What Is It?
Essential for hundreds of chemical reactions that occur in the body every second, the mineral magnesium has received surprisingly little attention over the years. Recent findings, however, suggest that it also has important health-promoting benefits, from an ability to prevent heart disease to a role in treating such chronic conditions as fibromyalgia and diabetes.
Unfortunately, most people don’t get enough magnesium in their daily diets, mainly because they eat great quantities of processed foods, which provide scant amounts of this important mineral. The effects of stress, intense physical activity, or the use of certain medications can also cause magnesium deficiency. Some diseases, such as diabetes and alcoholism, can cause low magnesium levels too.
Supplements are one way to ensure that you get enough magnesium. You’ll find several forms available: magnesium citrate, magnesium aspartate, magnesium carbonate, magnesium gluconate, magnesium oxide, and magnesium sulfate.
Magnesium plays a variety of roles in the body. Not only is it critical for energy production and proper nerve function, it also promotes muscle relaxation and helps the body produce and use insulin. Like calcium, another mineral it’s commonly paired with in supplement products, magnesium is involved in the formation of bones and teeth, the clotting of blood, and the regulation of heart rhythm. Magnesium, sometimes taken in combination with calcium, is often used to treat such ailments as back pain, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety and panic, muscle cramps, and migraine headache.
Specifically, magnesium may help to:
Prevent and treat heart disease, including angina and irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). Without adequate levels of magnesium, your heart will suffer: The mineral helps coordinate the activity of the heart muscle as well as the functioning of the nerves that initiate the heartbeat. It also helps keep coronary arteries from spasming, an action that can cause the intense chest pain known as angina. If you have a deficiency of magnesium–often true of those with angina and abnormal heart rhythms–supplements may help. In a recent study of more than 230 people with frequent arrhythmias, the likelihood of these abnormal rhythms dropped significantly within three weeks after the participants increased the amount of magnesium and potassium in their diets. In addition, when given by injection in a hospital setting, magnesium has been found to aid recovery from a heart attack by stabilizing heart rhythm, inhibiting blood clots, and expanding coronary arteries. Some studies even indicate that drinking “hard” water, which is high in magnesium, lowers the risk of death from heart attack.
Control high blood pressure. Even a slight decline in blood pressure can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Magnesium plays a part in reducing elevated blood pressure by relaxing the muscles that control blood vessels, allowing blood to flow more freely. Its beneficial effect on blood pressure is further enhanced because of its ability to help equalize the levels of potassium and sodium in the blood. A recent study of 60 men and women with high blood pressure found that magnesium supplements lowered both the systolic (the top number) and diastolic (the bottom number) pressures. Magnesium is typically taken along with calcium to treat high blood pressure.
Limit complications of congestive heart failure. Because magnesium can help lower blood pressure and inhibit dangerous arrhythmias, two common complications in those with congestive heart failure, a weakened heart may benefit from extra doses of this mineral.
Prevent diabetes complications. Preliminary findings indicate that having sufficient amounts of magnesium may protect against non-insulin-dependent (type 2) diabetes and its complications, such as eye disease. More research on this potentially important role for magnesium in diabetes prevention is needed, however.
Reduce the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Magnesium’s role in relaxing contracted or stiff muscles makes it helpful for relieving the aching associated with fibromyalgia, a chronic rheumatic disorder. Taking the mineral with malic acid is often recommended for this purpose because the acid is believed to enhance the absorption and fatigue-fighting actions of magnesium. Fibromyalgia sufferers involved in a study on the effectiveness of high doses of magnesium and malic acid reported reduced pain and muscle tenderness after two months on the treatment regimen. Interestingly, people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome–another disorder that can cause muscle aches and fatigue–may similarly benefit from magnesium, according to a placebo controlled study in which they reported an improvement in well-being after being injected with the mineral. (Whether the same benefits are available to those who take the mineral by mouth has yet to be determined.)
Ease muscle cramps, aches and pains. It has been shown that for proper muscle contraction and relaxation, magnesium and calcium need to be present in balanced amounts. A supplement containing these minerals, taken regularly, may lessen the pain from sports injuries or excessive physical activity Supplements with a ratio of two parts calcium to one part magnesium are recommended for otherwise healthy individuals treating muscle cramps and aches. Increasing magnesium levels can even improve a workout: A study of women over age 50 found that when magnesium levels were low, the participants had higher heart rates and needed more oxygen during their workouts.
Protect against migraines. Many migraine sufferers are found to have low magnesium levels in their systems. To maintain healthy blood flow to brain vessels–and thus possibly protect against debilitating migraine headaches–it’s smart to correct any magnesium deficiency.
Relieve PMS (premenstrual syndrome) discomforts. Because deficiencies in magnesium have been found in many women suffering from PMS, taking magnesium supplements may help this problem. Menstrual cramping, which is caused by hormonelike substances called prostaglandins made by the endometrial cells, may subside with supplemental doses of magnesium and calcium. Both minerals help to lower the production of prostaglandins. Magnesium’s muscle-relaxing properties probably have a beneficial effect on cramping of the uterine muscle as well.
Minimize the severity of asthma attacks. By helping the bronchial muscles to relax and encouraging the lung’s airways to expand, magnesium may ease an asthmatic’s breathing problems. Anyone suffering from severe or recurrent asthma attacks should consider using magnesium supplements along with their usual anti-inflammatory medications. When taken for preventive purposes in oral form, the mineral’s effects are gradual; it may take up to six weeks for any benefit to become apparent. (Studies have shown that intravenous injections of magnesium–but not necessarily oral doses–can stop some severe asthma attacks.)
Prevent osteoporosis. Magnesium helps the body convert vitamin D–which the body needs to take advantage of bone-strengthening calcium–into a form that it can use efficiently. By contributing to increased bone density, the mineral may help stall the onset of the debilitating, bone-thinning disease known as osteoporosis.
Reduce emotional irritability in chronic depression, anxiety, and panic disorder. Magnesium and vitamin B6 are needed for the body to produce serotonin, an important mood-enhancing brain chemical. When depression or a panic disorder is persistent–and especially when the usual drugs have limited effect–supplementing with magnesium and vitamin B 6 may provide significant relief. It may take six weeks or more of treatment for effects to be felt. Taking calcium along with magnesium may also lessen an overreaction to stress that some research has linked to anxiety and panic attacks.
Note: Magnesium has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Magnesium.
The government recently established new goals for the Recommended Daily Intake of magnesium for men and women. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is now just one component of the new calculations, but is still the figure most important in trying to establish how much you need. The new RDAs are as follows for magnesium:
–For men ages 19 to 30: 400 mg a day.
–For women ages 19 to 30: 310 mg a day.
–For men ages 31 to 50: 420 mg a day.
–For women ages 31 to 50: 320 mg a day.
–For men ages 51 to 70: 420 mg a day.
–For women ages 51 to 70: 320 mg a day.
For more information on RDAs and other dietary guidelines, see Government Dietary Guidelines.
If You Get Too Little
Low levels of magnesium can increase your risk for complications of heart disease and diabetes. You may also be more susceptible to muscle cramps, various chronic pain conditions, and muscle fatigue.
Symptoms of a severe deficiency include irregular heartbeat, general fatigue, muscle spasms, irritability, nervousness, and confusion.
If You Get Too Much
Diarrhea and nausea are the most common side effects of ingesting too much magnesium.
If the body is unable to process particularly high doses of magnesium, muscle weakness, lethargy, confusion, and difficulty breathing may develop.
Serious overdose of this mineral is rare.
General Dosage Information
Special tip: When selecting a magnesium product, try magnesium citrate first; it’s the form that the body absorbs best. Magnesium oxide is often the cheapest form available, but it’s also the most poorly absorbed.
For heart disease prevention: Take 400 mg of magnesium a day.
For angina prevention: Take 200 mg twice a day.
For arrhythmias, congestive heart failure, and asthma: Take 400 mg twice a day.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Magnesium, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
To enhance absorption, take magnesium supplements with food. If you happen to consume a high-fiber diet and also don’t get much magnesium, however, take the supplements between meals–and not with soda or wheat bran. These contain substances (phosphoric acid and phytates, respectively) that can interfere with the absorption of the magnesium.
If diarrhea develops with magnesium supplements, either reduce the dose or take magnesium in the form of magnesium gluconate or magnesium sulfate. Both of these forms are easy to digest.
When calculating your daily dose, keep in mind that some prescription and over-the-counter medicines–certain antacid products, for example–contain magnesium as well.
When taking magnesium to control asthma, fibromyalgia, heart disease, or other chronic conditions in particular, be patient. It may take six weeks or more to absorb adequate amounts of magnesium to benefit stressed body parts and notice a difference in your condition.
Muscle cramps, aches, and pains related to sports injuries are best treated with a regimen that supplies two parts calcium to one part magnesium.
When taking magnesium to protect against migraines, first correct any magnesium deficiency and then take a 2-to-1 calcium-magnesium combination to maintain a healthy balance of these two minerals and protect against future headaches.
To most effectively relieve PMS pain, it’s usually a good idea to take magnesium along with vitamin B6.
Magnesium and calcium have competing effects on many of the body’s chemical pathways. For this reason, combination magnesium and calcium products–or multimineral supplements–are often recommended for maintaining a proper balance of these minerals.
Magnesium can reduce the effectiveness of tetracycline antibiotics. Take magnesium supplements one to three hours before or after using this type of medication.
Note: For information on interactions with specific generic drugs, see our WholeHealth Chicago Drug/Nutrient Interactions Chart.
If you have any type of kidney or heart disease, consult your doctor before taking magnesium.
Angina 400 mg twice a day
Arrhythmia 400 mg twice a day
Asthma 400 mg twice a day. May be partially covered by your daily multivitamin/antioxidant.
Bronchitis (acute: 400 mg twice a day until recovered; chronic: 400 mg twice a day ).
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome 400 mg twice a day
Congestive Heart Failure 400 mg twice a day
Constipation 400-800 mg a day as needed
Crohn’s Disease 400 mg twice a day
Diabetes 400 mg a day. May be partially covered by your daily multivitamin/antioxidant.
Fatigue 400-800 mg a day
Fibrocystic Breast Changes 400 mg a day
Fibromyalgia 150-250 mg magnesium and 400-800 mg malic acid 3 times a day
Heart Disease Prevention 400-800 mg a day
Kidney Stones 400 mg magnesium citrate twice a day
Multiple Sclerosis 400 mg a day
Muscle Aches and Pains 400 mg magnesium twice a day
Osteoporosis 250-400 mg twice a day
Raynaud’s disease 400 mg twice a day
Strains and Sprains 400 mg twice a day
Stress 400-800 mg a day
Stroke 400 mg a day
Tinnitus 400 mg twice a day
Although 50% of the magnesium in your body is found in your bones, the versatile magnesium ion is also involved in more than 300 cellular reactions throughout your body. Making sure your magnesium levels are optimal has been shown to improve energy and relax tense muscles. In fact, nutritionally oriented physicians routinely use magnesium in any situation where there is a need to reduce a spasm of a muscle or an artery, as in the case of asthma, migraine headaches, muscle cramps, chest pain, and the like.
HOW IT HELPS ASTHMA
There has long been laboratory evidence that magnesium can relax the smooth muscle in lung tissue. Then, in the Forties, clinical studies showed that intravenously administered magnesium helped to stop an acute asthma attack. The regular use of oral magnesium supplements to treat asthma, however, has been slow to gain acceptance among conventional doctors. This is probably because it takes several weeks for magnesium supplements to raise tissue levels of the mineral to the point where muscle relaxation may take place. And you’d certainly want a quicker reaction when your airway is beginning to spasm! It’s also not clear whether swallowing magnesium pills will only help those asthmatics who happen to be deficient in the mineral. Nevertheless, considering the overall safety of this mineral, and the fact that you’ll probably never get your magnesium levels up with diet alone, supplementing with magnesium is an excellent idea for anyone who has asthma.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
All the forms of magnesium get absorbed fairly well into the gastrointestinal tract. There’s some evidence, however, that organic forms–citrate, glycinate, aspartate, malate, succinate, or fumarate–are better absorbed, utilized, and tolerated than inorganic or relatively insoluble mineral salts–magnesium oxide, chloride, gluconate, or carbonate. The simple inorganic salts often cause loose stools and/or diarrhea at higher dosages, while organic forms generally do not.
Capsules, tablets, and powders containing magnesium in a variety of forms are easy to find. But which one of the dizzying display should you choose? Here are some thoughts. Magnesium citrate and magnesium glycinate are the forms that most of us absorb and tolerate best. Magnesium oxide is often the cheapest form available, but it’s also the most poorly absorbed.
Because it’s so versatile, magnesium is frequently combined with other nutritional supplements depending on the condition being treated. However, when treating asthma, you’re simply interested in getting your body’s levels of magnesium higher so that a combination product is not an appropriate choice.
Here are some other pointers to help you use magnesium effectively. To enhance absorption, take magnesium with food. If you develop diarrhea, either reduce the dose or take magnesium in the form of magnesium gluconate or magnesium sulfate. Both of these forms are easy to digest.
If you have any type of kidney disease, do not use magnesium unless you’ve cleared it with your physician. Also, magnesium can help both heart disease and high blood pressure, but if you have either of these conditions, you might want to discuss magnesium use with your physician first.
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David Edelberg, MD