In a supplement industry awash in the latest “superfruits” and “miracle foods,” the long-time nutritional workhorses tend to get the short shrift. Compared to flashy compounds and foods with exotic-sounding names—resveratrol, acai berry, camu camu—it’s all too easy to overlook something as ho-hum as magnesium. But there’s a reason—many reasons, in fact—why magnesium is a long-time workhorse. This humble mineral is a required cofactor for hundreds of enzymes and biochemical reactions too numerous to list in full.
The very short list of magnesium’s heavy-hitting effects includes supporting healthy blood pressure and promoting proper deposition of calcium in the bones and teeth, while helping to keep calcium out of places where buildup could be dangerous, such as in the joints, arteries, and other soft tissues. These effects are due to magnesium’s critical role in balancing calcium. For the same reason—balancing calcium, which is considered an “excitatory” compound—magnesium has also long been recognized as a muscle relaxant and sleep aid, as it helps calm the body and mind. Additionally, magnesium deficiency is now linked to the development and exacerbation of diabetes, metabolic syndrome and related pathologies; supplemental magnesium has been shown to improve these conditions. Magnesium is especially critical for cardiovascular health.
But these are widely recognized effects of magnesium. What about some of the lesser-known—and perhaps even “odd,” or surprising—conditions that may be caused or exacerbated by suboptimal magnesium status? It’s often said that chocolate cravings are a sign that the body needs magnesium. Unsweetened cocoa powder is, in fact, a rich source of magnesium. (Just one ounce provides 35% of the daily value for magnesium.) This wouldn’t be a bad way to go to get some more magnesium, but not many people are satisfied by 100% cocoa, which can be fairly bitter. People are more likely to get their chocolate fix along with a hefty dose of sugar and vegetable oil—perhaps not the ideal way. Good thing there are other foods rich in magnesium, such as leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, cashews, and other nuts & seeds, which come with an array of nutrients and healthy fats you won’t find in a candy bar.
Cravings for magnesium-rich foods aside, there are some intriguing signs that point to a need for magnesium. With mood disorders such as depression reaching epidemic levels, not to mention being difficult to cope with, it’s interesting to note that magnesium insufficiency may be a contributing factor. This is good news, because magnesium supplementation is simple and inexpensive, particularly when compared to pharmaceutical drugs, many of which not only have undesirable side-effects, but which are also quite often ineffective. Studies support a role for suboptimal magnesium levels in the etiology of anxiety, as well. There’s usually a focus on amino acids (such as tryptophan and tyrosine) for ameliorating mood disturbances (via optimization of neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine); research suggests it might be beneficial to include magnesium in protocols for improving these conditions.
Some healthcare practitioners have suggested that marginally low magnesium levels (as opposed to overt clinical deficiency) may lead to hyper-excitability, ultra-sensitivity to noise, and being “high-strung” in general. Anecdotal evidence even points to low magnesium levels making people extra-ticklish. None of these issues is technically a pathological situation, nor a disease, but if it bothers someone enough to discuss it with a medical professional, it might be worth seeing if a trial of supplemental magnesium improves matters. Certainly, magnesium imbalance is documented to underlie “nervous hyperexcitability,” with central and peripheral neuromuscular symptoms. In such cases, supplementing magnesium would be a low-cost intervention with a potentially large benefit.
Physicians have also noted a potential role for magnesium insufficiency in panic attacks and phobias. This could be due to electrolyte imbalances that affect the central nervous system, and an additional plausible explanation is magnesium’s role in blood sugar management. The signs and symptoms of panic attacks overlap quite strongly with those of acute hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Magnesium is a crucial “ingredient” in the proper metabolism of carbohydrate, and magnesium is critical for healthy blood glucose control, so it makes sense that insufficient magnesium could be at least one factor behind panic attacks.
Some of the lesser-known possible effects of suboptimal magnesium levels have not been corroborated in well-designed scientific studies. But considering the vast array of physiological processes that require magnesium, and the wide range of troublesome conditions that result from inadequate magnesium intake, there’s little to lose and potentially a great deal to gain through a simple trial of magnesium supplementation. As always, work with your qualified healthcare professional to determine whether supplementation is appropriate for you.