Conventional wisdom suggests that if we eat a balanced diet then we should have all of the nutrients that our bodies need. But, despite this, many people end up being deficient in key vitamins and minerals. This type of deficiency can have many implications for health.
Yet, issues like magnesium deficiency often go unnoticed. In many cases, this happens because people don’t recognize the symptoms of magnesium deficiency and aren’t aware that their intake may be lacking.
As a result, it’s important to know how to spot magnesium deficiency and to be able to prevent this from occurring.
The Significance of Magnesium Deficiency
Our bodies make use of a wide range of chemical compounds to function effectively. These compounds play key roles in every single biological process that our bodies need, such as fighting disease, replicating DNA and keeping us breathing.
We have the ability to create many of the compounds that we rely on, but not all of them. Instead, some have to come from our food.
As a result, it’s possible to become deficient in various vitamins and minerals. This is particularly true for people following diets that limit food groups. For example, vegans will often become deficient in vitamin B12 because there are relatively few vegan vitamin B12 sources.
Likewise, vitamin D deficiency is common, despite the fact that our bodies can synthesize vitamin D in the right conditions.
In fact, the authors at Precision Nutrition argue that most people have at least one nutrient deficiency.
Deficiencies are concerning because they mean that the body does not have all the resources that it needs. As a result, symptoms can arise over time and a deficiency can even contribute to long-term health problems.
For example, many experts support the idea of triage theory (1,2). This theory suggests that the body tends to prioritize short-term survival over long-term health. The site Nutri-Facts offers more detail about what this theory is and its implications.
Because of this, the body will use the nutrients it has to ensure that the body continues to function, even if doing so decreases health in the long-term.
From a practical perspective, this means that the body continues to function relatively normally but you may get weaker or experience increased disease risk over time.
That issue is especially true if the nutrient deficiency remains unrecognized and is not remedied. The theory also suggests that this pattern may be the reason for some of the symptoms of aging and the diseases that can often occur (3).
Regardless of whether or not this last part is true, it’s clear that nutrient deficiency can harm the body in the long-term. Furthermore, it can still cause a range of short-term issues and symptoms, especially if the availability of one or more nutrients is extremely low.
Magnesium in the Body
Like other vitamins and minerals, magnesium plays a number of key roles.
In particular, magnesium is especially relevant in the function of the mitochondria. This is a specific component of your cells that plays a key role in energy production.
Indeed, magnesium is critical in the production of ATP, which is one of the most significant compounds for energy. Likewise, magnesium is especially relevant in neurological function, as well as in muscle contraction and performance (4).
Magnesium is also a cofactor in enzyme reactions. Enzymes are important molecules in the body that are responsible for many biological reactions. Cofactors like magnesium ensure that these reactions are able to take place and that our bodies function as they should (5).
The site Ancient Minerals offers more details about many of magnesium's roles and why it is so significant.
At the same time, magnesium is also related to other nutrients in the body and can interact with them. This is a common pattern and is one reason why multiple deficiencies can occur at the same time.
For example, magnesium is also related to vitamin D and calcium. Additionally, calcium intake can affect the retention of magnesium and vice versa.
All of these patterns highlight just how significant magnesium can be in the body. With this in mind, it shouldn’t be too surprising that magnesium deficiency can cause significant harm.
The Symptoms of Magnesium Deficiency
Nutrient deficiencies are especially challenging because they are often difficult to spot. In most cases, the symptoms of a deficiency aren’t unique. Instead, they may be associated with many different conditions and even with life in general.
For example, vitamin D deficiency is sometimes misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia because there is such a strong overlap in symptoms.
A similar problem is present with magnesium too. Many of the symptoms can seem fairly common, making them tough to identify – unless you know what you’re looking for.
So, let’s take a look at the specific symptoms.
Early symptoms (6):
- Loss of appetite
Later symptoms (7):
- Muscle contractions
- Abnormal heartbeat
- Personality changes
However, there are also many cases where symptoms simply don’t show, even in cases of severe deficiency (8). As a result, the symptoms can only ever act as a rough guide.
The list of symptoms also highlights why magnesium deficiency is so challenging. All of these symptoms can be linked to countless other conditions. Furthermore, you could only have some of them or you may have none at all.
As such, it can be difficult (if not impossible) to rely on magnesium deficiency symptoms to work out whether or not you are deficient. Instead, it may be more effective to look at your intake and see whether you are likely to be deficient.
Types of Magnesium Deficiency
As is the case with most nutrients, magnesium deficiency can occur in two general forms. In particular, people may have a mild deficiency or it may be severe.
Mild magnesium deficiency can be extremely difficult to detect and most symptoms may not even be obvious. Furthermore, the symptoms that do exist could easily be attributed to other issues.
In contrast, severe magnesium deficiency tends to be easier to spot, simply because the symptoms themselves are more significant and easier to identify.
There are some medical tests that can be used to determine whether or not you have a magnesium deficiency and you can talk to your doctor for more information. Such tests can help you work out whether magnesium deficiency is an issue for you.
Magnesium deficiency is still under-recognized and, as a consequence, this type of test isn’t performed as often as it should be.
Nevertheless, it can be critical and offers a more accurate indication of deficiency than the symptoms alone (9).
Monitoring magnesium levels like this may also be especially relevant if you do have very low levels. In particular, the process could help make sure you effectively and safely increase your magnesium level.
Alternatively, you could also pay attention to your diet. In particular, if you rely heavily on processed meals and/or tend to avoid vegetables and nuts, there is a good chance that you are deficient in magnesium.
If your diet doesn’t fit into that pattern, then it’s possible that any symptoms are connected to a different health issue.
Causes of Low Magnesium
Low levels of magnesium tend to be particularly common among people who rely on processed foods, especially those who have diets that are high in sugars, refined grains, salt and fats (10).
Additionally, the connection between calcium and magnesium means that excess calcium can actually result in low magnesium levels. This is particularly true for people who supplement calcium (11).
For that matter, many people simply don’t have healthy diets and may not eat enough foods that contain key nutrients. For example, many adults have fairly limited intakes of dark leafy greens (like kale), not to mention vegetables in general.
Likewise, people often miss out on the nutrients from nuts and seeds. Indeed, some individuals choose to avoid these because of their fat content – even though they may actually contribute to weight loss, not weight gain.
At the end of the day, modern diet patterns do leave us vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies – and this is something that must be remedied.
There are also other possible causes. For example, kidney problems, excessive alcohol consumption and gastrointestinal conditions can all increase excretion of minerals, which serves to decrease absorption. Such a pattern can contribute to magnesium deficiency and also other types of deficiency (12).
In this type of situation, you could be deficient in magnesium even if your intake was high.
Likewise, a magnesium deficiency could be the result of other conditions or medications. In this type of situation, it might be important to talk to your doctor to see whether magnesium deficiency is likely.
Increasing Your Magnesium Intake
Official recommendations from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggest that adult males need around 420 mg of magnesium per day, while females need 320 mg (13).
However, there is also some variation in recommendations, with some groups suggesting that lower amounts of magnesium are needed (14). Still, the NIH recommendations offer a good guideline and should be enough for most people.
To get the desired levels, there are two general approaches that you can take, either supplementation or through the diet. Each of these directions does have advantages and one may be more relevant than the other, depending on your situation and needs.
Supplements are a common option for increasing nutrient intake and they have the advantage of being fast and easy. There is also no shortage of these on the market.
Using supplements may be especially appealing if you know that your magnesium levels are very low or if you have severe symptoms of deficiency. Doing so could help you to get your magnesium levels up to normal relatively quickly and help to reduce symptoms that you may be experiencing.
Generally speaking, you cannot overdose on magnesium. Nevertheless, as with any vitamin or mineral, consuming too much isn’t a good idea either.
In particular, too much magnesium can cause some symptoms as well, such as irregular heartbeat or diarrhea.
To avoid any issues, you need to pay attention to your dosage and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
Additionally, it’s important to consider your dietary magnesium intake.
For example, a magnesium supplement could do more harm than good if you already have significant levels of magnesium in your diet. The same is true if you are taking multivitamin supplements, as these will already contain some magnesium.
On a side note, magnesium supplements are often used by athletes and people who are physically active because of the association between magnesium, ATP and muscles. This connection suggests that supplementing could help improve physical performance and energy, although the evidence for this area isn’t conclusive (15).
If magnesium supplements make sense for your situation, then the following examples can be a good place to start.
Magnesium in the Diet
While supplementation is an option, there is no shortage of ways to get magnesium in your diet directly. As a general rule, magnesium tends to be common in foods that offer dietary fiber and some foods are also fortified with magnesium.
However, it is important to check labels for any processed foods carefully, as some forms of processing can lower the magnesium content dramatically (16).
In particular, the following list details some key sources of magnesium in the diet and the amount you get per serving. Of course, there are many other examples that are not on this list as well (17).
- Spinach, 1 cup (cooked) – 157 mg
- Coconut milk, 1 cup – 88 mg
- Almonds, 1 ounce – 75 mg
- Cashews, 1 ounce – 73 mg
- Dark chocolate, 1 ounce – 64 mg
- Baked potato, 1 medium (with skin) – 48 mg
- Avocado, 1 cup (cubed) – 43 mg
- Chicken breast, 1 cup (roasted, chopped) – 38 mg
- Banana, 1 medium, 32 mg
- Kale, 1 cup (cooked) – 23 mg
- Pumpkin, 1 cup (cooked, mashed) – 22 mg
- Asparagus, ½ cup (cooked) – 13 mg
As this pattern shows, one of the simplest ways to increase magnesium intake is to rely on healthy and whole foods. Indeed, even the water we drink contains some magnesium and we may get around 10% of our daily intake that way (18).
Doing so isn’t as hard as it seems either. Instead, there are many amazing recipes out there that feature healthy ingredients, including many of these options. This is true even if you don’t have the time, energy or money to cook complicated meals each night.
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