In a study published in the Journal of Inflammation Research, USDA Research Nutritionist Forrest H. Nielsen stated, “Because magnesium deficiency commonly occurs…magnesium should be considered an element of significant nutritional concern for health and well-being.” 1 Meanwhile, in a review paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrition Reviews, scientists from the Center for Magnesium Education & Research in Hawaii declared magnesium an “orphan nutrient” that has been neglected for far too long. 2
So, are you dangerously low on this essential mineral? How do you know? In this article, we’ll reveal 19 signs of magnesium deficiency, and you’ll discover why magnesium is mission-critical for seemingly every aspect of overall health and well-being.
Why Magnesium is So Important
Magnesium is the fourth most-abundant mineral in the body. Roughly 50 – 60% of magnesium is located in your bones where it is essential for skeletal health and development. 3 The other half or so of your body’s magnesium can be found in your muscles and other soft tissues.
Magnesium is an essential nutrient—meaning it’s required for normal body functioning yet cannot be synthesized by the body—and it’s vital for optimal metabolic function. In other words, you need it yet can’t make it on your own. That means you have to get it from food and/or supplements.
Magnesium is intricately involved in more than 300 metabolic reactions in the body. And these metabolic processes include protein synthesis, cellular energy production and storage, cell growth and reproduction, DNA and RNA synthesis, and stabilization of mitochondrial membranes. Magnesium is an essential player in: 4
- Bone metabolism
- Nerve transmission
- Heart function
- Neuromuscular conduction
- Muscular transmission
- Vasomotor tone
- Blood pressure
- Blood glucose metabolism
That’s a lot of scientific mumbo jumbo, but as Dr. Stella Volpe, professor, nutritionist, exercise physiologist, and Chair of the Department of Nutrition Sciences at Drexel University put it, “Because of magnesium’s many functions within the body, it plays a major role in disease prevention and overall health.” 5 And what it means to you is that magnesium is mission-critical to feeling energetic, achieving peak mental and physical performance, and looking young and vibrant.
There’s a Good Change You Are Magnesium Deficient
But sadly, most people—I’m talking at least 75% of folks—don’t get enough magnesium in their diets. (For women, that’s 320 mg per day, and for men, that’s 420 mg per day.) Considering these statistics are based on self-reported food diaries (i.e., dietary recall), which are notoriously inaccurate, you could easily make the argument that they underestimate how common suboptimal intake of magnesium really is.
The reality is that the deck is pretty much stacked against you. Simply put, it’s hard work getting an optimal amount of magnesium. After all, when you consider that all the following contribute to suboptimal levels of magnesium, it’s easy to see why you (and virtually everyone else) should be very concerned about signs of magnesium deficiency:
- Poor nutrition
- Low-carb diets
- Mineral-depleted soil
- Excess calcium intake
- Digestive-related issues
- Poor glycemic control
- Alcohol consumption
- Caffeine intake
- Getting older
- Certain medications
Think you’ve got all your bases covered because you’re pretty healthy overall, exercise regularly, and eat better than most? Think again.
While it’s no surprise to see unhealthy lifestyle factors top the list, you might be surprised to learn that healthy habits and popular diets can also contribute to magnesium deficiency/depletion. For example, strenuous exercise increases magnesium requirements by 10 – 20% or more due to urinary and sweat losses of magnesium. 6
If you consume a higher-protein diet or you’re watching your carbs—maybe you’ve even adopted a ketogenic lifestyle—one of the byproducts is an increase in excretion of electrolytes like magnesium, leading to magnesium depletion and increasing the need to consume more magnesium. 7
Low Magnesium Status is Only Part of the Problem
The other (overlooked) piece of the puzzle, which can also contribute to signs of magnesium deficiency, is balancing intake of magnesium with calcium. You see, two mission-critical functions of magnesium at the cellular level include the maintenance of ionic gradients/pumps and calcium-channel function.
No need to dust off your human biology book. What’s important here is that magnesium and calcium antagonize each other several ways in the body. For example, in simple terms, calcium excites nerves while magnesium calms them down; calcium makes muscles contract while magnesium helps them relax. Simply put, a healthy magnesium status is essential to balance the body’s systems and for keeping them humming along properly.
Unfortunately, studies conducted over the last several decades have revealed that most people consume far more calcium than magnesium, with the dietary calcium:magnesium ratio escalating to > 3:1. While many have argued that the ideal ratio is 2:1, more recent discoveries suggest that a calcium-magnesium balance of 1:1 (or even 1:2) is optimal.
Scary Signs of Magnesium Deficiency
To more deeply appreciate just how important magnesium is, let’s look at it through a different lens and consider some of the common signs of magnesium deficiency: 4
- Feeling stressed out
- Feeling anxious or worried
- Poor-quality or interrupted sleep
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Feeling tired (but often wired)
- Muscle cramps
- Depressed feelings of well-being
- Poor appetite management
- Feeling queasy
- Lacking energy
- Tingling in the extremities
- Poor glycemic control
- Elevated blood pressure
Also of concern is what happens when you’re not consuming enough magnesium. You see, your body needs magnesium, and it is going to get it somewhere. So, if you’re not getting it from food and/or supplements, your body starts leaching it from bones, muscles, and other soft tissues, which are its main reserves. Along those lines, add the following to the list of signs of magnesium deficiency: 8
- Decreased bone mineral density
- Reduced muscle mass and strength
- Increased risk of falls and fractures
- Reduced independence and quality of life
And speaking of losing muscle and having trouble burning fat, here’s one more head-turning sign of magnesium deficiency: 9
- Low testosterone
Expanding the umbrella of scary signs of magnesium deficiency, epidemiological studies have linked inadequate magnesium intake to increased risk for type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s dementia, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, and death from all causes. 10,11
How Can You Avoid Signs of Magnesium Deficiency?
As mentioned, the recommended daily intake of magnesium for women is 320 mg per day, and for men, it’s 420 mg per day. There is quite a bit of debate, however, as to whether or not these amounts are ideal, as optimal levels of magnesium may be influenced by a variety of factors. Be that as it may, these targets are good starting points.
Generally speaking, the best sources of magnesium are unrefined (whole) grains, dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, legumes, and tubers. Here’s a glimpse of selected foods sources and their respective magnesium content (USDA Food Composition Database):
- Pumpkin seeds, roasted, ¼ cup (160 mg)
- Swiss chard, cooked, 1 cup (150 mg)
- Brazil nuts, ¼ cup (125 mg)
- Amaranth, uncooked, ¼ cup (120 mg)
- Sesame seeds, kernels, ¼ cup (110 mg)
- Beet greens, cooked, 1 cup (100 mg)
- Almonds, dry roasted, 1 oz (95 mg)
- Teff, uncooked, ¼ cup (90 mg)
- Quinoa, uncooked, ¼ cup (85 mg)
- Sorghum, uncooked, ¼ cup (80 mg)
- Cashews, dry roasted, 1 oz (75 mg)
- Spinach, frozen or cooked, ½ cup (75 mg)
- Great northern beans, canned, ½ cup (65 mg)
- Mixed nuts, dry roasted, 1 oz (65 mg)
- Lima beans, cooked, ½ cup (65 mg)
- Bulgur, uncooked, ¼ cup (55 mg)
- Potato, roasted, 1 medium (50 mg)
- Peanuts, dry roasted, 1 oz (50 mg)
- Peanut butter, smooth, 2 Tbsp (50 mg)
- Pinto beans, ½ cup (45 mg)
- Yogurt, plain, 1 cup (45 mg)
- Rice, brown, cooked, ½ cup (40 mg)
- Collard greens, cooked, 1 cup (40 mg)
- Lentils, ½ cup (35 mg)
- Kidney beans, ½ cup (35 mg)
- Banana, raw, 1 medium (30 mg)
- Kale, cooked, 1 cup (30 mg)
- Avocado, cubed, ½ cup (20 mg)
And even if you do eat plenty of whole plant-based foods, they’re likely not as rich in magnesium as you might think due to the fact that they were most likely grown in mineral-depleted soil. Thanks to mineral-depleted soil, even the best sources of magnesium aren’t as robust as they once were.
That’s right, humans aren’t the only species showing scary signs of magnesium deficiency. Indeed, in a peer-reviewed paper published in The Crop Journal, life science researchers proclaimed that magnesium deficiency in plants is an “urgent” and “severe” health problem. 12
And not surprisingly, processed and refined foods are poor sources of magnesium, reducing its content by up to 85%. 13 This is important to note because the overwhelming proportion of most people’s consumption of grains are delivered in the form of highly processed foods made with heavily refined grains.
Adding to the complexity of things, many of the very foods rich in magnesium (like whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds) also contain “anti-nutrients” (such as phytic acid), which sequester minerals like magnesium. 14 Because it can bind to and prevent the absorption of minerals like magnesium, phytic acid is often referred to as the “mineral reducer.”
Scary Signs of Magnesium Deficiency: A Recap
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, studies report that upwards of 75% of folks don’t get enough magnesium in their diets. And when you consider other factors that further deplete magnesium or increase magnesium needs (such as exercise and excess calcium intake), it’s likely that an even larger chunk of people are suffering from a suboptimal magnesium status.
Although the list of food sources above is exhaustive, the numbers don’t lie: It’s clear that, for the majority of people, it’s a tremendous challenge to get enough magnesium through whole foods, it becomes crystal clear that a high-quality magnesium powder is a linchpin to supporting health and wellness.
Simply put, magnesium has been overlooked and underestimated, and it is a significant nutritional concern for overall health and well-being. Too many people are falling far short, and they’re paying the price—the signs of magnesium deficiency have many faces. Which of them seem to be rearing their ugly heads at you?