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Magnesium deficiency is an extremely common yet overlooked problem we are facing today. If you are feeling highly strung and anxious lately, or experiencing night time muscle cramps, migraines, constipation, irregular heartbeat and low energy, chances are your magnesium levels are running too low. These symptoms can most certainly impact your quality of life.
In fact, going by the latest studies, magnesium deficiency is one of the leading causes of chronic diseases, most notably cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Despite that, magnesium deficiency is not something most doctors take very seriously.
Here is what you need to know about magnesium, why it is such an incredibly important mineral and what health problems may occur when your magnesium levels go too low.
Magnesium: Mineral for a healthy body and mind
Your body runs on innumerable bio-chemical reactions, to survive and to sustain life. And it needs magnesium to carry out hundreds of these reactions – for energy production, protein and DNA synthesis, glutathione synthesis, vitamin D metabolism, maintaining calcium levels, muscle contraction, detoxification and DNA repair. It also plays an important role in regulating blood sugar levels and maintaining a steady heartbeat.
Clearly, magnesium is a multi-purpose mineral that you need so your body can efficiently and effectively carry out countless functions. And low levels can mean serious problems for your health – for your muscles, joints, nervous system, heart, bones and immunity. No wonder poor magnesium status can open doors to all kinds of mild to severe symptoms, and even chronic disease if deficiency is not diagnosed and reversed in time.
Signs of magnesium deficiency
1. Muscle pain, spasms and leg cramps
Muscle spasms, tightness, twitches and cramps are some very important signs of magnesium deficiency in the body that you should not ignore. This is something to do with how magnesium plays a critical role in regulating calcium levels and preventing excess calcium from accumulating within cells and soft tissues.
Magnesium basically regulates the transport of calcium and potassium across the cells. When you don’t have enough magnesium, calcium can accumulate in your muscles and result in non-stop contractions – that can manifest as painful cramps in legs, period cramps or migraines.
These kinds of sustained contractions can also cause asthma and irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). Excessive calcification within soft tissues and organs can be dangerous. For example, calcium build-up in the arteries can cause atherosclerosis. If it happens in the intestines, it can cause constipation. And in the kidneys, it can cause kidney stones.
2. Low energy and fatigue
There are many vitamins and minerals that help you make energy, such as B vitamins and CoQ10. Well, you also need magnesium for ATP (adenosine triphosphate) synthesis. In addition, magnesium also activates and stabilizes ATP molecules. Since you also need magnesium to efficiently use vitamin D, this is another reason why insufficient levels of magnesium can cause fatigue and poor energy levels.
3. Stress, anxiety and insomnia
You need magnesium for healthy nerve function and to deal with stress. In addition, you tend to lose more magnesium when you are stressed. Poor magnesium levels have been linked with anxiety, migraine headaches, chronic fatigue and even fibromyalgia.
One of the most important mechanisms through which magnesium calms your nerves is by regulating the activity of calcium and glutamate. Both these neurotransmitters (yes, calcium has many roles besides making your bones strong, and it also works as a hormone) are excitatory in nature, which means they excite nerves. Glutamate activates NDMA receptors, that is an important activity for your brain function, learning, memory and thinking. But excessive activation of these receptors can be damaging to your nerves – tossing your nervous system into a tizzy and leading to symptoms like anxiety, panic attacks and even neuropathic pain. Magnesium balances the effects of excess calcium and glutamate. It also:
- Regulates the levels of stress hormones
- Regulates the production and working of hormones that are very closely involved with your emotional well-being and nervous system health.
- Blocks the activity of enzymes that are associated with mood disorders, depression and bipolar disorder.
4. Weak bones
When you suffer the symptoms of fatigue, muscle weakness and achy joints, the first thing that comes to mind is vitamin D deficiency. This can be easily corrected by taking a high dose supplement. But what most people don’t realize is that vitamin D is of no use if you don’t have healthy levels of magnesium.
Your body stores vitamin D in an inactive, unusable form, which needs to be transformed into an active form so that it becomes bioavailable to cells. This active form is called calcitriol (1,25[OH]2D). And magnesium makes this conversion possible. In the case of magnesium deficiency, vitamin D that you get through food, sun exposure or supplements, remains inactive. Magnesium also activates enzymes involved in vitamin D metabolism in the liver and kidneys.
This latest study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association showed that vitamin D can be unsafe for people with poor magnesium levels; your cells can’t use an inactive form of vitamin D. So, then what happens when magnesium content in your body is low is that you have vitamin D, which increases your calcium and phosphorus levels, leading to calcification of blood vessels and other soft tissues.
A 2018 study concluded that “Deficiency in either of these nutrients is reported to be associated with various disorders, such as skeletal deformities, cardiovascular diseases, and metabolic syndrome. It is therefore essential to ensure that the recommended amount of magnesium is consumed to obtain the optimal benefits of vitamin D.” 
Studies show that having enough magnesium can even prevent the risk of osteoporosis and fractures in the elderly. And this is independent of the mineral’s role in vitamin D absorption and utilization by the cells. It appears there is so much more to magnesium when it comes to bone health.
For example, it improves the activity of cells that are involved in building bones. With an increase in calcium levels in the blood, magnesium stimulates your thyroid gland to release calcitonin, a hormone that helps maintain your bone density by drawing excess calcium from the bloodstream and making it move towards the bone matrix. 
So, when you are taking mega doses of vitamin D supplements but have poor magnesium status, you are creating an extra metabolic stress. You need magnesium to use all the vitamin D in the body, so your body starts to tap into muscles and bones, where magnesium is stored. This is the reason, you notice symptoms like twitches and spasms, which are the first signs of magnesium deficiency.
Other mild and severe symptoms of magnesium deficiency
- Tinnitus (ringing in ears), that can even lead to hearing loss
- Increased PMS
- High blood pressure
- Acid reflux
- Numbness and tingling sensation in face, feet and hands
Chronic magnesium deficiency and heart disease
A 2018 review published in Open Heart reported that magnesium deficiency is one of the leading causes of chronic diseases including cardiovascular diseases.  Previous studies also show that it increases your risk of arrhythmias and heart palpitations, angina pain, congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease and ischemic heart disease.  
In fact, magnesium deficiency is strongly associated with coronary artery spasm that causes angina pain and heart attack. This is mostly likely due to an increase in intracellular sodium and calcium, when your magnesium is too low. Severe deficiency can even cause sudden, unexpected death by a cardiac event or loss of heart function.
Magnesium works through several mechanisms to support your heart health. Firstly, it prevents calcification of the arteries that can cause plaque build-up, reducing your risk of heart attack and stroke. It also controls inflammation - one of the main drivers of heart disease - has a favorable effect on endothelial function and reduces your risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. 
Many studies show that magnesium may play an important role in glucose metabolism and reduce your risk of insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and prediabetes. All these factors make you more susceptible to developing cardiovascular disease, mainly by causing inflammation in the blood vessels.
What causes magnesium deficiency?
The lack of mineral content in our soil and water, hence in the food chain, is one of the most significant reasons why we are so predisposed to a shortage of magnesium and other minerals. Certain other factors increase your risk of magnesium deficiency:
- Diet low in magnesium rich foods
- Too much use of processed foods such as sugar and refined carbohydrates
- Conditions like Chron’s and Celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, gastroenteritis and resection of the small intestine
- Chronic diseases like metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, heart failure, thyroid disorder, kidney diseases,
- Chronic stress
- Over and extended use of both prescribed and over the counter medications
- Exposure to heavy metals, chemicals and toxins
- Misuse of alcohol
- Increased acidity in the body (acidosis)
- Over-supplementation with vitamin D
- Prolonged diarrhoea or vomiting
- Strenuous physical exercise
- Heavy bleeding in periods
It is not easy to diagnose magnesium deficiency?
How do you confirm whether you are deficient in vitamin D, calcium or vitamin B12? With a blood test, of course. But diagnosing a magnesium deficiency is not so easy.
Most of the body’s total magnesium is stored in the muscles and bones. And magnesium levels in your blood is not a good indicator of overall magnesium status in the body – an important reason why deficiency is likely to go undiagnosed. When your magnesium intake is low, your body pulls it from bones and other organs to maintain normal levels in the bloodstream, which may even make you prone to fractures and osteoporosis. Your serum magnesium level declines only in severe deficiency.
So, even if the blood work shows magnesium levels within a healthy range, you cannot completely rule out magnesium deficiency.
What can you do to increase your magnesium levels?
Foods like (most) nuts and seeds, egg yolk, whole grains and green leafy vegetables are a rich source of magnesium. Including such foods in your daily diet can be effective in improving your magnesium levels. However, considering the amount of minerals in your food (grown in eroded and contaminated soil), you may not get enough from diet alone. Having said that, your heathy diet may still provide sufficient amounts of magnesium to prevent deficiency, but this may not be enough to maintain magnesium at levels that you need to reduce your risk of heart disease, osteoporosis and type 2 diabetes; and basically, to reduce inflammation, prevent premature ageing and maintain optimum health.
Taking magnesium supplements is another route to give your levels a boost and reduce your risk of chronic diseases. There are all kinds of supplements available in the market today – powder, tablets, liposomal magnesium or oil spray. While oral supplements are a good choice, they are commonly associated with unwanted side effects such as bloating, abdominal pain and even loose stools. This limits the amount of mineral you can ingest.
Magnesium oil spray or a liposomal magnesium supplement can help avoid these distressing side effects, while improving the mineral’s bio-availability and absorption.
- Uwitonze et al. Role of Magnesium in Vitamin D Activation and Function. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. 2018
- Kunutsor et al. Low serum magnesium levels are associated with increased risk of fractures: a long-term prospective cohort study. European Journal of Epidemiology. 2017
- Subclinical magnesium deficiency: a principal driver of cardiovascular disease and a public health crisis.
- Grober et al. Magnesium in Prevention and Therapy. Nutrients. 2015
- Joosten MM, Gansevoort RT, Mukamal KJ, et al. Urinary and plasma magnesium and risk of ischemic heart disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2013;97(6):1299-306.
- Rosique-Esteban et al. Dietary Magnesium and Cardiovascular Disease: A Review with Emphasis in Epidemiological Studies. Nutrients. 2018