A lesser-known mineral — found in foods like nuts, dark green vegetables, and bananas — may be missing from your diet. (Photo: Getty Images)
If you’re lacking energy, easily annoyed, and generally feel sort of off, look to your diet. While iron deficiencies may get all the ink, it’s not the only mineral that could be missing from your meals. Lack of magnesium — a common, but silent, deficiency — impacts about half of the population, data suggests.
That’s a huge problem considering magnesium is required for “over 300 different reactions,” nutritional consultant Mike Roussell, PhD, tells Yahoo Health. “It’s a physiological rock star, playing a role in regulating blood pressure, blood sugar, and energy metabolism.” It’salso necessary for normal muscle and nerve function, aids calcium in bone formation, can help with blood pressure and heart health, and helps prevent diabetes, adds Ilyse Schapiro, RD, a nutritionist based in the New York City area.
Too little magnesium could leave you with fatigue and irritability, but even a moderate deficiency can cause cardiovascular changes, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, the manager of nutrition services at Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. One study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that lower magnesium intakes were associated with some markers of inflammation and blood vessel dysfunction in otherwise healthy women.
Why Are So Many Americans Deficient?
“The Standard American Diet doesn’t bode well in terms of avoiding deficiencies of magnesium,” says Kirkpatrick. That’s because processed foods and refined grains don’t provide the magnesium our bodies need and may even assist in decreasing absorption of the mineral.
And while it may be fairly easy to get magnesium through whole foods — nuts and seeds, dark green vegetables, fish, soybeans, avocado, bananas, dark chocolate, whole grains, and legumes are all rich sources — other common factors increase your chances of being deficient, says Schapiro. Everything from stress (it causes your body to use more of the mineral) to birth control pills, diuretics, drinking more than seven alcoholic drinks a week, and even carbonated beverages can up your risk of too-low levels, says Schapiro.
Another big factor: being active. In fact, one 2006 study found that all female tennis players tested failed to meet daily magnesium requirements. That’s because exercise can lead to mineral depletion — magnesium can be lost when you sweat. “Blood magnesium levels can decrease as much as 5 percent from just walking on a treadmill for 90 minutes at 3 miles per hour,” Roussell says. “Intense exercise can increase magnesium needs by upward of 20 percent.” But research shows that magnesium supplementation improves exercise tolerance during times when you haven’t gotten enough sleep and cardiovascular function during exercise, he notes.
Your Plan Of Attack
If you’re considering a supplement, the range of products to choose from is vast. But consider chelated magnesium, which is more readily absorbed, says Roussell. And beware of any supplements with magnesium oxide: “While they contain the highest percent of elemental magnesium, research shows they’re absorbed the poorest,” he says. Cap your supplementation to 350 milligrams a day, too. That’s the tolerable upper limit set by the Food and Nutrition Board. (Magnesium can be a laxative — so if you take too much at one time, your body will let you know, says Roussell.)
You could try a bit of topical magesium, too — it’ll not only increase levels of the mineral, but soothe sore muscles, says Roussell. Or consider adding the mineral to your bubble bath: “Another small research study found that Epsom salt baths are effective at improving magnesium status,” he says.
Ultimately, though, a whole foods approach — pumpkin seeds, almonds and cashews, spinach and swiss chard, and legumes (especially black and navy beans) — provides tons of magnesium that your body may be craving, says Kirkpatrick. Stock up on calcium-rich foods, too. Low calcium levels may inhibit magnesium absorption, she notes: “Bottom line, stick to a whole foods diet and eat an abundant amount of plants and whole grains.”