What is magnesium?
From the regulation of muscle contractions and blood pressure, to energy production, blood sugar balance and even weight management and mood disorders, magnesium’s role in the body is plentiful. With such a long list of uses, it is no surprise it’s the fourth-most abundant mineral in the body, and involved in over 300 enzymatic reactions.
What forms of magnesium are there?
Found naturally in rocks and seawater, there are a number of forms of magnesium, including carbonate, chloride, hydroxide, oxide and sulfate, as well as glycinate, lactate, malate, citrate and orotate.
Each form varies with regards its bioavailability and its best use. For example, forms that dissolve well in water tend to be more easily absorbed in the gut. This means magnesium in the form of citrate, lactate and chloride are more completely absorbed than the oxide equivalent.
What are the health benefits of magnesium?
1. May strengthen bones and protect against osteoporosis
A number of population studies have reported positive associations between magnesium intake and bone mineral density in both men and women. This is because magnesium is involved in bone formation through its influence on bone turnover, as well as its role in potentiating vitamin D. Adequate magnesium may also play a part in keeping our muscles strong and healthy; this is an important strategy for preventing falls and fractures in the older population.
2. May help with depression and anxiety
Magnesium has been shown to have a mood-improving effect with benefits achieved both with or without the use of antidepressant medication.
3. May lower blood pressure
4. May alleviate headaches/migraines
Magnesium deficiency appears to play a part in the development of migraines and headaches. However, evidence supporting the use of supplementation to prevent or reduce symptoms is, currently, limited.
5. May improve sleep
As we age, we experience changes in our sleep patterns. A study looking at the effect of magnesium on a group of 60-80 year olds suggests the mineral may help reverse these changes. For the rest of us, magnesium may also be a useful sleep aid, because it helps quieten the nervous system, creating a calm and relaxed disposition.
6. May alleviate pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS)
For many women of reproductive age, the strains of cyclical anxiety, stress, mood swings and bloating as well as menstrual migraine have a significant impact on quality of life. Interesting studies suggest magnesium alone and in combination with vitamin B6 may help alleviate some of these symptoms.
What are the top food sources of magnesium?
Although found in a number of foods, including green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, unless you’re eating a varied diet you may not achieve the recommended daily amount of 270mg (women). Nutritional surveys support this, with reports of low magnesium levels among young adults in their 20s, especially women.
To ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of magnesium, include a wide selection of the following foods in your daily diet:
Source: McCance, R A, and Elsie M. Widdowson. McCance and Widdowson's the Composition of Foods., 2015. Print.
What about magnesium supplements?
If you’ve been advised to take a supplement, it’s important to select a high-quality product that supplies the form of magnesium that is most likely to benefit the condition you want to address (see table). The product you choose may also be influenced by the dose you’ll need, and how many capsules you’re willing to take. Common forms of magnesium that you’re likely to see on a supplement label include magnesium citrate, oxide, glycinate and malate. See our quick guide on magnesium forms and suggested applications:
- Suggested uses: Occasional constipation, depression and anxiety
- Smaller dose of elemental magnesium per capsule, so a daily dose is more likely to involve multiple capsules.
- Suggested uses: Heartburn and indigestion, constipation, migraine (including pre-menstrual)
- Useful for those who want to take as few a number of capsules as possible, because the oxide molecule is small and delivers more magnesium per dose.
- Suggested uses: Heartburn, constipation
- Used in topical applications to ease muscle soreness
- Suggested uses: stress, anxiety
- Gentler on the digestive system, so useful option if you need to take high doses
- Suggested uses: Heartburn, fatigue
- Gentler on the digestive system and is less likely to cause laxative effects
- Suggested uses: Heart arrhythmia, brain function, regulates blood sugar
- Suggested uses: Depression, memory loss (including age-related)
Magnesium sulfate (epsom salts)
- Suggested uses: Bath and foot soak to ease muscle aches, relaxation and stress relief, constipation
- Suggested uses: Heartburn, sleep, mental calm and relaxation, anxiety and depression
- Suggested uses: Heart health, energy support
Although magnesium supplements are well-tolerated by most people, some people experience symptoms such as nausea and diarrhoea. In order to minimise the risk of side effects, take the supplement with food and away from medication. High doses (more than 400mg) are more likely to cause digestive upset and currently there is insufficient evidence to support what the effects of high doses may have over time. Always keep to the directions on the label and refer to your GP or health professional if you are unsure.
Certain groups are more likely to be at risk of low levels of this important mineral – these include older adults, type 2 diabetics and those with gut issues, such as Crohn’s disease. However, before you supplement you should be aware that certain medications may interact with magnesium or affect magnesium status so it is vital you speak with your GP before taking a supplement.
Always speak to your GP or healthcare provider before taking a new supplement or if you are concerned about nutritional deficiencies
This article was published on 8 October 2020.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in personalised nutrition & nutritional therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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