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The importance of magnesium to the body

6 min read

Every organ in the body, especially the heart, muscles, and kidneys, needs the mineral magnesium. It plays a role in maintaining normal muscle and nerve function, keeps heart rhythm steady, supports a healthy immune system, and keeps bones strong. It is also important for blood sugar management and healthy blood pressure.

Magnesium is found in 300 different enzymes in your body

These are responsible for:

  • Creation of ATP (adenosine triphospate), the energy molecules of your body
  • Proper formation of bones and teeth
  • Relaxation of blood vessels
  • Action of your heart muscle
  • Promotion of proper bowel function
  • Regulation of blood sugar levels

Food sources 

Magnesium is found in wide variety of foods. Green leafy vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard are excellent sources of magnesium, as are some beans, nuts and seeds, like almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds. In general, foods containing dietary fiber provide magnesium. Here is a list of some foods with the highest amounts of magnesium per 100g:

  • Dried Seaweed (770 mg)
  • Dried Basil (422 mg)
  • Dried Coriander (694 mg)
  • Flaxseed (392 mg)
  • Dried pumpkin seeds (535 mg)
  • Almond butter (303 mg)
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder (499 mg)

People at risk of magnesium deficiency

In order to ensure you're getting enough magnesium, you need to be eating a varied, whole-food diet. It is rare to be truly deficient however since the turn of the 20th century there has been a steady and progressive decline of dietary magnesium intake - to the extent that much of the Western World population is ingesting less than an optimum RDA. As well as insufficient dietary intake there are also certain medical conditions that can lead to magnesium inadequacy in the body. The following groups of people are more at risk:

  • People with gastrointestinal diseases
  • People with type 2 diabetes
  • People with alcohol dependency
  • Older adults

Early signs of magnesium deficiency include loss of appetite, headache, nausea, fatigue, and weakness. An ongoing magnesium deficiency can lead to more serious symptoms, including numbness and tingling, muscle contractions and cramps, seizures, personality changes, abnormal heart rhythms, coronary spasms.

Most people can maintain healthy levels of magnesium by simply consuming plenty of foods rich in the mineral, however if you find it difficult to consume enough magnesium through dietary sources alone, a supplementation can make up the shortfall.

Magnesium supplement is available in many forms

Magnesium is not easily absorbed in the body unless first attached to a transporting substance, for this reason there is no such thing as a 100% magnesium compound supplement. Therefore many supplement manufacturers have bound magnesium to organic and amino acids. The quality depends on the amount of magnesium in the supplement and how bioavailable it is. Bioavailability refers to the amount of magnesium in the supplement that can be absorbed by the digestive system and used for cellular activity and health benefit.

Magnesium supplements are available in a variety of forms, including:

  • Magnesium glycinate - a chelated form of magnesium that tends to provide effective levels of absorption and bioavailability.
  • Magnesium oxide - a non-chelated form of magnesium bound to an organic acid or fatty acid. Contains up to 60% elemental* magnesium and has stool-softening properties.
  • Magnesium chloride/Magnesium lactate - contains only about 12% elemental magnesium but tends to have better absorption capabilities than magnesium oxide which has 5 times the magnesium.
  • Magnesium sulfate/Magnesium hydroxide - these are typically used as laxatives. Milk of Magnesia is an example of this type of magnesium. Since magnesium hydroxide can have up to 42% elemental magnesium.
  • Magnesium carbonate - a form of magnesium that has antacid properties and can contain from 29-45% elemental magnesium.
  • Magnesium taurate - contains a combination of magnesium and taurine (an amino acid) that together may provide a calming effect on the body and mind.
  • Magnesium citrate - a form of magnesium with citric acid which has laxative properties. This can contain up to 16% elemental magnesium.
  • Magnesium threonate - this is a newer type of magnesium supplement has shown promise in absorption, as well as potential tissue and cell membrane penetration.

* Elemental magnesium refers to the actual amount of magnesium in each supplement form

Note: It is a good idea to take a B vitamin complex, or a multivitamin containing B vitamins, because the level of vitamin B6 in the body determines how much magnesium will be absorbed into the cells.

For maximum absorption, it may be beneficial to take it with bromelain - bromelain has been shown to act as  a strong binder and therefore may increase the absorption of supplements and medicines.

Magnesium and your health

Magnesium is known as an old home remedy for "all that ails you" including anxiety, apathy, depression, headaches, insecurity, irritability, restlessness, talkativeness, and sulkiness. Here is an overview of it's most well known health benefits:


Magnesium helps signal muscles to contract and relax. And when the muscles that line the major blood vessels contract, your blood pressure rises.

When researchers studied the diets of 40,000 nurses and 30,000 male health professionals, they found lower blood pressures in people who ate more magnesium.

Cardiovascular disease

Increased circulating levels of magnesium may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease - a study combining data across 16 studies (totalling 313,041 people) published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that every 0.2mmol/L increase in circulating magnesium was associated with a 30% lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Increasing dietary magnesium intakes were linked to a 22% lower risk of Ischaemic Heart Disease.

Magnesium also helps maintain a normal heart rhythm and is sometimes given to reduce the chance of atrial fibrillation and cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) - a condition those with congestive heart failure are susceptible to. One well designed study found that taking magnesium orotate for a year reduced symptoms and improved survival rates compared to placebo in people with congestive heart failure. 

Type 2 diabetes

Diets with higher amounts of magnesium are associated with a significantly lower risk of diabetes, possibly because of the important role of magnesium in glucose metabolism.

A review of seven studies looking at the link between magnesium intake from food or food plus supplements and the risk of type-2 diabetes. These seven studies gave the researchers a total of 286,668 participants and 10,912 cases of type-2 diabetes to look at. Six of the studies showed a statistically significant result, with every 100 mg per day increase in magnesium intake there was a 15 per cent decrease in type-2 diabetes risk.


Magnesium is involved in bone formation, it also affects the concentrations of both parathyroid hormone and the active form of vitamin D, which are major regulators of bone health. Several population-based studies have found positive associations between magnesium intake and bone mineral density in both men and women. Other research has found that women with osteoporosis have lower serum magnesium levels than women with osteopenia and those who do not have osteoporosis or osteopenia. Osteopenia refers to bone density that is lower than normal peak density but not low enough to be classified as osteoporosis. These and other findings indicate that magnesium deficiency might be a risk factor for osteoporosis.

Other studies, although limited in number, suggest that increasing magnesium intake from food or supplements might increase bone mineral density in postmenopausal and elderly women. For example, one short-term study found that 290 mg/day elemental magnesium (as magnesium citrate) for 30 days in 20 postmenopausal women with osteoporosis suppressed bone turnover compared with placebo, suggesting that bone loss decreased. Diets that provide recommended levels of magnesium enhance bone health, but further research is needed to explain the role of magnesium in the prevention and management of osteoporosis. 

Migraine headaches

The importance of magnesium in the development of migraine headaches has been established by a large number of clinical and experimental studies, albeit the precise role of various effects of low magnesium levels remains unclear. Magnesium concentration has an effect on serotonin receptors, nitric oxide synthesis and release, NMDA receptors, and a variety of other migraine related receptors and neurotransmitters.

People with migraines often have lower levels of magnesium than people who do not have migraines, and several studies suggest that magnesium may reduce the frequency of migraine attacks in people with low levels of magnesium. In one study, people who took magnesium saw the frequency of attacks reduce by 41.6%, compared to 15.8% in those who took a placebo. Some studies also suggest that magnesium may be helpful for women whose migraines are triggered by their menstrual periods.


Inadequate magnesium appears to reduce serotonin levels, and antidepressants have been shown to raise brain magnesium. A 2008 study found that magnesium was as effective as the tricyclic antidepressants in treating depression among people with diabetes.

Please note: The UK RDA of magnesium is 300 mg for men, and 270 mg for women. Please be aware that Magnesium can interfere with certain pharmaceuticals so ensure that you consult your doctor before taking the decision to supplement your diet. 

Related Supplements

A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.