By Philip Weeks.
Most of the patients I see in my clinic are short of multiple nutrients.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of any nutrient is the amount the average person requires to avoid overt symptoms of deficiency. However, those of us who work in the field of nutrition know that for many, this bare minimum intake is well below what is needed for optimum health.
In this article I am going to explore the most common mineral deficiency I find in my patients: magnesium.
Intensive farming methods and the consumption of refined foods have resulted in widespread deficiency of this essential nutrient. In fact, studies have shown that intake more often than not falls below even the woefully inadequate RDA. For example, a study conducted on patients in intensive care units found that two-thirds of those tested were deficient in magnesium.
Magnesium deficiency is so common it affects people on all kinds of diets but naturally, those eating diets high in refined foods are most at risk.
Magnesium is essential for hormone production, bone health, the transmission of nerve impulses, healthy cell replication and repair, and the production of ATP (the energy currency of the cell). It also relaxes muscles, activates B vitamins, and is involved in at least 300 enzyme processes.
Magnesium plays an essential role in cellular detoxification. It is needed for flushing heavy metals and other toxins from our cells and when we’re on any detox regime we require even more of this mineral than usual.
Magnesium also plays a crucial role in:
- dilating the bronchioles (useful in childhood asthma)
- preventing hardening of the arteries
- maintaining healthy cholesterol levels
- regulating the rhythm of the heart
- producing serotonin, a neurotransmitter that gives us a sense of well being
So it’s no surprise that symptoms of magnesium deficiency include:
- calcification of tissues
- cold extremities
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- high blood pressure
- kidney stones
- muscle cramps, tics, twitches, tremors
Any time any of the above symptoms are present, magnesium deficiency may be a factor so levels should be checked.
As just one example from my clinic, Adam, 52, came to see me because he was suffering from cluster headaches. They were so severe that when he had an attack he would need to spend at least 5 days in bed.
Cluster headaches are known for being one of the most painful disorders imaginable. Adam began to suffer when he was about 13 and would have an episode every 2 to 3 months. Over the years he tried many different diets and treatments – some helped a little bit, but nothing gave him a permanent solution.
After testing his magnesium levels I discovered that although his serum levels were normal his intracellular levels were very low. He embarked on supplementation of magnesium in various forms. Remarkably, after six months he stopped having the headaches, and in the 18 months since then he hasn’t had another.
Magnesium deficiency is associated with arthritis, chronic fatigue, depression and many other disorders. For example, research has shown that people with chronic fatigue have low levels of red blood cell magnesium. In one study when levels were appropriately restored, many of those with fatigue felt an increase in energy as well as being more able to deal with their emotions.
And a study in China showed that high levels of magnesium supplementation improve cognitive brain function and improves the brain’s ability to adapt and cope with stress.
The dynamic duo
We hear so much about the importance of getting enough calcium and it is frequently a leading concern when people change their diet, especially if they are avoiding dairy. However, the question is never, “Where will I get my magnesium?”
Yet the body must maintain a finely tuned balance between its calcium and magnesium levels, the idea ratio being 2:1. Cow’s milk has a ratio of 12:1. Consider also that magnesium competes with calcium for absorption and it’s no surprise that regular consumption of dairy products can result in magnesium deficiency.
Calcium supplements aren’t the answer to bone health either, since our bones require other minerals, including magnesium, and taking excess calcium can upset the mineral balance of the body.
Magnesium allows calcium to be absorbed into the bones rather than it building up in the soft tissues of the body. Common results of getting too much calcium and not enough magnesium include kidney stones, calcium spurs, hardening of the arteries – and weak bones.
One study revealed that older women who took calcium supplements were at greater risk of heart attacks. Again, this is because we need the correct amount of magnesium in order for the heart to function properly and excess calcium blocks the absorption of magnesium.
For the body to function and for the heart to keep beating, magnesium levels in the blood need to be finely balanced and within a very narrow range. This is so important that the body will pull magnesium from within the cells and bones to keep the levels in the blood at a constant.
Magnesium researcher Paul Mason stated that: “Magnesium deficiency appears to have caused 8 million sudden coronary deaths in America during the period 1940-1994.” He is campaigning for all bottled drinks to be supplemented with magnesium.
Reasons for magnesium deficiency
Low dietary magnesium – intake is simply not adequate, either due to not eating enough of the right foods, or to eating foods grown in mineral-depleted soils.
Insufficient stomach acid – many people, especially those with chronic disease or those deficient in zinc, do not have adequate stomach acid. This can result in poor protein metabolism as well as mineral deficiencies. Stomach acid concentration can decrease as we get older decreasing the absorption of minerals.
Sweating and exercise – athletes and those doing intense exercise have a greater need for magnesium. Many believe it is magnesium deficiency that causes ‘sudden death syndrome’.
Stress – at times of acute stress the need for magnesium is greater.
Diuretics – leach magnesium from the body. This includes not only certain medications but also tea and coffee.
Diabetes and alcoholism – both diabetics and alcoholics have a greater need for magnesium.
Testing your magnesium levels
The red cell magnesium test is the most useful for analysing chronic deficiency as it measures the level of magnesium in the cells, which is indicative of your reserves.
Frequently, red cell levels come back from the laboratory as being deficient, even though the serum levels are within the normal range.
What are the best sources of magnesium?
Think green – the greener the better. Ideal sources include kale, spinach, seaweeds, wheatgrass juice and ‘superfoods’ like spirulina and chlorella.
Nuts and seeds – especially almonds, cashews, pumpkin and sesame seeds are all good sources.
The best way to supplement magnesium
An easy and very effective way to replenish your levels of magnesium is by soaking in an Epsom salt (magnesium sulphate) bath. In this way magnesium can be absorbed into the body through the skin.
Although Epsom salt baths have been used medicinally for hundreds of years, only recently has a full study of their properties been conducted. Researchers at Birmingham University measured the increase of magnesium in blood plasma after soaking in a bath of Epsom salts.
They found that it is best absorbed when the solution is approximately 1% Epsom salts to water. This equates to 500-600 grams of salt for the average domestic bath, a concentration that feels slightly soapy. There were no perceived side effects in the study and two of the volunteers taking part reported that their rheumatic pains disappeared.
The researchers concluded that, “bathing in Epsom salts is a safe and easy way to increase magnesium levels in the body”.
Epsom salt baths and magnesium-rich foods are the best ways to replenish your magnesium stores but if you test deficient your practitioner might recommend oral supplementation, the most common form being magnesium citrate.
In the European Union, the RDA is 375mg a day. However, some who test deficient will need more. A blood test interpreted by a qualified practitioner is the most reliable way to determine your own unique needs. Magnesium supplementation is not recommended for those with kidney disease, but is otherwise safe. But take too much of it and one tell-tale sign you might experience is diarrhoea.
Tips to improve magnesium levels
- Have an Epsom salt bath once a week
- Eat chlorophyll-rich food in the form of leafy green vegetables, seaweeds, wheatgrass, spirulina and chlorella.
- If you are taking a calcium supplement make sure you also take magnesium.
- Add black pepper to your meals – studies have shown that it can massively increase the absorption of nutrients in the foods it’s eaten with.
- Healthy cell membranes keep magnesium within the cells, so make sure you are getting enough good fats and antioxidants.
Philip Weeks is an expert on natural medicine and is a master herbalist and acupuncturist. He has a clinic in his home town of Herefordshire and Harley Street, London. For further information visit www.philipweeks.co.uk.