Dubbed the “invisible deficiency” by some experts because it’s so hard to spot and diagnose, magnesium deficiencies are more dangerous than you might think. “Magnesium is involved in over 300 biochemical reactions in your body. It affects everything from your heartbeat to your muscles to your hormones,” says Dr. Danine Fruge, Associate Medical Director at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami, Florida.
Between making sure to get enough fiber in your diet and trying not skimp on iron, monitoring your magnesium intake can easily fall through the cracks. “Studies have shown that only about 25 percent of U.S. adults are at or above the recommended daily amount of 310 to 320 milligrams for women and 400 to 420 for men,” says Dr. Fruge. In fact, the 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) revealed that at least half of the U.S. population had inadequate intakes of magnesium.
Here’s how to figure out whether or not you’re getting enough of this super nutrient — and how to fix it if you’re deficient.
What You Need to Know About Magnesium Deficiency
Loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue…the initial symptoms of magnesium deficiency are also common side effects of other health conditions, making it difficult to diagnose.
“Refined sugar causes the body to excrete magnesium through the kidneys, resulting in a net loss.”
This sneaky disorder manifests in three different stages, depending on how lacking you are in the nutrient. While initially symptoms can be minor, a magnesium deficiency may eventually cause noticeable problems with your muscle and nerve function such as tingling, cramping, numbness and contractions (like that annoying eye twitch you just can’t shake). In its worst stages, magnesium deficiency could even cause seizures, personality changes, or abnormal heart rhythms.
To make matters scarier, this condition can be difficult to detect with medical tests. Since only one percent of magnesium is found in your blood (most is in your bones or organs), a simple needle prick often won’t help determine your levels. Instead, Dr. Fruge says diagnoses are usually made through process of elimination and by examining a patient’s lifestyle.
Is Your Diet Putting You at Risk?
It may be what you’re eating — rather than what you’re not eating — that’s putting you at risk for magnesium deficiency. “It’s very easy to get enough magnesium. I think the reason so many people are deficient is because a lot of food and drink can make magnesium unavailable to their bodies,” says Dr. Fruge.
The main culprits: soda, caffeinated beverages and alcohol, according to Fruge. If you love sipping on soft drinks, you’ll be less likely to have adequate amounts of nutrients including magnesium in your diet, according to several studies. And drinking alcohol doesn’t help, either. Consuming too much alcohol can interfere with your body’s absorption of vitamin D, which aids magnesium absorption. As for food, refined sugar causes the body to excrete magnesium through the kidneys, resulting in a net loss, according to Dr. Fruge.
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We hate to break it to you, but if you’re regularly eating or drinking any of the above (and who isn’t?), you may be dealing with at least a minor magnesium deficiency, says Fruge.
Whole Foods vs. Supplements: Which Is Best?
Your best bet when it comes to fending off a magnesium deficiency is to take preventative measures. So, should you turn to food or supplements for your fix?
“[Supplements] will probably give you a boost, but it’s best to focus on food,” says Dr. Fruge. Plus, your body absorbs magnesium from food differently than it does from supplements. You should only use magnesium supplements under the direction of a doctor — and be sure not to exceed 350 non-food milligrams of magnesium per day (unless a medical professional instructs you differently).
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“Your body has built-in mechanisms that don’t allow it to overdose from food, but that doesn’t exist for supplements. Too much magnesium via supplement can put your heart into an arrhythmia and that can even be fatal, particularly for people with issues like diabetes,” says Dr. Fruge.
Food sources are your safest bet, so focus on amping up your consumption of leafy greens (one cup of cooked spinach provides 157 milligrams of magnesium). Legumes are a solid choice too, with a cup of cooked white beans coming in at 113 milligrams of the nutrient. And if you’re a fan of squash and pumpkin seeds, one cup packs in a whopping 649 milligrams of Mg. Other great options are nuts, including almonds and cashews, most types of fish, and whole grains.
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What About Magnesium Oil or Other Trendy Products?
From infused oils to lotions, spa-like magnesium treatments are gaining steam among natural health junkies. But whether magnesium-enriched skin products will actually help address a deficiency remains questionable.
“The bottom line is that the transdermal absorption of magnesium hasn’t been studied that well. From reading the literature, the percentage that gets into your bloodstream is fairly small,” says Dr. Michael Shapiro of New York City’s Vanguard Dermatology. Dr. Shapiro explains that when you’re applying magnesium to your skin, “the benefits are probably localized to that area,” rather than having any real internal effect.
That being said, if you’re experiencing issues like eczema, dandruff or mild muscle cramps, it might not hurt to give these enhanced grooming products a try. “Some sources show it may help in those areas. But any effect that occurs would be more readily produced if you ingest it orally, whether through food or under the supervision of a doctor with supplements,” Dr. Shapiro says.
So if you suspect you may fall in with the majority of the population that isn’t managing to get enough magnesium, put down the bath salts or magnesium oils, and stock up on healthy food — your body will thank you for it.
Originally posted November 2014. Updated July 28, 2016.