Magnesium is an essential nutrient that you may be lacking. It is a cofactor in hundreds of enzymatic processes in the body, yet many people are completely unaware of the health challenges that can ensue from an insidious deficiency. Let’s explore the need for magnesium, a blood test to evaluate magnesium status, and the best forms of supplementation.
Magnesium must be consumed in adequate amounts to prevent health issues associated with its deficiency. Because we can’t root ourselves in the ground like plants or eat rocks, we must consume magnesium as a mineral salt or via a plant that has converted the mineral drawn from the soil into an organic form.
This is a clue as to why magnesium deficiency is rampant in modern society. Magnesium must first be present in soil to be bioavailable in meaningful amounts in a plant. Soil erosion and intensive farming practices have depleted magnesium from fields and pastures. What little magnesium our food contains can fall victim to malabsorption caused by proton pump inhibitor drugs and antacids.
Certain plants are better accumulators of magnesium, with dark leafy greens and certain nuts, such as almonds and cashews, being the richest dietary sources. A diet that includes a variety of green plants—organically grown in compost-enhanced soil—is the best means to increase magnesium status. In a standard American diet that lacks greens in relation to grains, magnesium deficiency can be an insidious underlying cause of several chronic health issues.
Testing Your Magnesium Status
Signs of magnesium deficiency include fatigue, high blood pressure, constipation, muscle problems (tightness, pain, cramps), headaches, migraines, heart arrhythmias, and an inability to cope with stress. Lifestyle contributions to the depletion of magnesium include alcohol, sugar, and stress. I find it particularly ironic that both stress and the vices that many adopt to self-medicate in the face of stress rapidly deplete magnesium from the body.
A simple blood test called the magnesium RBC test, with “RBC” standing for “red blood cell,” can determine if you are deficient in magnesium. This assay measures magnesium content in red blood cells as a proxy for whole body magnesium status and is a much more accurate assessment of intracellular magnesium levels than the serum magnesium blood test a primary care physician typically orders if you inquire about a suspected deficiency. If a physician is unfamiliar with or unwilling to order a magnesium RBC test, consider a patient-pay option to document magnesium status. The reference range for magnesium RBC is 4.2 to 6.8 milligrams per deciliter.
Supplementing With the Right Form of Magnesium for You
Before discussing supplemental forms of magnesium, it is wise to point out that a “supplement” is just that. Any herb, vitamin, or mineral supplement piggybacks off the body’s physiology, making gentle nudges to a system that should first be nourished with a nutrient-dense diet. Realizing this is rarely achievable (and perhaps impossible with modern-day stresses and environmental toxicity), nutritional supplements can fill the gap between good and optimal in the areas of diet and lifestyle.
That said, magnesium can be derived entirely from a whole food source via supplements that deliver vegetable greens in dried, powdered, or compressed form. A magnesium powerhouse like Swiss chard might constitute such a supplement, with 100% of the magnesium content being absorbable. The one caveat is that long-standing digestive issues can impair assimilation of nutrients in the intestines, but even then a whole food form of magnesium will provide the most benefit.
The larger class of magnesium supplements is widely available at health food stores and from holistic health care providers. The specific forms (known in chemistry as a “salt”) differ in important ways. For oral use, the best forms that broadly replete magnesium are lactate and citrate. These forms are ideal as natural adjunctive therapy for a systemic condition like hypertension. Magnesium oxide is the most efficient in drawing water to it in the colon, making that form the best choice for chronic constipation. Magnesium L-threonate has the added benefit of being able to readily cross the blood-brain barrier and is suitable as part of an integrative approach to combat chronic headaches, migraines, and neurocognitive disorders.
Consult a holistic health care provider to determine which form and dosage are best for you. Magnesium is an exceedingly safe, water-soluble nutrient that gets flushed out of the body if consumed in excess. Most people can tolerate 300 milligrams to 400 milligrams per day without having loose stools, thus providing feedback that the body is using every bit of that dosage. An effective way to find one’s upper limit of need is to gradually increase the dosage of a magnesium supplement until loose stools occur (called “bowel tolerance”) and then decrease the amount to stay just below that threshold.
Next is the topical application of magnesium. There are two excellent options. The oldest and most popular is magnesium sulfate, otherwise known as Epsom salt. Dissolving two or three cups into a hot bath is a relaxing way to increase magnesium in the body, with the additional benefit of tired, achy muscles being in direct contact with the hot water. This can be done a few times a week, soaking 15 to 20 minutes per bath, to maintain magnesium status.
An alternative to an Epsom salts bath is magnesium oil, a supersaturated solution of magnesium chloride in distilled water. The solution is so saturated that it feels oily when applied to the skin. Within 15 minutes of application, most of the magnesium is absorbed transdermally. This is a great choice to quickly spot treat areas of concern, such as tight or cramping muscles, regions of poor circulation, and neuropathies. One caution is to avoid application of magnesium oil over irritated skin, such as after shaving.
Be Empowered With Magnesium
You need adequate magnesium to live your most empowered life. Use this guide as a primer to detect a magnesium deficiency and find the best solution for you. With so many of life’s stresses depleting this essential mineral, rest in the wisdom that repletion is achievable with the strategies detailed here. Feeling your best may only be a stir-fry of dark leafy greens and an Epsom salts bath away, though I wouldn’t recommend both at the same time.