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Magnesium supplements – should we take them?

Magnesium do you really need supplements?

Amanda McCredie – Dietitian

Are you wondering if magnesium could cure some aches and pains? Why are so many people supplementing with magnesium? When magnesium levels are low this may lead to muscle spasms and cramps, seizures, anxiety and irregular heart rhythm. While the symptoms may not always be severe, there can be early symptoms or concerns that your diet may not have enough magnesium and it can be confusing to know whether to take supplements or not.

What causes magnesium deficiency?

The causes of a lack of magnesium can include dietary choices, availability of foods high in magnesium, as well as illness, use of certain pharmaceuticals, and genetic factors. Low magnesium can be hard to detect, especially before symptoms become very obvious, so the first step to preventing magnesium deficiency is knowing its risk factors.

While our active population that visits our clinic tend to try to be committed to a healthy diet, I am seeing more and more people ‘trying’ magnesium supplements to help with stressed out bodies. Stress is showing its ugly head as a result of workloads and in over training and increasing fitness programs too quickly. It’s possible that in some people’s diets, the need for magnesium is increased because of poor lifestyle choices.

Magnesium depletion in healthy individuals can be caused by:

  • Low magnesium diets, especially those with processed food and soft drinks
  • Calcium supplements
  • Over the counter medication.

Some conditions can also increase vulnerability to deficiency, including:

  • Aging, illness and stress
  • Digestive and genetic disorders
  • Alcohol and other addictions.

Magnesium-rich foods

Magnesium is found naturally in nuts and seeds, whole grains and green leafy vegetables, however you can purchase it as a supplement in the form of magnesium citrate, oxide, aspartate and chloride. Small studies have found that magnesium in the aspartate, citrate, lactate, and chloride forms is absorbed more completely and is more bioavailable (more easily used in your body) than magnesium oxide and magnesium sulfate. Magnesium is a vital mineral essential to life and as the body cannot produce it we need to make sure we are eating magnesium rich foods or alternatively take a supplement to maximise our body stores.

An increase in both food processing and the availability of enticing convenience foods with added fats and sugars has had its impact. Whole and unrefined foods high in magnesium are becoming increasingly rare in the modern diet.

What is the role of magnesium?

Magnesium is an essential mineral necessary for the proper functioning of body cells. Magnesium plays a critical role in over 300 enzymatic processes in your body and is therefore required by virtually every cell in our body. It is important for the proper activity of various body systems, such as the cardiovascular system, the immune system, the nervous system and also our bone and muscle system. It plays a vital role in the formation of bones and teeth and along with other minerals; calcium, sodium and potassium as it helps transmit nerve signals and cause muscle contractions. Magnesium also helps the body to process fat and proteins and is required to make proteins in the body. Magnesium along with the parathyroid hormone helps control the level of calcium in the blood.

Why are active people trying magnesium supplements?

When we undertake intense exercise, our muscles can get a build up of lactic acid which results in fatigue and muscle soreness, however a good supply of magnesium in our body can help to minimise this affect. Magnesium also plays a crucial role in energy metabolism through the conversion of muscle glycogen to glucose, which is the body’s preferred fuel source during intense exercise. Magnesium activates the enzymes ATPase that in turn generates ATP to fuel our muscles.  By having sufficient magnesium it can assist an athlete to quicker recovery.

How much magnesium is needed by the body?

Magnesium is not produced by the body, so it needs to be ingested daily through the consumption of magnesium rich foods such as nuts and seeds, whole grain cereals and leafy green vegetables (see Table 1).  The recommended daily amount of magnesium is 400mg for men and 300mg for women however it has been noted in research that endurance athletes may have slighter higher requirements because:

  • Their muscles are being used intensely
  • They put more stress on bones
  • They sweat a lot!

Ideally, try getting as much magnesium as possible from real foods such as spinach, nuts, seeds and even dark chocolate! Magnesium-rich foods supply other important nutrients that can help you optimize your health. Eating your daily magnesium rich foods may come with other health benefits, such as alleviating symptoms of pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), fighting depression and improving sleep quality.

If you suspect you may be magnesium deficient it is always best to consult your doctor prior to starting any supplementation. Magnesium supplements can interact with other medications and its absorption and /or action in the body may be altered.  A dietitian can then help you with your diet.

Magnesium can be taken as a tablet or a powder mixed with water and is generally taken in the morning when magnesium levels are low in the body.  Some however will take it at night time to help induce a good night’s sleep. Magnesium can be taken with or without meals, but it is preferable to take it between meals for better absorption.

If you want to check that you are eating enough magnesium rich foods to meet the demands of your body, a dietitian can also help by going through your current eating and advising on magnesium rich foods and whether a supplement would also be beneficial depending on your needs.

When looking for the type of magnesium supplement to buy it may be helpful to know that the following types are more easily absorbed than other types: magnesium citrate, magnesium malate or magnesium glycinate.

Table 1: Magnesium-Rich Foods (in mg per 100g)

Pumpkin seeds (roasted) 532
Almonds 300
Brazil nuts 225
Sesame seeds 200
Peanuts (roasted, salted) 183
Walnuts 158
Rice 110
Whole-grain bread 85
Spinach 80
Cooked beans 40
Broccoli 30
Banana 29
Potato (baked) 25

If you have any questions about magnesium or would like to organise a dietetic consultation, please call our clinic to make an appointment. Skype appointments also available.