Magnesium plays a fundamental role in a myriad of processes in the body, yet as many as 35% of us are deficient. What should you know?

Magnesium is important for the functioning of every organ in the body, especially the muscles, kidneys and heart. The human body contains about 20g to 28g of magnesium, of which approximately 60% is found in bone, 26% in muscle and the remainder in soft tissues and body fluids.

As the second most abundant element inside human cells, magnesium plays a vital role in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body. It helps to maintain normal nerve and muscle function, controls blood glucose levels and stabilises blood pressure. Magnesium is also involved in the formation of protein and fatty acids, and helps to regulate other essential nutrients in the body such as calcium, vitamin D, potassium and zinc.

Without sufficient amounts of magnesium in the diet, the immune system doesn’t get the support it needs. Low intakes of dietary magnesium have also been associated with chronic diseases such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and diabetes.

Considering how crucial this mineral is for life, how sure are you that you’re getting enough of it? Registered dieticians Ashleigh Smith and Jae Braun tell us more about this often-overlooked mineral deficiency.

What causes magnesium deficiency?
Magnesium deficiency is the result of an inadequate dietary intake or impaired absorption of magnesium – often as a result of a medical condition.

The following have all been known to deplete levels of magnesium:

• Gastrointestinal disorders, including viruses causing diarrhoea/vomiting
• Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
• Ulcerative colitis07
• Coeliac disease
• Metabolic syndrome
• Liver disease
• Kidney disease
• Hyperthyroidism

Heavy menstrual cycles, prolonged physical or psychological stress, and ageing can also reduce magnesium levels.

According to an article published by the Australian Traditional Medicine Society, magnesium deficiency is the most widespread, with deficiencies affecting approximately 35% of the population.

Signs of magnesium deficiency
Magnesium deficiency is often misdiagnosed as it doesn’t show up in a simple blood test. As a result, many people are magnesium deficient without even knowing it.

But even though a magnesium deficiency can’t always be seen right off the bat, there can be signs and symptoms, including:

• Muscle spasms and cramps
• Irregular heartbeat
• Anxiety
• Irritability
• Nausea and vomiting
• Loss of appetite
• Sleep disorders
• Impaired cognitive function (memory loss and confusion)

The problem is that many of these symptoms aren’t unique to magnesium deficiency, which makes it even more difficult to diagnose. For this reason, it’s best to consult with your doctor if you suspect you may have a deficiency. A magnesium blood test can be done.

Good sources of magnesium
Have you been diagnosed with a deficiency, or are you keen to up your magnesium levels – just in case?

The good news is that magnesium can be found in a variety of foods. A balanced diet containing dark-green leafy vegetables, unrefined whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds will ensure you get your recommended daily dose. The RDA (recommended daily allowance) of magnesium is approximately 310mg for adult women and 420mg for adult men.

Rich sources of magnesium include spinach, wheat bran, beans, almonds and pumpkin seeds. Herbs such as coriander, sage, cumin, basil and dill also contain magnesium, and make great alternatives to salt and stock cubes. Other good sources of magnesium are fish, bananas and dark chocolate.

Just keep in mind that nuts, seeds and chocolate are high in energy and fat, which means these foods should only be eaten in small quantities.

Food and lifestyle habits to avoid
Overly-processed and refined foods are poor sources of magnesium. During the refining and processing of these foods, magnesium and other nutrients are removed. What’s more, these foods can also cause the body to excrete magnesium through the urine. Overconsumption of caffeinated drinks, such as coffee and tea, has shown to have a similar effect. The same happens when you overindulge in alcoholic beverages.

Drinking too many fizzy drinks can also interfere with how much magnesium is absorbed by your body. Soda contains phosphates, which are substances that bind with the magnesium inside your digestive tract, making it unavailable to your body. When you consume too many of these cool drinks, magnesium is flushed out of your system. This ultimately increases your risk for a magnesium deficit.

To ensure you fulfil your magnesium needs and prevent magnesium deficiency, always choose whole-grain over refined foods, avoid foods high in sugar and salt, and be cautious of how much caffeine, alcohol and fizzy drinks you consume.

Magnesium supplementation
While magnesium can be found in most of the unprocessed, whole foods we eat, nutritionists still believe many of us don’t get enough of the mineral in our diets.

Supplementation is a good option. But remember that food sources of magnesium are more easily absorbed. If you’re concerned about your magnesium intake, first try to add more magnesium-rich foods to your diet before going the supplementation route.

If you have questions about magnesium deficiency, or if you’re considering magnesium supplementation, it’s also best to first talk to a registered dietician or doctor.