Dear JJ: I've been taking calcium for strong bones for years, but recently a friend recommended adding magnesium. Anther friend claimed magnesium helped relieve her migraines. Is there science to support those claims?
Your friends are both right. Researchers in one study, appropriately called "Why all migraine patients should be treated with magnesium," argues about half of people with migraines have magnesium deficiencies.
Ditto for strong bones. Calcium gets all the credit, but magnesium's the true mineral rock star.
Calcium's claim to fame began when studies showed it could increase bone density, leaving doctors to recommend it to nearly everyone, particularly post-menopausal women.
That popularity lingers today. Look at your supermarket or drugstore shelves and count the number of chocolate-flavored chews, hulking calcium tablets, and calcium-fortified OJ (want a little calcium with your sugar?).
Magnesium, on the other hand, becomes that straight-A quiet student in the back. She doesn't carry calcium's hype, but she's every bit as important if not more than her spotlight-hogging mineral friend for bone health and lots more.
Calcium and magnesium actually work synergistically to optimize bone-building benefits. We've over-fixated on calcium, creating magnesium deficiencies. In fact, studies show more than 60 percent of US adults don't get enough, and according to Dr. Carlyn Dean in The Magnesium Miracle, up to 80 percent of Americans are magnesium-deficient.
Deficiencies become a real concern when you consider every organ in the body -- especially the heart, muscles, and kidneys -- demands magnesium. Over 300 enzymatic reactions require magnesium, including those that produce energy, make proteins, work muscles, control blood sugar, and regulate blood pressure.
The recommended dose for magnesium is 300-400 mg/day, and some professionals recommend going higher.
To increase your intake, focus on magnesium-rich foods including dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, legumes, avocados, yogurt (unless you're dairy intolerant), and (easy does it!) low-sugar impact dark chocolate.
Even if you're eating these foods, you could still be magnesium-deficient for one simple reason: Chronic stress. We're an over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived country, and stress becomes a repercussion of those imbalances. Studies show magnesium can help dial down stress.
I could list 100 other reasons, but here are five big ones to optimize magnesium levels.
1. Sleep. Just one partial night of crappy sleep can create insulin resistance, paving the path to obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Those are among the zillion reasons getting seven to nine hours of quality sleep becomes so essential. Studies show supplementing with magnesium can improve sleep efficiency, sleep time, and early morning wakening. It also improves other markers like melatonin and cortisol, contributing to a better night's slumber.
2. Fat loss. When you're losing weight, you want every tool in your arsenal to help. One study found magnesium-deficient people had a greater risk for obesity and that optimal magnesium levels contribute to a lower waist to hip ratio as well as lower triglycerides.
3. Muscle building. Aging means you lose muscle mass. One study found magnesium helps prevent age-related skeletal muscle mass, power, and strength losses. Magnesium directly helps feed (and therefore build) muscle while lowering chronic inflammation that contributes to skeletal muscle loss.
4. Mental health. I call magnesium the ahhhh mineral because it alleviates stress. Studies show patients with borderline disorders have higher magnesium deficiencies. Magnesium can also help decrease depression and might work just as well as antidepressants. Plus without enough magnesium, you might not be making enough of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin.
5. Reduce bone loss. A sugary, processed, inflammatory diet becomes the biggest bone-robbing culprit. Studies show focusing on a lower-sugar impact diet with more anti-inflammatory omega-3s and sufficient magnesium and calcium can help maintain health bone and prevent bone loss.
Buying a magnesium supplement can become tricky. Inferior supplements use magnesium oxide, the cheapest and most poorly absorbed form. One study found magnesium oxide barely dissolved in water, proving it basically ineffective in your body.
Professional companies use different forms of magnesium, including citrate, glycinate, malate, L-threonate, chloride, gluconate, and lactate.
In a multi, I like the chelated bisglycinate or malate forms. The chelated bisglycinate form absorbs quickly so it doesn't usually create a laxative effect. The oxide form, on the other hand, becomes so insoluble that most wrecks havoc on your gut.
You'll find individual supplement in capsules, tablets, or powders. I prefer the glycinate form for sleep and citrate form to improve bowel health. The L-threonate form crosses the blood-brain barrier, which becomes optimal if you have anxiety. For optimal bone health, look for a synergistic supplement that combines magnesium and calcium with other bone-supporting nutrients.
Easy does it, especially with citrate powders. Taking too much magnesium in certain forms can lead to diarrhea and other unpleasant effects. Dose slowly and gradually increase if you're using magnesium carbonate, chloride, gluconate, or the oxide forms.
Topical magnesium that absorbs directly through the skin can be ideal if you don't like to swallow pills. One study found applying topical magnesium benefitted people with fibromyalgia.
I always add magnesium-rich Epsom salts into my evening bath to relax, alleviate muscle cramping, and even soften my skin.
If you've ever used a magnesium supplement, did you get these or other benefits? Did you experience any unpleasant side effects? Share your story below.
Dean, Carolyn. The Magnesium Miracle. New York: Ballantine Books, 2007.