issues like heart diseases and type 2 diabetes.
Eating a diet that’s rich in natural, whole ingredients is your best defense against a magnesium shortfall. A range of studies shows broad benefits from ensuring magnesium levels are optimal, ranging from better mental health and bone health to relief from premenopausal symptoms and more.
Magnesium and Your Health
One of the main reasons magnesium is so important to our bodies is that it helps enzymes do their jobs. Enzymes enable chemical reactions in cells — without them, we'd not survive for long. Magnesium is a key part of hundreds of different enzymatic reactions involving the production of proteins, muscle and nerve function, and others (IOM, 1997).
Magnesium enables a key stage of the chemical assembly line that produces ATP, a molecule that fuels our cells. The mineral is also involved with glucose metabolism, a fundamental energy source for our bodies (ODS, 2021).
Magnesium also allows nerves to transmit signals, allowing muscles to contract properly. That means you can thank magnesium for keeping your heart beating in rhythm (ODS, 2021).
Fortunately, acute magnesium deficiencies are rare. We get magnesium from leafy greens, whole-fat dairy products, whole grains and nuts and seeds. Certain kinds of seafood, like salmon, are relatively high in magnesium as well — one serving of wild sockeye salmon, for example, contains 30 milligrams of magnesium, or a bit less than 10 percent of the daily recommended intake (USDA, 2018).
The Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies sets the recommended daily magnesium intake at between 400 and 420 mg for men and 310 and 320 mg for women (it’s a bit higher for pregnant women, around 350 mg). Studies show that many people fall short of those numbers, though (NHANES, 2019).
One reason is that some common food processing procedures, especially those used on grains, can strip much of the magnesium from food (IOM, 1997).
(Read more: Highly Processed Foods May Drive Chronic Diseases)
So, we can eat a diet that feels balanced, while still missing out on key nutrients and minerals (and that goes for more than magnesium, too). Today, studies estimate that most Americans aren’t getting as much magnesium as they should.
The typical American isn’t in danger of a severe magnesium deficiency. But conditions like Crohn’s disease, type 2 diabetes and celiac disease can make it harder to get and store enough magnesium (ODS, 2021). And even for those of us that are otherwise healthy, there’s ample evidence that maintaining healthy magnesium levels pays off in the long run.
Benefits of Magnesium
Our bones contain an ample supply of magnesium, which means that our bodies can call on that “storehouse” to deal with temporary shortages of the mineral easily. But long-term deficits can impact health.
A number of studies, for example, links maintaining adequate magnesium levels to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure (del Gobbo et al., 2013; Kass et al., 2012). Other studies suggest not getting enough magnesium could play a role in type 2 diabetes, possibly due to its role in glucose metabolism (Rodríguez-Morán et al., 2011). And the nutrient may affect your risk for osteoporosis as well, as magnesium is involved with the growth of healthy bone (Rude et al., 2013).
Maintaining magnesium levels may also help your body take up enough vitamin D — a nutrient that’s important for our immune systems as well as mental health, researchers found in a 2018 study.
Other work has examined links between magnesium and depression. One study notes that lowered magnesium levels seem to correlate with an increased rate of depression (Serefko et al., 2013), while another found that magnesium supplements led to a rapid recovery from depression symptoms (Eby et al., 2006). Still, while these links are intriguing, it’s likely that magnesium isn’t a miracle cure for depression in most cases.
Magnesium can help alleviate some symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), including mood changes and fluid retention (Walker et al., 1998; Facchinetti et al., 1991). And some studies find that magnesium supplements can increase physical performance. One study gave the mineral to triathletes, and noted they got better times in all three segments of the event: swimming, running and cycling. (Golf et al., 1998).
Another study looked at the effects of 12 weeks of magnesium supplementation on elderly women doing a weekly exercise program, and also found improvements in physical performance over a control group that got no magnesium (Veronese et al., 2014).
Because much the body’s magnesium stores is in the bones, assessing whether a given person is deficient is challenging – tests of blood levels, for example, may have little correlation with how much is in bone or other tissues, according to the National Institutes of Health.
So the best course is to take a look at your diet and make sure you’re eating lots of leafy greens, seeds, nuts and unprocessed grains. (It can’t hurt to throw some salmon in the mix, too. You’ll be getting magnesium, as well as other essential nutrients like vitamin D and omega-3s in one tasty package.) Supplements such as magnesium citrate can help you reach the recommended 300-400 mg recommendation for adults if your diet is deficient.
Additionally, there’s little risk of taking too much magnesium, though some rare cases of overdoses have been reported. Those typically involve extremely high amounts, though, often as a result of taking far too much of some antacids and laxatives that contain the mineral. But for the rest of us, our kidneys and bowels will clear extra magnesium from our bloodstreams easily, and it will be excreted (ODS, 2021).
Getting enough magnesium is especially important for those with Crohn’s disease, type 2 diabetes and celiac disease — or for anyone else worried about getting enough. In those cases, a supplement such as magnesium citrate could be a good idea.
As it does with jet engines, this simple metal lends its unique strength to the human body, playing an active role in the metabolism of every cell. Take the necessary steps to get enough.
Del Gobbo, L. C., Imamura, F., Wu, J. H., de Oliveira Otto, M. C., Chiuve, S. E., & Mozaffarian, D. (2013). Circulating and dietary magnesium and risk of cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 98(1), 160–173. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.112.053132
Eby, G. A., & Eby, K. L. (2006). Rapid recovery from major depression using magnesium treatment. Medical hypotheses, 67(2), 362–370. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2006.01.047
Institute of Medicine (IOM). Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes: Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Vitamin D and Fluoride. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1997.
Facchinetti, F., Borella, P., Sances, G., Fioroni, L., Nappi, R. E., & Genazzani, A. R. (1991). Oral magnesium successfully relieves premenstrual mood changes. Obstetrics and gynecology, 78(2), 177–181.
Golf, S. W., Bender, S., & Grüttner, J. (1998). On the significance of magnesium in extreme physical stress. Cardiovascular drugs and therapy, 12 Suppl 2, 197–202. https://doi.org/10.1023/a:1007708918683
Kass, L., Weekes, J., & Carpenter, L. (2012). Effect of magnesium supplementation on blood pressure: a meta-analysis. European journal of clinical nutrition, 66(4), 411–418. https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2012.4
ODS. 2021. Office of Dietary Supplements - Magnesium. Available at: <https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/#en1> Accessed 23 August 2021.
Rodríguez-Morán, M., Simental Mendía, L. E., Zambrano Galván, G., & Guerrero-Romero, F. (2011). The role of magnesium in type 2 diabetes: a brief based-clinical review. Magnesium research, 24(4), 156–162. https://doi.org/10.1684/mrh.2011.0299
Rude, R. K., Singer, F. R., & Gruber, H. E. (2009). Skeletal and hormonal effects of magnesium deficiency. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 28(2), 131–141. https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2009.10719764
Serefko, A., Szopa, A., Wlaź, P., Nowak, G., Radziwoń-Zaleska, M., Skalski, M., & Poleszak, E. (2013). Magnesium in depression. Pharmacological reports : PR, 65(3), 547–554. https://doi.org/10.1016/s1734-1140(13)71032-6
USDA, Agricultural Research Service, 2019. Usual Nutrient Intake from Food and Beverages, by Gender and Age, What We Eat in America, NHANES 2013-2016 Available www.ars.usda.gov/nea/bhnrc/fsr
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Veronese, N., Berton, L., Carraro, S., Bolzetta, F., De Rui, M., Perissinotto, E., Toffanello, E. D., Bano, G., Pizzato, S., Miotto, F., Coin, A., Manzato, E., & Sergi, G. (2014). Effect of oral magnesium supplementation on physical performance in healthy elderly women involved in a weekly exercise program: a randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 100(3), 974–981. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.113.080168
Walker, A. F., De Souza, M. C., Vickers, M. F., Abeyasekera, S., Collins, M. L., & Trinca, L. A. (1998). Magnesium supplementation alleviates premenstrual symptoms of fluid retention. Journal of women's health, 7(9), 1157–1165. https://doi.org/10.1089/jwh.1998.7.1157