In the realm of nutrition, there are certain nutrients or nutrient groups that seem to receive all the attention. Admittedly, that attention is usually justified—it’s true that Omega 3 fatty acids are, even by clinical standards, amazing, and it’s just as true that vitamin D can yield all types of benefits beyond healthy bones. However, other less-publicized compounds are responsible for the maintenance of so many important functions that their background status actually makes them every bit as important, if not more so, than these nutritional stars.
Magnesium, a macromineral common in grains, nuts and vegetables, is perhaps best known for its role in promoting bone density. However, recent research delivers some insight into the importance of magnesium and its involvement in over 300 individual body functions, ranging from the transmission of hormones such as insulin, thyroid, estrogen, testosterone, and DHEA, to the formation of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, catecholamines, and serotonin.
Magnesium is responsible for the regulation and release of these hormones, nutrients and neurotransmitters. Magnesium also regulates the two other primary electrolytes—potassium and calcium. Through this, magnesium helps to solve what is sometimes called The Calcium Paradox—wherein there is the potential for extra calcium to bypass the bones, where it provides benefits, and instead accumulate in arterial walls, impeding blood flow and potentially leading to heart attack and stroke. A proper intake of magnesium will help to prevent this problem.
It is also known that magnesium helps protect cells from heavy metals, such as aluminum, mercury, lead, cadmium, beryllium and nickel, which are associated with Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. It has been suggested that low total body magnesium might contribute to heavy metal toxicity in children which, if prolonged, could facilitate the development of learning disorders.
All of the above serves to explain how magnesium offers benefits for human nutrition. As to why the problem of magnesium deficiency has remained relatively unnoticed, the answer seems to be that there are so many processes and factors cumulatively contributing to it that the issue quickly becomes overlooked.
Many believe that through modern large-scale farming practices, magnesium has been consistently depleted in our soils, and has been further depleted in plants by the use of fertilizers. After harvest, the mechanics of modern food processing also remove magnesium. In addition to that, common cooking techniques—including broiling, steaming and boiling—also have a tendency to reduce the magnesium content of foods, by leaking the mineral into the water or onto the grill.
An additional factor is that high carbohydrate and high fat diets, common in today’s lifestyles, work to increase the need for magnesium by increasing the need for blood sugar regulation; so does a routine involving regular physical and mental stress, because of the hormonal benefits magnesium offers. Dieting reduces intake of already low levels of magnesium intake, and as we age, magnesium absorption can become impaired.
Between the demonstrated importance of this nutrient and the knowledge of its slow drift towards deficiency in both soil and diet, the good news here is that this problem, once noticed, is easily solved. Dark, leafy greens like kelp and spirulina are rich sources of magnesium, as are nuts such as almonds, Brazil nuts and cashews, as well as the seeds of pumpkin, sunflower and watermelon. The current RDA of approximately 400 mg for men and 360 mg for women is considered sufficient to avoid any consequences related to malnutrition. Other recommendations suggest that magnesium intake be calculated based on individual bodyweight, specifically 5 to 10 milligrams per kilogram—meaning a 185 lb individual would be aiming for between 420 and 840 mg daily. These increased recommendations, along with magnesium being better absorbed in segmented doses of 100-200 mg at a time, may make a combination of dietary and supplemental modifications the best option.