Magnesium is one of the elements essential to all cellular life. Considered one of seven “macrominerals,” it's a major mineral used in many intracellular processes in our bodies.
Unstable in its pure state, magnesium isn’t found freely in nature and tends to bind with other molecules, forming well-known compounds like Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) and magnesium carbonate. It was first discovered in 1755, when Scottish chemist Joseph Black distinguished magnesia (magnesium oxide) from lime (calcium oxide) and debunked the myth that calcium and magnesium were the same substance.
Almost 50 years later, Sir Humphry Davy isolated the element in its pure form in 1808. Magnesium is named after Magnesia, a district of Thessaly in Greece, where the mineral magnesia alba was first found.
In today's edition, we're digging into magnesium, AKA the “relaxation” mineral, and how it can lift your mood or even relieve your headache.
What Is Magnesium and Why Should I Care?
Magnesium is an essential mineral
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the human body and is responsible for the proper functioning of many tissues and organs, including the cardiovascular, neuromuscular, and nervous systems. Our bodies need large amounts of this nutrient, but we’re unable to manufacture it ourselves and must get it through our diet or supplements. (Source)
Our cells cannot make or use energy without magnesium
This critical mineral is involved in over 300 metabolic reactions and lives in all of our tissues, although it’s primarily found in the bones, muscles, and brain. On a cellular level, it’s required for the synthesis of essential molecules, including DNA and RNA, and ion transport, in addition to supporting energy production and stabilizing cellular membranes. (Source)
Magnesium is involved in a number of far-reaching processes
Magnesium acts as an essential cofactor for a diverse set of biochemical reactions in the body, ranging from neurotransmitter synthesis to insulin regulation. On a more macro level, muscles need this mineral to contract and relax. It also builds bones and teeth and has a role in preventing and treating a number of diseases. (Source)
Half of us don’t get enough magnesium
Studies have shown that nearly 50% of US adults don’t get enough magnesium in their diets. Researchers suggest that consumption of magnesium from natural foods has decreased in the past few decades due to contributing factors such as:
- Soil depletion
- Increased consumption of processed foods
- Increased usage of magnesium-depleting medications (e.g., antibiotics, diuretics)
- Increased prevalence of chronic gut problems, which can compromise magnesium absorption
A magnesium-deficient diet doesn’t generally lead to identifiable symptoms, but chronic magnesium deficiency has been associated with:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Metabolic syndrome
- Migraine headaches
- Cardiovascular disease
- Atherosclerotic vascular disease
- Sudden cardiac death
What Does the Research Show About Magnesium?
Magnesium may affect symptoms of depression
Researchers have found that low magnesium levels may be linked to an increased risk of depression in some adults. In a randomized controlled trial in older adults suffering from depression, magnesium intake of 450 mg daily improved mood as effectively as an antidepressant drug. A later study, however, found that while low dietary intake of magnesium was associated with increased risk of depression in young adults, it was associated with lower risk of depression in seniors. (Source, Source)
Magnesium may help reduce migraines
Research suggests low levels of magnesium in the blood may be linked to migraine headaches. Some studies suggest magnesium supplementation may prevent and even help treat migraines. In one study, a daily dose of 600 mg of magnesium decreased frequency by 33% and reduced intensity by 47% in patients suffering from chronic migraines. (Source, Source)
Magnesium can enhance memory
Magnesium threonate, or magnesium-L-threonate, is one of the newer forms on the market and has recently been studied with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive decline. A study published in Neuron demonstrated that in rats magnesium threonate crossed the blood-brain barrier and improved working memory and both short- and long-term memory. (Source)
Magnesium can benefit leg cramps
Studies have shown that magnesium bisglycinate, a chelated form of magnesium, is believed to be better tolerated and more bioavailable than some other forms can be helpful for charley horses. In one trial, pregnant women taking 300 mg of magnesium bisglycinate each day reported a 50% reduction in frequency and intensity of leg cramps compared to placebo.. (Source)
So What Should I Do About Magnesium?
Aim for 320 mg to 420 mg per day
The recommended daily allowance for magnesium varies according to age and gender, but is generally 400 mg to 420 mg for men and 310 mg to 320 mg for women. Some of the richest sources of magnesium are seaweeds, with one study finding some types of edible seaweed contain as much as 780 mg magnesium per 100 g. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends getting magnesium from a variety of foods, including:
- Legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables (such as spinach)
- Fortified breakfast cereals and other fortified foods
- Milk, yogurt, and some other milk products
Supplement magnesium before bed
Research has shown that magnesium plays a role in regulating sleep, as it regulates the excitability of the central nervous system and promotes a calming effect. It also helps to stimulate the activity of GABA, which is one of the main neurotransmitters involved in relaxation and sleep. Studies have shown a direct link between magnesium levels in the blood and the amount of deep sleep, with a well-balanced, physiological amount of magnesium in the blood needed for normal sleep regulation. (Source, Source)
Prioritize chelated forms of magnesium
Chelated magnesium, which is magnesium bound to another atom or molecule, is less likely to cause the undesired gastrointestinal side effects that are sometimes associated with supplementation. Chelated magnesium supplements, including magnesium aspartate, magnesium citrate, and magnesium lactate, use molecules that are readily absorbed across the intestinal wall and operate as carriers for magnesium to increase absorption. Avoid magnesium carbonate, sulfate, gluconate, and oxide, which aren't as easily absorbed by the body (note: they also tend to be the cheapest and most common forms found in supplements, so you'll want to read the label closely). (Source, Source)
Different forms of magnesium support different functions
In addition to increased bioavailability, another advantage of chelated forms is the beneficial effect of the binded carrier. For example, taking magnesium glycinate gives you the added benefit of the attached glycine molecule, which is an anti-inflammatory amino acid that supports connective tissue and bone development. The glycinate form can help with sleep and relaxation and is best used for conditions like anxiety, insomnia, and chronic stress, whereas magnesium citrate is most helpful for people suffering from constipation, as it has mild laxative effects. Magnesium malate has been shown to be helpful for chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia pain, while magnesium taurine is your best bet for immune and cardiac function. (Source, Source)
What is chelation?
Chelation is the process of forming a new compound by binding a metal ion with another substance or substances, changing the way the metal behaves. Chelation is used medically when a person is poisoned with a toxic metal such as lead or mercury; chelation prevents the metal from causing damage while making it easier to remove it from the body. In the case of a mineral like magnesium, chelation can form a compound that is better absorbed than magnesium alone. One study found that chelated forms of magnesium delivered more bioavailable mineral than non-chelated magnesium, even when the amount of the latter was increased. (Source, Source)
Where Can I Go to Learn More About Magnesium?
For more about magnesium in foods
The Cleveland Clinic offers a long list of common foods with their magnesium content, and the US Department of Agriculture has a searchable database that allows you to check the magnesium (and other nutrient) content of innumerable foods and drinks, both generic and branded.
For more about magnesium’s role in the body
The kidneys play a major role in maintaining magnesium levels, so it isn’t surprising to find this in-depth explanation of magnesium’s biological functions and regulation in the Clinical Kidney Journal.