Key Takeaways (expand)
- Magnesium is a mineral that’s essential for every cell, and is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body.
- Magnesium serves as a cofactor for hundreds of different enzymes, and is involved in over 300 metabolic reactions in the body.
- One of magnesium’s most important functions is in energy production: ATP (the primary energy carrier in cells) is only biologically active when it binds to a magnesium ion; likewise, every enzyme that synthesizes or uses ATP needs magnesium in order to carry out its functions.
- All enzymes that synthesize DNA and RNA require magnesium for their catalytic action.
- Magnesium is also needed for enzymes involved in synthesizing fats and carbohydrates.
- Magnesium functions as an electrolyte, giving it a role in regulating nerve and muscle function, regulating fluid balance, maintaining blood pH, and transmitting nerve signals.
- Magnesium serves direct structural roles in the body, especially in forming skeletal tissue, muscle tissue, cell membranes, and chromosomes.
- Magnesium assists in the metabolism of several other nutrients, including phosphorus, potassium, calcium, sodium, B-complex vitamins, vitamin E, and vitamin C.
- Magnesium works in conjunction with vitamin D and calcium support bone health, including helping maintain calcium homeostasis and assisting in vitamin D metabolism.
- Studies show magnesium could help protect against metabolic syndrome and diabetes, possibly via an anti-inflammatory pathway and by enhancing the function of pancreatic beta-cells.
- Magnesium also supports cardiovascular health: it can help reduce risk factors like hypertension and vascular calcification, and is associated with a reduction in cardiovascular outcomes like fatal heart attacks and stroke.
- There’s some evidence that magnesium could be protective against asthma and migraine headaches.
- Long-term magnesium deficiency can increase the risk of of osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
- Rich sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables, fish, nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains, avocados, cocoa, spices, and low-fat dairy products.
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Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the human body, and is essential for every cell. Despite being widespread in nature, it never occurs in its free (unbound) form—only in combination with other elements, particularly oxygen, calcium, or carbon. The word magnesium itself is named after a district in Greece called Magnesia (which in turn is named after an ancient Greek tribe called the Magnetes), due to the area’s abundance of magnesia alba, AKA magnesium oxide.
Magnesium was first recognized as an element in 1755, and then officially isolated in 1808 by the English chemist Sir Humphry Davy (who was also the first to isolate sodium, calcium, potassium, strontium, and barium!). However, magnesium’s healing properties were discovered as early as 1618, when a farmer from Epsom, England noticed that the town’s bitter-tasting spring water appeared to heal scratches and rashes—and, when boiled down, yielded a salty mineral powder. This quickly led to the rise of “Epsom salt,” which we now know is made of magnesium sulfate (and which put Epsom on the map as a spa town, attracting visitors from near and far to its medicinal waters!).
Magnesium serves as a cofactor for hundreds of different enzymes, and is involved in numerous pathways in the body—including energy production, ion transport, cell signaling, protein synthesis, and nucleic acid synthesis. It also serves important structural functions in bone tissue and cells.
Importantly, this nutrient functions as an electrolyte—a class of minerals that dissociate into charged particles (called ions) when dissolved in solution, making them capable of conducting electricity. On the whole, electrolytes help regulate fluid balance within the body, regulate nerve and muscle function (including the heart!), maintain a normal blood pH, and transmit nerve signals!
Magnesium-rich foods include green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds, almonds, and cashews), fish, legumes, whole grains, cocoa, avocados, and spices. Low-fat dairy products (like milk and yogurt) are also good sources of magnesium.
The Biological Roles of Magnesium
Magnesium is involved in over 300 metabolic reactions in the body, giving it a huge number of diverse functions. One of the most important is energy production—the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates to create fuel for cells. ATP, the basic energy currency of cells, mostly exists as a complex with magnesium (in the form of MgATP) because it’s only biologically active when it binds to a magnesium ion. What’s more, every enzyme that uses or synthesizes ATP requires magnesium to carry out its functions. Magnesium is also needed for several enzymes involved in the synthesis of carbohydrates and fats, giving this mineral multiple roles in the body’s use of macronutrients!
Magnesium is also needed for producing some extremely important molecules, including DNA, RNA, and proteins. In fact, all enzymes that synthesize DNA and RNA require magnesium for their catalytic action. And, the “master antioxidant” glutathione can only be synthesized with the help of magnesium.
Magnesium is also essential for nerve conduction and neuromuscular contractions. It affects muscle relaxation and contraction by directly acting on cell membranes (magnesium ions are able to close certain calcium channels, which allow positively charged calcium ions to pass into neurons), as well as through its role in phosphorylation processes and reactions requiring ATP. Magnesium is even required for moving glucose from the blood and into the muscles!
Additionally, magnesium (as a complex with ATP) is needed for forming the cell-signaling molecule cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). This molecule is involved in parathyroid hormone (PTH) secretion, the release of insulin from beta cells in the pancreas (and as a consequence, blood sugar control), regulation of carbohydrate and lipid metabolism, ion channel regulation, memory, immune function, gene regulation, and more!
Magnesium also serves direct structural roles: the human body contains about 25 g of magnesium, over half of which is found in the skeleton, and the remainder being in soft tissue (especially the muscle). It also plays a structural role in cell membranes and chromosomes.
Interactions with Other Nutrients
Notably, magnesium also has some interactions with other nutrients. For one, it’s important for the metabolism of phosphorus, calcium, potassium, sodium, B-complex vitamins, and vitamins C and E. High-dose zinc supplements have been shown to interfere with magnesium absorption and disrupt the body’s magnesium balance (the difference between intake versus loss of magnesium). Dietary protein intake also appears to influence magnesium absorption, with low dietary protein intakes (especially under 30 g per day) resulting in reduced magnesium absorption. Lastly, experimental studies suggest that very high intakes of fiber could decrease magnesium utilization—but, given that many high-fiber foods are also rich in magnesium, this is unlikely to cause problems in the context of a varied, nutrient-dense diet!
Meanwhile, magnesium helps support bone health by working in conjunction with vitamin D and calcium to maintain calcium homeostasis. For one, magnesium and vitamin D have a synergistic relationship: vitamin D slightly increases the amount of magnesium absorbed in the intestines, and magnesium is needed for enzymatic conversion of vitamin D to its active form (1,25(OH)D3) for vitamin D metabolism in the kidneys and liver, and for the binding of vitamin D to its target proteins. (Vitamin D, in turn, plays an essential role in calcium absorption, and works with the parathyroid gland to regulate the amount of calcium that’s deposited in or taken from bones.) And, while calcium intake doesn’t appear to effect magnesium balance, magnesium insufficiency can cause low calcium concentrations in the blood—in turn triggering the release of calcium from bone tissue, potentially reducing bone mineral density over time.
Drug Interactions with Magnesium
Magnesium is known to interact with several drugs. It can interfere with the absorption of antibiotics, bisphosphonates (a class of anti-osteoporosis drugs), certain statins, the thyroid medication levothyroxine, and some anti-seizure drugs like gabapentin if taken too soon before or after these medications. And, magnesium in the form of magnesium hydroxide (commonly found in antacids) can actually increase the absorption of some anti-diabetes drugs, potentially affecting blood sugar control. Low magnesium is known to increase the risk of adverse effects of the drug digoxin.
Some diuretics can cause magnesium depletion.
Magnesium in Health and Disease
Given its role for a huge number of enzymes, it isn’t surprising that magnesium has a protective effect against a number of health conditions. Getting enough magnesium is important for skeletal health, both due to its structural role in bone tissue and through its interactions with other nutrients (especially calcium and vitamin D). Research suggests it has a protective effect against cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis. There’s even some evidence it could help prevent migraine headaches and asthma.
Magnesium and Metabolic Syndrome
Magnesium may help prevent metabolic syndrome from developing (including high blood pressure, obesity, insulin resistance, and dysregulated blood lipids). Studies have shown that people with the highest versus lowest intakes of magnesium (at least 355 mg per day, versus less than 197 mg per day) have nearly a third lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome. Although the mechanisms behind this link still need more investigating, trials have shown that magnesium supplementation can reduce markers of inflammation (most notably C-reactive protein), suggesting that magnesium could help protect against metabolic disorders through an anti-inflammatory pathway.
Magnesium and Cardiovascular Disease
Similarly, magnesium may be a major boon for cardiovascular health. Both observational studies and intervention trials have linked magnesium with a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk factors like hypertension and vascular calcification, and dietary magnesium intake is associated with a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular disease itself (in some studies, a nearly 40% lower risk of fatal heart attacks for people in the highest versus lowest quintile of magnesium intake!). A large meta-analysis found that for every 200 mg incremental increase of magnesium per day, cardiovascular risk disease risk dropped by 22%. And in people with existing coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes, magnesium supplementation can improve blood flow in the arteries, indicating a benefit for endothelial function (an important component of cardiovascular health!).
Higher magnesium intakes have also been associated with reduction in stroke risk (up to a 12% lower risk for people with the highest versus lowest magnesium intakes, and a 7% reduction in stroke risk for every 100 mg increase in daily magnesium intake). And, although fewer studies have been conducted on magnesium and heart failure, some prospective studies show that higher magnesium intake may be protective against this condition, too.
Magnesium and Diabetes
Another health benefit of magnesium is a potentially protective effect against diabetes. Both type 1 and type 2 diabetics tend to have disproportionately low serum levels of magnesium, likely due to excess loss in the urine (a consequence of abnormal glucose metabolism); magnesium depletion, in turn, seems to worsen insulin resistance and adversely impact blood sugar control. So, not surprisingly, higher magnesium intakes appear to be particularly beneficial for diabetics (as well as those at risk of developing it!).
A large meta-analysis of prospective studies found that higher versus lower magnesium intakes were associated with a 17% reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes; other research has estimated up to a 15% decrease in diabetes risk for every 100 mg increase in dietary magnesium intake each day. Controlled trials also indicate the use of magnesium supplements can improve the function of pancreatic beta-cells (leading to lower fasting blood sugar and insulin concentrations), reduce insulin resistance, and improve other metabolic markers like triglycerides and HDL cholesterol, especially in people who start off with magnesium deficiency.
And specifically in those who are already diabetic, magnesium supplementation has been shown to lower fasting blood sugar levels, as well as improve measures of insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control.
Magnesium and Bone Health
Because of its role in skeletal health (both structurally and by assisting in the metabolism of bone-relevant nutrients like vitamin D), magnesium helps support strong bones and protect against osteoporosis. Greater dietary intakes of magnesium have been associated with higher bone mineral density, both in specific sites and in the body as a whole, and some studies have found up to a 23% lower risk of lower arm and wrist fractures among women in the highest versus lowest quintile of magnesium intake.
Observational research also shows that hip fracture risk is significantly lower in areas where the local drinking water contains higher levels of magnesium. In the small number of controlled trials conducted so far, magnesium supplementation (specifically in postmenopausal women) has resulted in greater bone mineral density in the wrist and heel, as well as a reduction in the rate of osteoporotic bone loss.
And, in children with vitamin-D resistant rickets (meaning their rickets doesn’t respond to vitamin D supplementation), magnesium supplementation has been shown to reverse the condition.
Magnesium and Asthma
Interestingly, getting enough magnesium may also help with asthma. People with asthma appear to have a greater occurrence of low serum magnesium levels compared to people without asthma, and some clinical trials have found that intravenous magnesium can help with acute asthmatic attacks in both children and adults (mechanistically, magnesium can support bronchodilation by interfering with mechanisms that trigger bronchoconstriction, through its ability to facilitate calcium influx within airway smooth muscle cells).
Magnesium and Pregnancy
In pregnant women with preeclampsia or eclampsia (potentially dangerous hypertensive disorders that can occur after 20 weeks’ gestation), magnesium in the form of magnesium sulfate is administered to prevent seizures. In fact, a number of controlled trials have found that magnesium sulfate is significantly more effective than the anticonvulsant drug diazepam for this purpose!
In premature infants, too, studies have shown that magnesium may help prevent brain damage, and when administered to mothers before giving birth, significantly reduces the risk of the baby having cerebral palsy.
Magnesium and Migraine Headaches
Some evidence suggests that magnesium supplements, in the form of 400 to 500 mg of magnesium oxide daily, can help prevent migraine headaches. This is likely due to magnesium’s ability to block a wave of brain activity called cortical spreading depression, which affects cortical neurons and frequently precedes migraines.
Magnesium, Testosterone and Exercise
Magnesium also has some interesting interactions with testosterone and exercise. Several studies have found that compared to exercise alone, magnesium supplementation increases the amount of unbound testosterone in the body among people who perform strength-training or low-resistance exercise. In elderly men, serum magnesium has also been shown to positively correlate with testosterone (though cause-and-effect can’t be determined here without conducting controlled studies!).
Magnesium and Autoimmune Disease
Lastly, magnesium depletion has been shown to have a profound impact on the thymus gland (an important immune system organ), which has implications for all autoimmune diseases. Although links between magnesium deficiency and autoimmune disease have not been extensively studied, some research has found a link between magnesium and systemic lupus erythematosus.
Health Effects of Magnesium Deficiency
Although true magnesium deficiency is rare (due to the high magnesium content of many foods, and due to the kidneys’ ability to adjust magnesium secretion when intake is low), insufficiency is fairly common. By some estimates, only about half of the US population consumes adequate amounts of magnesium, and in developed countries in general, subclinical magnesium deficiency (defined as serum magnesium levels under 0.80 mmol/L) occurs in up to 30% of the population.
People at particularly high risk of deficiency include those with gastrointestinal disorders (including celiac disease and Crohn’s disease), chronic diarrhea, kidney disease and long-term diuretic use (which increases magnesium loss through the kidneys), proton pump inhibitor use (which decreases intestinal magnesium absorption), and alcoholism (due to a combination of poor dietary intake, increased urinary loss, and gastrointestinal disturbances). Diabetes and other endocrine or metabolic disorders (such as parathyroid gland disorders, primary aldosteronism, and phosphate depletion) can deplete magnesium from the body and increase the risk of deficiency. And, because of age-related decreases in magnesium absorption alongside age-related increases in urinary magnesium excretion, the elderly are also more susceptible to magnesium deficiency.
Magnesium deficiency often doesn’t have any overt symptoms at first, but can be identified through a decrease in serum magnesium levels (hypomagnesemia), followed by a decrease in serum calcium levels (hypocalcemia) even if dietary calcium intake is adequate. Once symptoms do manifest, the earliest ones tend to be fatigue, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and body weakness. As magnesium deficiency progresses, symptoms can worsen to include numbness, spasms, cramps, tingling, tremors, abnormal heart rhythms, personality changes, and seizures. And, even at levels that don’t cause acute deficiency symptoms, long-term insufficient magnesium intake can contribute to a higher risk of osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Problems From Too Much Magnesium
Although magnesium supplementation is generally safe, high doses can cause gastrointestinal side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal cramping. (In fact, supplemental magnesium—typically in the form of magnesium citrate—has a known laxative effect, due to its ability to increase fluid in the small intestine!) Some forms of magnesium, such as magnesium lactate, may be gentler on the digestive system. If you require high-dose magnesium supplementation, be sure to seek medical advice from a healthcare provider in order to prevent unwanted side effects.
That being said, while no adverse effects of magnesium have been observed when getting this mineral from whole-food sources, high-dose magnesium supplements can cause gastrointestinal upset and diarrhea, and it’s recommended that adults keep supplemental magnesium intake to 350 mg daily or less (not including dietary sources) in order to avoid this! Magnesium supplements in the form of amino acid chelates (such as magnesium glycinate) are generally better tolerated by the gastrointestinal system, and sustained-release magnesium supplements can prevent diarrhea altogether.
In some cases, very high intakes of supplemental magnesium can lead to hypermagnesemia (elevated blood concentrations of magnesium)—which can cause toxicity symptoms like low blood pressure, confusion, lethargy, and disturbed heart rhythm. In severe cases, hypermagnesemia can even cause cardiac arrest. Because healthy kidneys are typically able to excrete excess magnesium when intake is high, people with existing kidney disorders are at the greatest risk of magnesium toxicity.
How Much Magnesium Do We Need?
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for magnesium is 310 mg per day for women aged 19 through 30, then 320 mg for the rest of adulthood; for men, it’s 400 mg of magnesium daily for the ages of 19 through 30, then 420 mg daily for the years beyond. However, these guidelines are calculated based on what’s needed for avoiding deficiency, not necessarily what’s needed for optimal health and disease prevention—so, more may very well be better.
Best Food Sources of Magnesium
The following foods have high concentrations of magnesium, containing at least 50% of the recommended dietary allowance per serving, making them our best food sources of this valuable mineral!
Good Food Sources of Magnesium
The following foods are also excellent or good sources of magnesium, containing at least 10% (and up to 50%) of the daily value per serving.
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