Magnesium participates in over 600 enzymatic reactions in the body—it’s used for so much, yet 60% of Americans aren’t getting enough of this key nutrient (1)(2).
So what’s the deal? Why is magnesium so essential? What makes us so deficient? What does deficiency look like? And, most importantly, what can we do to bring up our levels?
In today’s newsletter, we’re going to cover all that and more.
First, I want to make sure my intention for this newsletter is super clear. I really wanted to address a question that I get all the time when it comes to magnesium, “Dhru… I always hear how important magnesium is, but can you give me a deeper breakdown? Can I get it from food? And if I get it from supplements, there are so many different forms out there, which one do I take?”
Each form of magnesium has its purpose—some share similar functions, others have totally unique ones. The action of a particular form of magnesium largely depends on the molecule it’s bound to (I’ll explain this more below).
That’s why I wanted to create this guide, to clear up the confusion and help you: a) understand the importance of magnesium and b) help you decide which magnesium supplement is best for you and your needs. I’m not going to get into every form (there are a LOT), but I will touch on eight of the main ones I think people will get the most benefit from.
Before we get into that, I want to highlight some of the major functions of magnesium in the body to see where symptoms of deficiency might show up and where proper supplementation could be helpful for alleviating them.
What Magnesium Does In The Body
Magnesium is the electrolyte gatekeeper of our cells—it lets potassium and calcium in to conduct electrical currents that are responsible for our heartbeat, the contraction and relaxation of muscles, nerve firing, neuroplasticity, ATP production, DNA repair, and so much more (3)(4)(5).
We also need magnesium for vitamin D to be converted to its active form, which serves so many critical functions in the body. Without magnesium, vitamin D can’t do its job, and low vitamin D levels increase our risk for infection, broken bones, hormonal imbalances, and chronic disease (6)(7).
Because magnesium is responsible for so many functions in the body, a deficiency means that at least 600 different processes are negatively affected. As a result, we can develop symptoms that make us feel like we’re not functioning at our highest potential.
Why Are We So Deficient In Magnesium?
The US Food and Nutrition Board recommends 420 mg of magnesium daily for men and 320 mg for women over 30 years old (4). Most people aren’t coming anywhere near these guidelines. Getting enough magnesium from food is tough, and most people aren’t supplementing. And if they are supplementing, it might not be with the correct form.
What’s more, the RDA for magnesium hasn’t been updated in over 20 years. Current guidelines don’t account for all the new research that’s out there on everything it’s involved in. Plus, stress, exercise, coffee, and a diet high in sugar and refined carbs deplete magnesium even further (8).
Magnesium From Food Sources
It was a lot easier for our ancestors to get magnesium than it is for us today. The mineral-rich lakes, streams, and rivers they bathed in and drank from naturally had magnesium in them from sediment. Not to mention, the plant foods they ate were grown in magnesium-rich topsoil.
Today, our agricultural practices have depleted the soil of essential minerals like magnesium, so it’s harder for us to get those same nutrients from food. We’d have to eat double, maybe triple the amount our ancestors did to get the same benefits (1)(9)(10).
Magnesium ions are at the center of chlorophyll molecules, which is why leafy green vegetables, avocados, nuts (almonds), and seeds are great sources. However, only 30-40% of magnesium is bioavailable since it comes bound to molecules like phytates that make it harder to absorb (11)(12).
Despite its low absorption rate, the food matrix plays an integral part in raising magnesium levels. Research shows that a diet rich in magnesium-containing foods can effectively boost your levels and prevent chronic diseases like pancreatic cancer and dementia (12)(13)(14). Other good sources of magnesium include dark chocolate (50 mg per ounce) and pumpkin seeds (168 mg per ounce) (11)(15).
Here’s an article by the Cleveland Clinic that lists the top magnesium-rich foods and how much magnesium they contain per serving.
Bottom line: You can get magnesium from food, but usually not enough to correct deficiencies.
How Do You Know If You’re Deficient?
Because it’s involved in so much, symptoms of magnesium deficiency can show up just about anywhere. Loss of appetite, fatigue, and nausea are a few well-known symptoms. Drinking alcohol frequently, eating a standard American diet, or taking certain medications like proton pump inhibitors, diuretics, and laxatives deplete magnesium at a faster rate (16). If you have a gastrointestinal condition (like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis), you’re also at a much higher risk for magnesium deficiency.
I’m going to point out a few common but lesser-known signs of magnesium deficiency next. But before I do that, if you’re curious and want to know for sure if you’re magnesium deficient, you can ask your doctor to check your levels.
And if you do, please note that serum magnesium is not the most accurate test. Only 1% of magnesium is in the serum; the rest is in your red blood cells. However, most medical doctors will test serum magnesium instead of red blood cell magnesium (it’s better than nothing!). If your serum magnesium is low, it’s a good indication that you are very deficient in magnesium. If you are within range, you still might be low in magnesium.
Overall testing for magnesium deficiency can be a little nuanced and complicated, but since so many people are deficient in it, most doctors regard magnesium supplementation as safe (even if someone doesn’t have access to testing).
The conditions I’m going to mention next have many layers to them, but magnesium deficiency is likely involved in one way or another. The good news is if we know magnesium is part of the problem, that also means it’s also part of the solution.
Anxiety, Headaches, Insomnia… or Magnesium Deficiency?
Life throws a lot at us (especially these days), and if we aren’t dealing with our stress, it can wind up causing a whirlwind of negative effects like inflammation and hormone and blood sugar imbalances. One of the more underestimated effects of chronic stress is how it depletes magnesium.
Magnesium helps modulate the stress response by calming the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, increasing GABA (the neurotransmitter that promotes calmness) (17), and inhibiting glutamate (the main excitatory neurotransmitter). In a low magnesium state, GABA and glutamate are out of balance, which shows up as anxiety, panic, depression, fatigue, migraines, and more (5)(17)(18).
Because magnesium has a calming effect on the body, stressful situations can feel more intense when we don’t have enough. When we’re stressed, we deplete magnesium, and when we’re magnesium depleted, we get more stressed—a vicious cycle that makes these symptoms a whole lot worse.
Do you ever have days where your muscles just feel “blah”? If I’m doing a tough workout or playing tennis with friends and my muscles aren’t feeling energized like they’re supposed to, I know that’s a sign I’m running low on magnesium (or sometimes under-eating clean protein, more on that in a future newsletter).
Magnesium is involved in muscle contraction and relaxation, moving glucose into muscles, and getting rid of lactate (19). Long bouts of exercise deplete magnesium and other essential electrolytes, causing lactate build-up, dehydration, and muscle cramps (19)(20). Because it’s needed to produce ATP, magnesium gets used up during an intense workout. That, combined with lactate build-up and dehydration, can make your muscles feel fatigued.
What’s more, magnesium deficiency can also contribute to painful PMS symptoms like cramping in women who menstruate (21).
High Blood Pressure
In the cardiovascular system, magnesium is a key nutrient responsible for a healthy heartbeat and blood flow. Magnesium enhances nitric oxide production and vasodilation to regulate blood pressure (22). Too much calcium in the bloodstream without enough magnesium causes constriction of the blood vessels, raises blood pressure, and can contribute to plaque formation (23). That’s why magnesium deficiency is a serious risk factor for heart disease.
Constipation isn’t necessarily caused by magnesium deficiency, but it can definitely play a part in relieving it (more on this below).
Now that we know how magnesium deficiency can present, let’s talk about how to resolve it. If you’re in the wellness space (which you probably are if you’re reading this), you probably know that there are a million different forms of magnesium out there. Well, maybe not a million, but it sure feels like it!
Magnesium is magnesium, right? Like most things, it’s a little more nuanced than that.
The form you supplement with matters; whatever molecule magnesium is bound to (usually an amino acid) will enhance its absorption and function in the body. In addition to eating magnesium-rich foods, I want to introduce you to eight different forms of magnesium, kind of like your very own magnesium cheatsheet.
Hopefully, this will help you decide which one is right for you (I have some links to my go-to brands to check out, but you can always support your local health foods store to see if they carry them or any other high-quality brands). If you’re just looking to increase your magnesium levels, don’t worry, I got you covered there too!
I. Magnesium Cheatsheet. I know everyone knows this, but I have to say it anyway—even though magnesium supplementation is quite safe, it’s always best to consult with your practitioner before taking any supplements for the appropriate dosage.
Everybody is different, but a good place to start is around 200 mg once per day and slowly increase your dosage based on recommendations from the brands below. As you’ll see, some forms of magnesium have a laxative effect, so you’ll want to be extra careful and ease your way into those.
1. My Top Forms of Magnesium:
- Magnesium glycinate: a form of magnesium bound to the amino acid glycine that has a high bioavailability without a laxative effect. Taking a higher dose (500 mg or more) can help to raise your blood levels. Magnesium glycinate also has a calming effect that’s great for anxiety and sleep. For this reason, it’s best to take it at night.
- Try This: Pure Encapsulations Magnesium Glycinate
- Magnesium L-threonate: a form of magnesium bound to the amino acid threonine that helps treat anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Magnesium threonate crosses the blood-brain barrier and has been shown to improve cognition, memory, and enhance neuroplasticity (24). Stanford University is currently conducting a clinical trial on magnesium threonate as a treatment for Alzheimer’s and dementia. Speaking of Stanford, my friend Dr. Andrew Huberman, talks about this form of magnesium a lot for its brain-boosting and anti-anxiety effects, making it an excellent option for day or night.
- Magnesium citrate: a form of magnesium bound to citric acid that’s used for constipation relief (25). Taking high doses of magnesium citrate often isn’t great because it can cause depletion of other essential minerals. It’s best to take this form at home during the day, and near a bathroom.
- Try This: Thorne Magnesium CitraMate
2. Bonus Forms of Magnesium
These next forms of magnesium are important to cover, but I don’t supplement with them individually. I prefer to have them included in a broad-spectrum magnesium supplement. More on that below.
- Magnesium oxide: a form of magnesium bound to oxygen that’s used for heartburn, constipation, and indigestion. Magnesium oxide can also be beneficial for preventing migraines, especially those who experience “aura” or sensitivities to sound and light (26). The American Migraine Foundation recommends taking 400 to 500 mg of magnesium oxide daily for preventing migraines because it doesn’t stick around in your system for long (27). If you aren’t used to taking a high dose of magnesium, start low (150-200 mg) and work your way up to avoid any possible gastrointestinal side effects (28).Additionally, this form of magnesium oxide by Global Healing Center is used specifically to help people who are constipated. It’s often recommended as a better alternative to stronger laxatives that can be habit-forming.
- Magnesium malate: a form of magnesium that’s bound to malic acid that enhances energy production, supports athletic performance, reduces muscle fatigue, and promotes calmness without getting sleepy. This is a great form for athletes and other super active people to take during the day for energy production; it also helps with anxiety. I personally don’t supplement with magnesium malate on its own, but it’s good to know about.
- Magnesium taurate: a form of magnesium bound to taurine, an amino acid that’s helpful for energy production, muscle recovery, and stabilizing blood sugar. It’s also been shown to regulate blood pressure in animal studies (29).
- Magnesium orotate: a form of magnesium that’s bound to orotic acid that promotes heart health (30), calmness, cardiovascular fitness (31), and repairs tissue damage (32)(33). The evidence for magnesium orotate points toward it being useful in the prevention and treatment of heart disease.
- Magnesium sulfate and magnesium chloride: these forms are absorbed through the skin. Epsom salts are the primary form of magnesium sulfate. They are mainly used for soaking, soothing sore muscles, and to promote a state of calmness and relaxation. Magnesium chloride is also used for soaking and comes in a flake form, but it can be taken as a supplement as well. Be careful and start with a low dosage because this one can also have a laxative effect!
- Try This: Sky Organics Epsom Salt
- Try This: Ancient Minerals Magnesium Chloride Bath Flakes
II. Vitamin B6 For Magnesium Absorption. Now that you know a few of the different forms of magnesium and their functions, I have to mention one other critical part about magnesium, especially in the case of severe anxiety and stress. In addition to being used to modulate neurotransmitters that affect depression and anxiety, Vitamin B6 increases magnesium uptake by cells.
A clinical study out of France found that the combination of 300 mg of magnesium daily with 30 mg of vitamin B6 was more effective at improving symptoms of severe stress than supplementing with magnesium alone (34). Plus, the magnesium and vitamin B6 duo are also super supportive for women with PMS. Just make sure you’re getting pyridoxal 5′-phosphate, the active form of B6 that is already bioavailable to the body (35).
- Try This: Thorne Pyridoxal 5′-Phosphate
I. Magnesium Breakthrough by BiOptimizers (Partner). If you listen to my podcast, you’ve probably heard me talk about BiOptimizers Magnesium Breakthrough. A little backstory, I first heard about Magnesium Breakthrough from my brother-in-law and cardiologist, Dr. Neel Patel, who started taking it before bed to support deep rest. It worked wonders for him so I had to try it.
It quickly became one of my favorite magnesium supplements because it contains six of the different forms of magnesium I mentioned here. A one-stop shop that covers all your magnesium bases. It’s in the same price range as the supplements I have listed above, I just wanted to give it its own love in Splurge, because I know you’ll be getting so much bang for your buck.
- Try This: BiOptimizers is offering the Try This community 10% off, just head over to magbreakthrough.com/dhru and use the code TRYTHIS.
Because magnesium is involved in so many biological processes in the body, we need to make sure we’re getting enough of it. Diet is a great way to get your magnesium levels up. However, it can be a challenge for a lot of people to meet the RDA from food alone. If we aren’t eating enough magnesium-rich foods and are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, it might be a good idea to consider taking a magnesium supplement to bring up your levels.
Again, the form of magnesium supplement that you take matters, so hopefully this can be a helpful reference to make sure you choose a supplement that’s going to have the effect you want.
Here’s to your health,