Magnesium: What is it good for? (Spoiler alert: So. Many. Things.)

Like most nutrients, magnesium does more than one thing.  In fact, it is a co-factor for more than 300 critical enzyme systems in the human body (enzymes are proteins that get things done in our bodies). Magnesium supports cell signaling, bone formation, neurotransmitter formation, DNA synthesis, and insulin metabolism, to name a few.  Magnesium makes our brains and bodies run.  

In practice I’ve seen magnesium help to smooth out premenstrual mood difficulties (especially when taken with the active form of vitamin B6), and period cramps.  Unwind chronic jaw tension and quiet restless legs.  Reduce the severity and frequency of migraines over time.  Lower blood pressure and support healthy heart rhythm.  Get things moving in chronic and acute constipation.  

Our adrenals and nervous systems require a ton of magnesium to function, and It’s my go-to baseline nutrient in cases of broken sleep, tension, irritability, overwhelm and stress that results in depletion, anxiety and depression over time.  It also supports cellular energy production: while we think of magnesium as being relaxing (which it is!), it can also help with low energy and fatigue.  Some research suggests that magnesium has an analgesic, reducing our sensitivity to pain.  

Magnesium has some special—and life-saving—uses in complications of pregnancy and heart disease, but here we’re focusing on the daily ins and outs of getting enough magnesium.  And how do we do that?

Magnesium in the Diet

Ideally, we’d get all our nutrients from food, right?  Well….it’s not that simple.  Healthy food access issues aside, we all have varying nutrient requirements and different absorptive capacities based on our unique health histories and the conditions in which we currently find ourselves.  Soil depletion and industrial farming practices may reduce the amount of nutrients found in our foods.  And under stress, we blow through our nutrient stores quickly.  

That said, pumpkin and chia seeds, almonds, dark chocolate (yup!) and dark leafy greens like spinach or kale are all very high in magnesium, and worth including in your diet on a regular basis (see our Mineral-Rich Pesto recipe here for a food-based wallop of magnesium).  

Are you falling short on this critical nutrient?  

While severe magnesium deficiency is deemed rare, most Americans don’t get enough magnesium in their diets, making it a common “shortfall” nutrient.  Many factors affect our ability to absorb magnesium, including gut inflammation (common in celiac, Crohn’s and colitis), use of acid-blocking PPI’s for over 1 year, heavier alcohol intake, and normal aging.  And low magnesium levels are associated with a host of chronic diseases and conditions, including diabetes, osteoporosis, migraine, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, systemic inflammation, fibromyalgia, insomnia and asthma.  

Given the fact that we may not be hitting the mark for intake of this crucial nutrient on the daily, it makes sense to consider supplementation.

Magnesium Supplements

So, you’re geared up and ready to start supplementing…. when you are presented with 47 different kinds of magnesium on the shelf and 62 blog articles offering competing information….and you have no idea where to begin.  With this in mind, I’ve created a magnesium primer to help you decide which magnesium may be best for you, and which forms you may want to avoid.  

Magnesium Oxide:  GETS YOU POOPING Mag oxide is a poorly absorbed, inorganic form of magnesium that is best skipped, *unless* you are taking it for constipation.  Magnesium that hasn’t been absorbed higher up in the gut ends up in the bowel, where it attracts water, facilitating a bowel movement.   Mag oxide does this very reliably.  It is not considered a habit-forming stimulant laxative, so can be taken on an on-going basis.  

Magnesium citrate:  SUPPORT FOR REGULARITY AND KIDNEY STONES Perhaps one half step up from oxide in terms of absorption, Mag citrate is an inexpensive form of magnesium that I’ve seen be overtly laxative in some folks, and fairly well absorbed in others.  I recommend this one in cases of constipation and for the prevention of certain kinds of kidney stones in repeat formers (the citrate helps to bind components calcium oxalate kidney stones, helping the body to excrete them before stones can form).  

Magnesium glycinate or bisglycinate:  NERVOUS SYSTEM HELPER This magnesium is the darling of the nervous system.  Bound to the calming amino acid glycine, I recommend this highly absorbable form in cases of tension, sleeplessness, anxiety, mood support, PMS and stress.  

Magnesium malate:  MUSCULOSKELETAL SUPPORT AND ENERGY PRODUCTION This magnesium is bound to malate, which is a key co-factor in the Kreb’s, aka cellular energy production, cycle, and is readily absorbed and utilized.  I recommend it for musculoskeletal support (tight/cramping muscles, restless legs, jaw tension, athletic recovery), low energy and gallbladder health.  

Pro-tip:  Take Mag malate in the morning and mag glycinate at bedtime to support your body’s natural circadian rhythm, energy and sleep.

And, for those who experience laxative effects with even low amounts of magnesium, I recommend the slow-release magnesium malate from Jigsaw Health.  Start with 1 cap once per day and work up slowly from there.  

Magnesium taurate: HEART HEALTH This magnesium is bound to the heart-loving amino acid taurine, which also supports nervous system health and stamina.  I recommend this form of magnesium when supporting cardiovascular health is my client’s primary concern.  

Magnesium l-threonate:  BRAIN HEALTH This newer form of magnesium has been shown to cross the blood-brain-barrier, increasing brain levels of magnesium better than other forms.  It has also been shown to support cognitive health and memory in healthy adults.

Pro-tip:  The Cadillac version of mag threonate is Cymbiotika’s Liposomal Magnesium L-Threonate.  Liposomal nutrients are designed for ultra-enhanced absorption, and many of our customers report feeling the effects of this mag—improved focus and relaxation--within the hour. 

Excellent budget option:  A less expensive form of this nutrient is Magtein, a trademarked version of magnesium l-threonate found in Jarrow’s MagMind.   

Ionic Magnesium:  For the super sensitive folks who really can’t tolerate any magnesium supplements without running to the bathroom, I recommend Eidon Minerals Magnesium drops.  While low dose, this ionized form is very easy to absorb and is rapidly utilized, making it useful for acute conditions like muscle cramping and headache.

Topical/Transdermal Magnesium:  Magnesium is a renowned muscle relaxant.  And we do absorb some of it through the skin.  Gels, lotions and creams can be amazing supports for local tension and pain—rub directly onto tight shoulders, calves, hamstrings and low backs for rapid relief.  It’s unclear how much blood levels of magnesium will increase from local application, so I don’t recommend it is my clients’ sole source of magnesium, unless no oral magnesium is tolerated.  I’m a huge fan of the good old fashioned Epsom salt, aka magnesium sulfate, bath.  Using 4-6 cups per bath will give you the chance to see what a transdermal magnesium can really do for your muscles—and your mind.  Many of my clients report deeply restful sleep after a strong nighttime Epsom salt bath.  

For the kiddos:  Magnesium gummies and tasty, effervescent magnesium powders are a good way to get magnesium into your child if capsules or pills are not an option.  I recommend it for kids experiencing worry, anxiety, sleep troubles, constipation, focus and mood issues, including during hormonal transitions.  

As always, quality is key in getting the most from your supplement regimen.  And with magnesium, it really matters!  You want to make sure your magnesium is from a reputable company that does 3rd party testing, and is fully chelated, or reacted, so that it is stable and able to be easily transported from your gut into the bloodstream. 

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