Every few years a new supplement arises as the “must-have” for North Americans. Calcium, potassium and others have each had a turn in the limelight. In the last few months, it’s magnesium that has started popping up on shopping lists all over the country. Unlike other supplements, magnesium deficiencies are difficult to detect and very common. Therefore, it’s not something that should be overlooked as the newest dietary fad.
Magnesium is one of the five most abundant minerals in the human body. With only one per cent found in the blood, magnesium is mainly stored in bones and soft tissues (muscles, connective tissue, organs). The small amount stored in the blood makes a deficiency difficult to detect with standard lab tests.
Foods rich in magnesium include green, leafy vegetables, beans and whole grains, which are found in most North American diets. However, clinical research has determined that a significant portion of the population is still deficient. It is now believed that this is due to modern farming practices, which have reduced the amount of magnesium in farmed food.
In general, magnesium has a widespread relaxation effect throughout the body. It is known for relaxing muscles and organs, and reducing stress and anxiety.
Among some of the symptoms that may indicate a magnesium deficiency are headaches, anxiety, muscle cramping, charley horse muscle spasms, menstrual cramps and gastrointestinal disorders. In fact, there is now evidence suggesting that magnesium can be effective in preventing chronic migraines.
Magnesium comes in many variations. The most commonly recommended are magnesium glycinate and magnesium citrate.
Magnesium glycinate is taken orally and is the most gentle on the stomach. In this form, glycine, a relaxant, is joined with magnesium, enhancing the latter’s effects. It is also the method of delivery that leaves the most magnesium available for use by the body after the mineral has been digested. Magnesium glycinate is also the most effective form when the end goal is improved sleep, relaxation, decreasing muscle spasms and twitches, as well as anxiety.
Magnesium citrate is also taken orally and is best known for its laxative effects. In fact, it can be used as the cleanser prescribed before a colonoscopy. The laxative effect occurs because the magnesium is separated from the citrate during digestion, with the citrate entering the colon and bringing water with it.
Meanwhile, magnesium sulfate, commonly called Epsom salt, is another well-known form of magnesium, and is found in abundance in the Dead Sea. It’s not meant to be taken orally, as it has a strong laxative effect, however, when used as a soak, it’s absorbed by the skin and decreases muscle aches and pains. Athletes especially appreciate it after a hard workout. Research has also shown that Epsom salts can assist with high blood pressure and act to generally reduce stress. Anecdotally, Epsom salts often soften skin and hair, improve sleep and promote a sense of calm.
People often take magnesium together with calcium, though the two have opposing actions, most notably on muscle control. Muscle makes up a large part of our body and a number of our organs, and while there are different kinds of muscle, they all work on a calcium-magnesium balance (calcium is used to make muscles tense and squeeze, while magnesium is used to reduce calcium, thus releasing tension). They are taken together because the magnesium is used to aid the body’s absorption of the calcium. Therefore, when addressing a magnesium deficiency, it’s best to take them separately.
Magnesium is a naturally occurring mineral in the body, and is therefore safe for most people. However, it’s important to note that because magnesium promotes relaxation to the entire body, excessive fatigue can occur from too high a dose. Among those who should avoid using magnesium are those with kidney stones, chronic diarrhea or taking specific drugs.
Magnesium can be a fantastic addition to many manual care plans, as it improves sleep function, muscle tension and general relaxation. But remember, always check with your family doctor before adding or changing any supplements in your routine.
Dr. Deborah Mechanic is a doctor of chiropractic and acupuncture provider practising in Toronto. For questions: [email protected]