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A Beginner’s Reference to Magnesium: An Essential Mineral for Proper Body Functioning

EDITOR’S SUMMARY: Having a sufficient level of magnesium in your body is clearly beneficial, while depletion can be detrimental to your health. You can eat it or pop it, or do both. Consuming minerals (and vitamins and enzymes) from whole food sources first, sets a solid foundation. As in all foods and nutritional supplements, quality matters. Opt for pure and clean—organic, grass-fed, pastured—and avoid fillers, additives, antibiotics, and other chemical processing. 

Written by Rick Rydell
Edited by Nicki Steinberger, Ph.D.

Gold, silver, platinum, and copper are known as precious for a reason; whoever has the most is often considered the richest. But what if there are other natural elements that are even more crucial for human happiness and functioning? What if minerals found not only in the earth, but also in your body, were of far greater importance for personal health and well-being? If science has anything to say about it, you might do well by aligning your focus to learn about these natural minerals. One in particular seems to be of great importance: magnesium.


Magnesium, the twelfth element on the periodic table, gets its name from Magnesia, a district in Greece. As the second most common cation (positively-charged ion) in the body behind potassium, magnesium can be found in abundance from birth—760 milligrams of magnesium, to be exact, increasing to 5,000 milligrams at around four to five months old.

Astonishingly, the mineral is connected to more than 300 metabolic processes, including energy production, nerve signal transmissions, blood pressure regulation, and muscular contraction. Clearly, it’s important just for mere survival. But the world of magnesium can also be confusing, especially considering there are (at least) 11 kinds. Which type should you focus on? How do you know if you already have enough, or possibly need more? Is magnesium just a vitamin you pop and swallow, or can you get it in other ways? And how much is best?

Building Block

There are two categories of minerals that you need in order to keep living: macro and trace minerals. As the names imply, macro minerals are substances you need more of, while you can get by with only a small amount of trace minerals, such as iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, and selenium. Magnesium is a macro mineral (as are calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, chloride, and sulfur), meaning that you need a significant amount to function.


What does magnesium do? For starters, it’s similar to calcium in that it helps build stronger bones and teeth. It also assists with the regulation of blood sugar, and enabling blood to clot and enzymes to perform as intended. The average adult has approximately 25 grams of it; most is in the bones, and the rest in soft tissues.


When you don’t have enough magnesium in your body, severe disruption can take hold:

  • Tremors
  • Spasms
  • Seizures
  • Uncontrollable eye movements
  • Apathy
  • Delirium
  • Coma
  • Changes in electrical activity of the heart
  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Premature heartbeats
  • Heart ischemia (lack of blood flow getting to the heart muscle)
  • Low levels of calcium, potassium and parathyroid hormone in the blood


While some of these issues don’t seem like such a big deal, others, like coma and delirium, couldn’t be more serious. The good news: Despite a standard American diet (SAD) that is ridiculously short on nutritious, magnesium-packed foods, and long on empty, toxic fillers, Mother Nature has made ways for you to easily get the right amount of magnesium for your age, sex, and life circumstances (like pregnancy). 

Magnesium can be found in tons of foods, including avocados, legumes (beans), dark green leafy vegetables, raisins, nuts, seeds, whole grains (brown rice, oatmeal, etc.), wild seafood, poultry, beef, and delicious dark chocolate! Handily, nutritionists have determined the right amount of magnesium to aim for. Men 31 and older need the most magnesium every day out of any category (420 milligrams), while women of the same age need a hundred fewer grams (unless pregnant, in which case women need 360 milligrams every day).  

Another good piece of news: You can easily get your needed daily magnesium via healthy foods. One ounce of chia seeds, for instance, has a whopping 111 milligrams of the mineral; add them whole or ground to your smoothies, yogurt, salads, chia porridge, or even cookie and pancake batter. One ounce of dark chocolate for dessert (with at least 70% cacao) has 64 mg. 

One-half cup of cooked spinach, meanwhile, contains 78 milligrams of magnesium. Take note, however, if you struggle with kidney stones, you may want to watch your spinach intake, as it contains oxalates, naturally-occurring plant chemicals linked to kidney stone formation. This antinutrient has also been associated with inhibiting calcium absorption. Between these three foods, which could easily be eaten in one sitting, a 50-year-old woman is only 67 milligrams away from her daily magnesium needs!


Even with this convenient (but perhaps unknown to many) access, researchers estimate that around two-thirds of citizens in the Western world are deficient in the magnesium department. And certain kinds of health problems can make you susceptible to magnesium deficiency from the get-go, including disorders of the gastrointestinal, renal, and endocrine systems. Such a deficiency is easily diagnosed via a blood or urine test.


Clearly, a sea change is needed across the globe—including the United States. Besides a generally unhealthy diet, American farm dirt isn’t helping with our magnesium issue; agricultural soils are increasingly deficient in essential minerals. Over the last six decades, the magnesium content in fruit and vegetables in the U.S. has decreased by 20–30%. 


What kind of magnesium should these hundreds of vital daily milligrams be? Common sense dictates that magnesium-rich foods from nature are the best first step. That’s clearly what the human body is designed for, so give it what it needs. If you cannot eat your way to a proper magnesium level, however (and remember, your body will let you know if you’re deficient by displaying signs such as nausea, constipation, headaches, leg cramps, leg or hand numbness or tingling, general body weakness, tremors, and heart palpitations), there are supplements available.


These magnesium supplements come in tablets, capsules and powders. One form does not seem to be better than another; whatever you and/or your wallet prefers is best; in this case powder seems to be cheaper per serving. The important thing, nutritionists agree, is that the magnesium comes in a form easily absorbed by your body.


Vitamin D may play a role in this absorption. From “Magnesium: Are We Consuming Enough?” Researchers studying the amount of magnesium in patients’ blood noted

“It should be emphasized that vitamin D can positively influence magnesium absorption and support vitamin D metabolism.” 

Again, this is a decently simple “problem” to solve: Spend time outside, and eat D-rich foods (wild seafood, pastured egg yolks, organic whole milk, etc.), with supplementation if necessary.

AVFC types of magnesium


To that end, here’s a quick rundown of the most common kinds of over-the-counter magnesium:

  • Magnesium oxide: Typically used for digestive issues; usually cheaper compared to other types of magnesium; not as absorbable as other forms; may help prevent migraines; may cause diarrhea or cramping
  • Magnesium citrate: Nicely absorbable, especially in liquid form; can relieve constipation (hence its appearance in saline laxatives)
  • Magnesium sulfate: Commonly known as Epsom salt for treating bruises, cuts and stuff muscles, and also available as an oral supplement; can be given intravenously in clinical settings; can treat constipation, low blood magnesium and preeclampsia in pregnant women; oral side effects may include stomach pain, bloating, nausea or headache; soaking solution side effects may include redness, irritation or infection
  • Magnesium hydroxide: Commonly known as milk of magnesia; comes in various oral forms; also added to some skincare products for its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties; can be orally used to relieve constipation and indigestion; may cause loose or more frequent stools
  • Magnesium gluconate: Often used for diagnosed magnesium deficiency since it’s less likely to cause diarrhea; one of the best-absorbed types of magnesium; used to treat low blood magnesium that may be caused by medical conditions such as gastrointestinal disorders and kidney disease; could cause diarrhea and upset stomach
  • Magnesium glycinate: Readily absorbed by the body, though scarcely researched; could ease sleeplessness, tense muscles, and anxiety
  • Magnesium L-threonate: Able to cross the blood-brain barrier, rendering it potentially beneficial for brain health and cognitive function; may also relieve insomnia, muscle tension, and anxiety
  • Magnesium malate: Quickly absorbed by the body; can lower muscle pain, though some studies observe no effect in elderly adults
  • Magnesium chloride: often used in lotions or oils to support muscle and joint health
  • Magnesium taurate: Essentially a two-for-one—combination of magnesium and taurine. Supports healthy blood pressure and blood sugar. Used to build proteins, taurine is an amino acid. Folks who experience type 2 diabetes have been shown to be low in taurine.

That can be quite the overwhelming list. Plus, there’s this caveat: too much magnesium via supplementation can backfire. Besides the nausea, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea mentioned, magnesium supplements can interact with some types of antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals. A wise course of action, then, is to check in with your physician, homeopath, or nutritionist before starting a magnesium supplement, especially if you’re consuming Maalox or Mylanta, etc., on a regular basis.

Heads-up: Magnesium stearate is an additive: You will see this substance listed in many, if not most supplements, in the “other ingredients” category. Interchangeably, it is called vegetable stearate or stearate. It is used in manufacturing as a “flow agent,” ensuring the equipment runs smoothly, and the ingredients stay blended together proportionately. It is also found in cosmetics. It is best avoided, as it has been linked to a number of alarming side effects, including poor GI absorption, suppressed T-cells, formaldehyde risk, and contamination from manufacturing. 

The oral route isn’t the only way to get magnesium, at least in theory; a wide variety of sprays and creams also promise to quickly deliver magnesium to your body via your skin, the largest organ. One study out of Cardiff University showed that transdermal (through the skin) magnesium cream did indeed raise participants’ magnesium levels—but only for a group of non-athletes. Other studies have been more “meh,” calling for further studies in the future. And as one cancer researcher pointed out, magnesium creams are far easier to apply for patients who have trouble swallowing.

Remember to watch for “hidden” other ingredients in magnesium and other supplements. Manufacturers sneak in dastardly bits like artificial dyes, hydrogenated oils, talc (which is, ironically, hydrated magnesium silicate, capable of potentially causing stomach cancer and lung issues,) and titanium dioxide, a colorant linked to lung inflammation and other health problems. 

Put your trust in brands that avoid dangerous additives and fillers. Extra virgin olive oil can be used as a healthy flow agent, yet it costs more so you won’t often see it. You’ll know you hit gold when you see one or both of these ONLY in your list of “other ingredients”: capsule (generally made with natural plant fiber), and/or … nothing—no other ingredients at all.

Somewhere on that same label will be the dosage recommendations. Depending on your need (ex: insomnia vs. constipation), age, sex, and other circumstances, the dosage will be different. Swallow, rub, and soak accordingly. The potential positives of doing so correctly are pretty great. Studies have shown that magnesium oxide or citrate can help you sleep better as you age, improve glucose levels, and help with mild to moderate depression. Perhaps magnesium should be re-classified as precious after all.

From Circulation, “Magnesium Intake and Incidence of Metabolic Syndrome Among Young Adults”:

Studies suggest that magnesium intake may be inversely related to risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes mellitus and that higher intake of magnesium may decrease blood triglycerides and increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels. However, the longitudinal association of magnesium intake and incidence of metabolic syndrome has not been investigated.”

AVFC magnesium foods

Mag Munching

A surefire way to avoid the potential pitfalls of magnesium deficiency, or over-reliance on supplements, is to stick to a healthy, daily diet consisting of plenty of magnesium-rich foods. From the following list, pick and choose the foods that work for your unique diet:

  • Pumpkin seeds: 1 oz = 168 milligrams
  • Chia seeds: 1 oz = 111 milligrams
  • Dry-roasted almonds: 1 oz = 80 milligrams
  • Boiled spinach: ½ cup = 78 milligrams
  • Dry-roasted cashews: 1 oz = 74 milligrams
  • Black beans: ½ cup = 60 milligrams
  • Edamame: ½ cup = 50 milligrams
  • Dark chocolate: 1 oz = 50 milligrams
  • Peanut butter: 2 tablespoons = 49 milligrams
  • Avocado: 1 cup = 44 milligrams
  • Potato (with skin): 3.5 oz = 43 milligrams
  • Brown Rice: ½ cup = 42 milligrams
  • Yogurt: 8 oz = 42 milligrams
  • Kidney beans: ½ cup = 35 milligrams
  • Banana: 1 medium = 32 milligrams
  • Cocoa powder: 1 tablespoon = 27 milligrams
  • Wild salmon: 3 oz = 26 milligrams
  • Organic whole milk: 1 cup = 24–27 milligrams
  • Wild halibut: 3 oz = 24 milligrams
  • Raisins: ½ cup = 23 milligrams
  • Pastured chicken breast: 3 oz = 22 milligrams
  • Grass-fed ground beef: 3 oz = 20 milligrams
  • Broccoli: ½ cup = 12 milligrams
  • Rice: ½ cup = 10 milligrams
  • Apple: 1 medium = 9 milligrams
  • Carrots: 1 medium = 7 milligrams

Once you are properly fueled with magnesium, there is a good chance you will feel better, as areas struck from previous deficiency come alive. Your muscles, bones, nerves, intestinal processes, blood sugar levels, and cardiovascular system will have a better chance of functioning properly. Make it a personal challenge to have at least one magnesium-rich meal a day, decide if nutritional supplementation is right for you, and notice how your body and mind respond.


Published on November 30, 2023.

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