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Magnesium - why is it important?

Posted by on May 2, 2015 at 8:45 AM

Please note, this article is for information purposes only, you should not take a single element supplement without consulting a nutritional therapist or other health professional.

Magnesium is a mineral, which should be found in many foods such as green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, and fish. (1)  However due to the way our food is grown and produced, daily intake of magnesium is much lower than required for optimal function. Why is that a problem? Magnesium is involved in (depending on the source you're taking it from) 300 to over 350 enzymatic reactions in the body. Most people are aware that magnesium is involved in healthy bones and healthy heart function, but there are many more biochemical processes it is necessary for, for example: it is vital in the production of energy, healthy neurotransmitter function, bowel function and blood sugar regulation. Thus, if we are not taking in sufficient magnesium to sustain all these reactions, a deficiency will result in sub-optimal function, imbalance in bodily functions, and also imbalance in nutrients such as calcium: magnesium balance (which is very important for bone and heart health).


Because magnesium is involved in so many processes, there are many different symptoms of deficiency, but the most common ones include (2, 4 and 6): 

- muscle cramps and spasms

- worsened PMS symptoms, such as craving chocolate and cramping

- fatigue and difficulty sleeping

- low mood, anxiety and depression

- headaches and migraine

- digestive problems such as constipation

It is thought up to 80% of adults are deficient in magnesium, however not everybody experiences an obvious symptom such as those outlined above. Measuring magnesium is not the easiest, as there seems to be no 'gold standard', even serum magnesium analysis has been criticised as not being accurate enough. 

Magnesium and migraine

In my case, I use magnesium in supplement form and have found it really helps with my migraines. I recently wrote a literature review on magnesium in the prevention of migraine, and found promising studies (and yes, double blind, randomized, placebo controlled ones!) that suggest magnesium may be a good prophylactic for migraines, in particular in children and women (as magnesium is safe during pregnancy). Magnesium is also thought to alleviate some PMS symptoms, so a double whammy for women who may suffer from premenstrual migraines. 

A small amount of studies found no benefit, however the type of magnesium used in these studies has been shown not to be well absorbed, so this may be a reason for the results. Magnesium citrate and magnesium sulfate were the two main types of magnesium investigated, citrate for prophylaxis and sulfate interestingly for acute treatment (via IV - not as a daily supplement). Pringsheim et al. (9) concluded with a strong recommendation (even though evidence was low quality) to try magnesium in the prophylaxis of migraines.

Magnesium and chronic fatigue

Another area where a magnesium deficiency is thought to be involved is chronic fatigue. Dr Sara Myhill states that many chronic fatigue (ME) patients also present with magnesium deficiency (7). A 2014 review of chronic fatigue found one study that confirmed her finding, but three others that suggested no link between low magnesium and chronic fatigue (however only the first of these was a double blind, randomized, placebo controlled study)(8)

Supplemental magnesium (3, 4 and 6):

As mentioned above, some forms of magnesium are not readily absorbed by the body, the different types that would be recommended all have some different uses also. For example, magnesium citrate has a beneficial function on the bowel, so is suitable for people suffering from constipation. Magnesium taurate has been suggested to be especially beneficial where cardiovascular function is involved. Whilst reading up on magnesium, glycinate was mentioned numerous time, with the claim it is the least likely to cause diarrhoea, so may be most suitable in correcting a long term deficiency. 

Supplemental levels should be between 300 and 400mg daily, usually its laxative side effect (diarrhoea) are more common at dosages of 600mg/ day, however everybody is different and may react in a different way. 

Magnesium can also be added by applying it in oil form, or having regular epsom salt baths, both of which have been shown to be beneficial, with less reported cases of diarrhoea. Applying the oil to the soles of the feet has been recommended.

Dr Hyman warns against taking magnesium without consulting a doctor should kidney or heart function be impaired (5). 


1. (however I disagree with advice to eat low fat yogurt!)


3. (I'm not sure about the inclusion of magnesium carbonate in the 'good' list, and as you can read above, magnesium sulfate is being used in the treatment of acute migraine)

4. (this also contains a list of supplemental forms of magnesium, including magnesium threonate, a 'newer' form available)






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