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“Micronutrients" sound rather unimportant, right? Well, it turns out, dietary micronutrients may be playing a macro-role in your health, performance, and well being. While protein, carbohydrates, and fat usually get the spotlight when it comes to nutrition, certain other essential metals (yes, they are micronutrients too), or a lack thereof, should get some attention.

One element in particular is magnesium (Mg). While it’s the seventh most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, it might not be abundant enough in you. If you lack this crucial metal, you might be lacking the “mettle” to be at your best every day.

A Crucial Electrolyte

Along with sodium, potassium, and calcium, magnesium is an electrolyte found throughout the body–meaning it carries an electric charge and plays a crucial role in muscle contraction, fluid balance, and normal cell function.

Several metabolic reactions cannot occur without magnesium; it’s a cofactor in reactions with over 300 energy-yielding enzymes.

Magnesium is the key in the ignition, making the engine rev up in many metabolic processes. Among the key roles, metabolism of carbohydrates and fats requires magnesium. By binding with ATP (and forming a Magnesium-ATP complex), it regulates the activity of enzymes like phosphofructokinase; involved in the “committed step” of glycolysis which then leads to the breakdown of carbohydrates in the body to eventually yield ATP for energy.

Magnesium also plays a crucial role in the synthesis of DNA, RNA, and proteins. It is necessary to help produce free-radical-neutralizing anti-oxidant molecules that fight off inflammation. And that fist-sized organ beating in your chest, literally pumping life-blood through you 24/7? Yes, it requires magnesium’s electrical properties in order to keep up with the day-to-day pounding and synchronization.

The laundry list of roles this vital micronutrient plays seems endless. Why then, is magnesium talked about so little and discarded in healthcare?

Magnesium plays many roles in the body.

This may have to do with the fact that we’ve long been unaware of the potential large-scale health consequences of having a low amount of magnesium. Quite literally, we cannot survive without enough magnesium. Our genome might even have evolved on a high-magnesium diet. Our Paleolithic ancestors supposedly ate over 600mg per day! This is just a further reason to support a high-intake and pay attention to this mineral.

It turns out many of us may be walking around with levels of magnesium that, while “sufficient,” might be a bit too low for optimal performance.

Silent But Deadly

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for magnesium consumption is 310mg/day - 420mg/day for younger and older adults.Moshfegh2009 This number will also depend on factors such as age and sex (men typically need a bit more). While this dietary intake might be enough magnesium for “housekeeping” and prevent an obvious deficiency, recent studies have suggested this level is unlikely to provide optimal health or longevity.DiNocolantonio2018 Are we just trying to get by, or do we want to optimize?

In fact, “marginal” magnesium deficiencies may be quite common in the US. Recent surveys indicate the average intake among men may be somewhere around 350mg/day, while women intake is a bit less–just around 260mg/day.Moshfegh2009 Approximately 50% of Americans consume less than the estimated average requirements (EAR) for magnesium. This is an issue. Chronic diseases of the immune, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal system are associated with magnesium deficiency;Costello2016 so in addition to the negative effects on performance, low magnesium ups your risk for major diseases.

Most magnesium deficiencies are subclinical. This means the deficiency has no recognizable clinical findings, signs, or overt symptoms.

But, this doesn’t mean you’re no worse for the wear. Indeed, low levels of magnesium might be making a sneak attack on your physiology. Subclinical deficiencies often result in a “silent” reduction in performance or biological function. You might not feel the impact, but your cells sure do.

Over time, a chronic deficiency could lead to problems.

Foods high in magnesium.

Signs You Might be Deficient

Without a clinical test for magnesium, there are certain signs of magnesium deficiency that could give you a clue as to whether your magnesium levels are in need of a boost. These signs of magnesium deficiency may let you know whether your health problems are due to low levels of the mineral, or perhaps some other cause.

Feeling twitchy? Muscle spasms, and even tremors are all magnesium deficiency symptoms. This is because magnesium plays a major role in the electrical currents needed for proper muscle contraction. Muscular weakness is also a side effect of low magnesium. This will become even more apparent if it happens while you’re exercising...nothing screws up a good workout like a Charlie horse. However, spontaneous muscle cramps unrelated to exercise are a reliable sign that you could be magnesium deficient. The most likely spot for these involuntary contractions is the hands and feet.

Less-intense muscle cramps, known as fasciculations, are another sign of Mg deficiency. Fasciculations are brief, spontaneous contractions that only affect a small number of muscle fibers. What happens isn’t drastic, but is more like a “flicker” of motion underneath the skin; your motor neurons acting a bit wacky.

It’s not just the nerves in your hands, feet, and limbs that may act weird without enough magnesium; the central nervous system can also start to feel the side effects of magnesium deficiency.

Aggression, anxiety, irritability, even depression–these drastic changes in mood have been noted in individuals with low magnesium status.Boyle2017 If you notice changes in mood plus other odd brain-blunders like disorientation, vertigo, or severe light sensitivity, this may be a sign of deficiency. Low magnesium is also associated with a lower pain threshold,Alloui2003 so if you’ve been feeling a tad wimpy lately, it may be time to get a blood test done.

What Increases the Risk for Mg Deficiency?

Inadequate dietary intake is probably the number one cause for low magnesium levels. This could be simply due to not eating enough magnesium-rich foods. Good sources of the mighty mineral include include avocados, nuts, pumpkin seeds, legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas), leafy green vegetables, and many unprocessed whole grains.

So yes, if you were wondering: avocado toast is an excellent dietary source of magnesium.

However, even a diet high in so called magnesium-rich foods may fall short of the recommended intake; modern day food manufacturing often depletes levels of magnesium in our food. Soil contamination and erosion may also predispose not only us, but our foods to be magnesium deficient.DiNocolantonio2018 That enormous leafy green kale salad on your plate might not contain everything you think it does.

Certain gastrointestinal (GI) disorders like diarrhea, Crohn's disease, and Celiac disease may interfere with magnesium absorption and predispose to deficiencies. Kidney disorders, type 2 diabetes, and certain medications may lead to “magnesium wasting” where the body unnecessarily excretes magnesium.

Don’t booze up on the regular. It turns out, alcohol actually acts as a magnesium diuretic and may also interfere with mineral absorption. A few drinks are likely unharmful, but magnesium deficiencies get to be highly prevalent in alcoholics.Rivlin1994 The occasional night cap won’t bottom out your magnesium levels, but it won’t help either.

There are many potential causes of magnesium deficiency.

Diagnosing Magnesium Deficiency

If signs and symptoms warrant further investigation, or even if you’re just curious as to your status, a visit to the doctor might be in order. There are numerous magnesium tests ranging from serum or plasma magnesium (most common), muscle magnesium (biopsy), hair and bone magnesium tests, and the most-reliable oral magnesium load retention test.

What is a normal level? For serum magnesium, a reading between 0.7mM - 1.0mM is considered normal. But what’s considered optimal is probably a bit higher: a number above 0.8mM. A magnesium deficiency is defined as a serum concentration between 0.75mM - 0.849mM or, a positive oral magnesium load test result.

There are caveats to clinical assessment of magnesium status. It is possible to have a subclinical magnesium deficiency despite having a normal serum magnesium content.

How can that be? Only about 1% of our magnesium is found in the extracellular fluid (e.g. blood), so serum levels are a poor indicator of the total magnesium content of the body. Furthermore, magnesium is compartmentalized throughout the body in bone, muscle, and blood. Levels in one compartment may not accurately reflect those of another.

For these reasons, muscle levels might give a more accurate representation of the actual body content of magnesium, but this involves a biopsy, and may not be practical for most individuals.

A lack of standardized diagnosis of magnesium levels is another reason that this mineral has received such a lack of attention compared to others such as calcium and ironWorkinger2018–levels of which can be measured easily and accurately. What to do about this issue? If the signs and symptoms are present, the best bet might be to supplement and take note of any health changes that occur.

Low on Magnesium, Low Health

It would be an understatement to say that sub-optimal levels of magnesium can impact performance at work, on the sports field, and throughout life. When magnesium levels plummet, so does the ability for high level human performance.

Cardiometabolic Effects

Magnesium has profound effects on the capacity of our blood vessels to relax and grow larger to accommodate high amounts of blood flow (like when you exercise) and keep feeding your muscles with oxygen-rich blood.

As a result, low magnesium status can predispose to endothelial dysfunction–categorized by a sub-par dilating capacity of the blood vessels. Magnesium depletion has been shown in various cell-culture experiments to promote dysfunction of blood vessels.Maier2004 A low magnesium diet reduces the amount of nutrient-providing capillaries and also decreases blood flow levels in small arteries throughout the body.Altura1984

At more extreme or chronic levels, magnesium deficiency could promote development of heart disease, and lead to the hardening of the arteries, kidneys, and the heart. Simply put, the circulation loves its magnesium.

Keeping your blood pressure in check is another major role that magnesium plays in health.

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a risk factor for several cardiovascular diseases and damages the heart. Several studies have shown an inverse relationship between magnesium status (dietary intake) and blood pressure; where lower magnesium in the diet is associated with higher blood pressure.Jee2002 Hypertensive patients commonly have poor intracellular magnesium concentrations.Paolisso1997

By helping the body to release the vasodilator molecule known as nitric oxide (NO), magnesium helps vessels stay elastic, responsive and keeps blood pressure low. When magnesium is deficient, many cells can’t release NO, and we have a larger amount of blood vessel constriction, leading to hypertension.

A healthy heart rhythm requires magnesium. A low dietary intake and low serum levels of magnesium may contribute to fluttering or irregular beating of the heart, termed cardiac arrhythmias.

Magnesium deficiency affects the cardiovascular and metabolic system.

Snooze, Don’t Lose

Don’t sleep on magnesium. Or rather...do. Magnesium enhances the secretion of the all-important sleep molecule, melatonin, from the pineal gland. Running low on magnesium may mean your ability to get to sleep and sleep soundly is impaired.

Studies have shown that eating a magnesium-deficient diet for just nine weeks leads to disorganized sleep, an increase in brain excitability during sleep, and a 24% reduction in restorative slow-wave sleep (SWS).Depoortere1993

Lack of sleep due to magnesium deficiencies might seem like a minor annoyance at best, leading to daytime sleepiness and making you cranky. But a loss of your nightly rest isn’t something to sleep on. Sleep loss has been associated with reduced insulin sensitivity, impaired appetite regulation, poor immune function, and is related to a greater risk of developing obesity, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and many cardiovascular diseases.Rangaraj2016

If a lack of magnesium is shorting you on sleep, the effects are potentially wide ranging. In contrast to deficiency, boosting magnesium also boosts sleep.

High magnesium in certain brain regions leads to more slow wave sleep,Chollet2000 is associated with lower likelihood of falling asleep during the day,Cao2018 and reverses changes in behavior related to sleep deficiency.

To optimize sleep and stop counting sheep, magnesium-containing supplements could provide high-quality rest when you need it most.

For instance, taking a supplement containing magnesium glycinate along with L-glycine, L-theanine, and melatonin could help you get some shuteye. Many of these ingredients have been experimentally shown to reduce the time to fall asleep by seven minutes and increase sleep efficiency (quality) by up to 3%.Inagawa2006,Brzezinski2005,Ferracioli2013

Another "supplement" option? Draw yourself up a bubble bath next time you’re feeling a bit of insomnia. Magnesium-sulfate (epsom salt) baths may have a potential sleep-inducing quality as well. In one study, elderly participants who underwent a 12-day therapeutic bath treatment in magnesium-containing water experienced increased sleep quality following the pre-slumber soak.LatorreRoman2015

Magnesium deficiencies can negatively impact sleep.

Magnesium, Mind and Body

Research indicates many athletes probably don’t consume adequate amounts of magnesium in their diets. This has serious performance repercussions, since low magnesium may contribute to muscle weakness, neuromuscular dysfunction, cramping, and spasms. In addition, poor sleep quality, that could result from low magnesium, is linked to reduced athletic performanceFullagar2015 and is crucial to recovery.

While not often thought of in performance terms, magnesium can have a huge impact on strength, power, and endurance. If you’re an athlete, you need it. Low magnesium levels have been correlated with reduced V02 max–aerobic energy capacity relies on magnesium.

Magnesium deficiency impairs your ability to exercise at your peak,Mcdonald1988 and studies restricting dietary magnesium intake for 93 days showed lower endurance, increased energy needs and lower cardiovascular output during submaximal exercise in postmenopausal women.Lukaski2002

Simply stated, if you’re running low on magnesium, you won’t be able to take advantage of all the hard training you put in. There may even be a recovery role for magnesium, too. A magnesium-deficient state is pro-inflammatory, which could reduce your capacity to adapt and regenerate following a hard workout.

Brain Drain

Impacts of magnesium deficiency on the brain are wide ranging. Serotonin, the “feel good hormone,” depends on magnesium binding for normal function. Magnesium has a part in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) with major roles in our response and sensitivity to brain corticosteroids and growth factors. Without magnesium, alterations in cognitive function can result.

Changes in mood might be a strange consequence of magnesium deficiency.

Turns out, magnesium status has been associated with anxiety symptoms, and is hypothesized to play a role in some mood disorders like depression.

While the relationship isn’t entirely rock solid, people eating diets low in magnesium are shown to have higher levels of depression and depression-like symptoms.Jacka2009 Want to make rats depressed? Feed them a low-magnesium diet. Hypomagnesemia (low serum magnesium) due to a magnesium poor diet leads to depression and anxiety like behaviors along with dysregulated levels of proteins responsible for antioxidant activity and brain energy metabolism.Spasov2008 Correcting your magnesium levels might just brighten up the day.

There are a few other symptoms...but I can’t remember. Oh wait!

Magnesium deficiency might impair learning and memory. Magnesium deficiency in mice impairs emotional memory and fear conditioning responses;Bardgett2005 they fail to learn properly. It might help you remember where you left those darn keys. Support for the role of magnesium in memory comes from studies in which elevating brain magnesium levels can actually enhance learning capabilities and boost memory.Slutsky2010

Magnesium deficiencies can lead to worse mental health and performance.

Do Stress and Exercise Increase the Requirement for Magnesium?

Just as we intake magnesium through diet and supplements, we lose some of the mineral through various bodily processes. There is a slight loss of magnesium through sweat–about 15mg or so depending on the environmental conditions. Also, increased excretion of magnesium through the urine occurs after exercise due to changes in certain hormones. These losses aren’t enormous, but can’t be totally discounted.

In some experiments, serum magnesium was found to be lower in athletes following all sorts of intense exercise, whether it was a 30-minute swim, 120km hike, a marathon, or a high-intensity-interval session.Clarkson1995 However, this may just reflect a redistribution of magnesium (it can be taken up by red blood cells for energy production) rather than an actual loss of magnesium.

There may also be a bidirectional relationship between magnesium deficiency and chronic stress levels that many of us experience from day to day. Under conditions of stress (mental and physical), magnesium can be released from blood cells, sequestered, and then excreted in the urine–this is known as magnesium wasting. Increased stress also means we release more cortisol and other stress hormones.

Well, it turns out, magnesium actually acts on many levels to suppress our stress response to these “fight or flight” chemicals and even lowers the amount of them that gets released.

If we put two and two together, we get a vicious cycle. Low magnesium levels amplify our already high stress levels, stress which we aren’t able to regulate properly without adequate levels of magnesium. Quite the dilemma.

The good news is, stress and chronic fatigue that might result from low magnesium levels can be reversed. Supplementing with magnesium is shown to reverse low red blood cell magnesium and improved energy, emotional state, and pain levels in people with chronic fatigue syndrome.Cox1991 These changes can occur in a few as six weeks of supplementation.

Dietary Interactions: A Role in Magnesium Deficiency

Just as magnesium-rich foods will help keep your mineral levels adequate, other nutrients may actually impact your capacity to absorb and use this essential micronutrient. Diets high in calcium and phosphorous actually increase the dietary requirement for magnesium. An intake of 2:1 (calcium to magnesium) may be best to optimize absorption.

If you supplement with calcium, this may also lead to magnesium deficiency. Calcium competes with magnesium for absorption at various sites in the body. Over supplementing with vitamin D can have similar effects, since it increases the absorption of calcium at the expense of magnesium. Who said nutrition was simple?

Magnificent Magnesium

It’s not such a “micro” nutrient, after all.

Given the high prevalence of deficiency in society and the lack of attention given to its status, magnesium might be one essential compound with which to experiment. If you are feeling any of the symptoms of magnesium deficiency, give supplements or lifestyle modifications a try.

Magnesium deficiency, even when subclinical, can take a toll on your ability to react, perform, and live your best, so make sure you take the simple step to supplement. Give your body the tools it needs to take on the world.

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