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Magnesium and your health

If you are intent on remembering one single mineral, make it be magnesium (Mg). There are at least two good reasons for it. One is that this macro-mineral is needed by over 300 enzymes in your body - more than any other single mineral - and correspondingly important for proper functioning of the body, and your health.

The other reason is that most Americans - possibly as many as
80-90% - are deficient in this crucial mineral. In part due to soil depletion and losses in food processing, and in part due to a number of factors that can hamper magnesium absorption, or its use by the body (sodium, iron, copper, phytic acid from whole grains, oxalic acid in some vegetables, high stomach acid, alcohol - to name a few). Magnesium is also lost with the excretion of  body fluids (sweating, diarrhea or use of diuretics).

Since it is a co-factor in so many body processes, magnesium deficiency can result in almost any symptom imaginable. One of its functions is to enable muscles to relax (contrary to that of calcium, which stimulates contraction), thus among the acute symptoms of deficiency are muscle spasms and cramps, as well as persistent neck or back pain. But many more chronic adverse health effects are possible, from cardiovascular (arrhythmia, atherosclerosis, hypertension), kidney stones and osteoporosis, to depression and asthma.

You can have magnesium deficiency even with adequate intake/assimilation, if you are deficient in manganese, which is necessary for magnesium utilization (thus, if you have resistant magnesium deficiency, low manganese is one of the top suspects).

While magnesium deficiency is much more likely than excess, the latter is certainly possible, and equally undesirable. It can result from excessive longer-term magnesium supplementation, or use of magnesium-containing antacids. The symptoms are often similar to that of the deficiency (cardiovascular disease, muscle pain/cramps, joint pain, osteoporosis, depression), but this time possibly accompanied by low blood pressure (hypotension), and low stomach acid.

Magnesium DRI (Dietary Reference Intakes, the most recent set of dietary recommendations set by the government) for an average healthy adult is 420mg a day. Common blood test (plasma, or serum magnesium) is nearly meaningless as an indicator of your magnesium level; the RBC (red blood cell) and 24-hour urine tests are better, but still insufficiently reliable.

For determining whether you are, or not, magnesium deficient (also applies to calcium, and most other minerals), the most reliable is magnesium loading test, which measures the rate of magnesium retention/excretion before and after administering supplemental forms, usually intravenously. If urine test shows that retention of supplemental Mg is significantly over normal (which is generally less than 40%), it is very likely that your body is deficient and absorbing it at a higher rate (50% or more), regardless of what blood tests show. Observing how supplemented magnesium affects overall feeling of wellbeing, or existing symptoms, is a routine part of the procedure.

Deviations from normal patterns of Mg absorption, or other abnormalities, may compromise the result of magnesium loading test as well, but such cases are infrequent.

Best natural magnesium food sources are whole grains, nuts, seeds and leafy vegetables.