The master mineral

Magnesium is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in diets due to poor soils, processed foods, alcohol intake and stressful lifestyles, but simple changes can turn that around.

Magnesium, the seventh most abundant mineral in the earth’s crust, was first recognised as an element by Joseph Black in 1755, and isolated by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1808. The human body contains around 25g of magnesium, with 90 per cent being contained in the muscles and bones.

It is widely thought to be the most important mineral in the body, acting as an essential co-factor for many hundreds of enzyme reactions and physiological processes, including the generation of energy in our cells, the metabolism of protein, carbohydrates and fats, detoxification, blood sugar control, the strength of our bones, and the efficient functioning of our nervous, cognitive and cardiovascular systems.

Despite our need for magnesium, a significant portion of the population is magnesium deficient; in fact magnesium deficiency is considered to be the most common nutrient deficiency in the western world today.

Why have we become deficient in magnesium?

There are many factors that reduce our magnesium intake or deplete our reserves, such as reduced soil levels, the popularity of magnesium-devoid processed foods, alcohol intake, gut dysfunction, prescription medications and stressful lifestyles.

Intensive ploughing or artificial chemicals reduce the amount of minerals in soil. Image Seb Westcott. 

When considering the problem of magnesium deficiency, it’s best to start with how our food is grown, or more specifically, the depletion of previously mineral-rich soil by modern farming methods, such as intensive ploughing, the repetitive overuse of soil without rotating crops or allowing for recovery between harvests, as well the use of chemical sprays that disrupt the natural balance of the soil including the microorganisms that should reside there.

While research is limited, organic food has been found to contain higher levels of magnesium, with organic and locally grown food faring better still, so it’s worth seeking out a local vegetable box scheme or farmer’s market when sourcing fresh food.

Our ever-increasing reliance on convenience and processed foods can reduce our intake of magnesium too, because these packaged goods are generally devoid of the nutrients present in real, fresh food, making it all too easy to fall short. Consumption of sugar, tea, coffee and soft drinks may further add to the problem by reducing our body stores of magnesium.

Research has found that alcohol intake, mental and physical stress promotes the elimination of magnesium from the body through the urine. In fact, a two-way relationship exists between magnesium and stress, with depleted magnesium levels making it harder for our systems to cope with stress, because it is needed to cope physiologically with increased heart rate, muscle function and blood sugar level.

There are many symptoms linked to magnesium deficiency, many of which are common complaints experienced by many people of all ages, including constipation, asthma, muscle cramps and pain, join stiffness and restless legs, among others

What are the benefits of getting more magnesium?

Bone density and risk of osteoporosis have repeatedly been linked to magnesium intake. In fact, magnesium is every bit as important for bone health as calcium, with research finding that lower magnesium intake is associated with lower bone mineral density of the hip and whole body and an increased risk of fractures.

Leafy greens like kale and spinach have high levels of magnesium. 

High blood pressure has been shown to be favourably altered by increasing magnesium intake, because magnesium helps to prevent blood vessels from constricting, improving blood flow.

Magnesium levels have been shown to decline in the two weeks prior to menstruation, so its unsurprising that numerous studies have found magnesium to be beneficial for PMS, with a study in 2010 demonstrating that magnesium supplementation led to a marked reduction in perceived PMS symptoms. Magnesium may be effective at reducing PMS thanks to its ability to relax smooth muscle, normalise cortisol (stress) levels, as well as its role in the healthy functioning of the nervous system and the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter we associate with happiness.

How do you increase your magnesium levels?

Looking at lifestyle factors first, it’s crucial to reduce and actively manage stress levels and reduce alcohol intake if necessary, to prevent the excretion of magnesium and reduction of body stores. In terms of magnesium intake, when addressing any nutritional shortfall it’s important to look at food first. Generally, nutrients are better absorbed and tolerated when taken in their most natural food form.

The following foods provide a good source of magnesium:

  • Leafy greens like kale, chard and spinach
  • Nuts and seeds, especially hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, peanut butter, almonds and cashew nuts
  • Figs
  • Beans and pulses
  • Avocados
  • Oats, buckwheat and brown rice
  • Bananas
  • Cocoa powder/dark chocolate
  • Blackstrap molasses
  • Yoghurt and kefir

Depending on your diet, your health concerns and goals, you may consider taking a supplement to boost your levels of magnesium, but check with your GP or a qualified nutritional therapist first if you have any health concerns.

It’s clear to see that maintaining optimal magnesium levels through considered diet and lifestyle choices, and supplements where necessary, is likely to benefit overall health and may favourably impact both an everyday sense of wellbeing as well as more specific health conditions.

Emma Rushe (BSc Nutr Med, EEM-CP) is an experienced natural health practitioner, writer and recipe creator with a love of good food and a passion for helping people achieve vibrant health. Emma also co-founded the independent health magazine, Walnut, which she publishes with her husband. Click here to sign up to the Walnut mailing list and receive a free smoothie e-book. 


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