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Magnesium: An Unknown Key Player

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

"Our food should be our medicine and our medicine should be our food" - Hippocrates

It is almost the beginning of July, which means it’s just about time for people to pick up a weeklong diet filled with nothing but corn dogs, watermelon, mac and cheese and popsicles as we celebrate the 4th of July. But what also comes with the beginning of July is that Smart Girls Gotta Eat is in the midst of the summer series discussing important vitamins and minerals that we can’t forget about. Last week we discussed B-12 and this week we are going to focus on a mineral many people have only heard about in chemistry class: magnesium. It’s interesting how we regularly talk about our body’s need for calcium, iron or omega-3’s, and yet magnesium is rarely mentioned. Since we use this mineral in all of our cells at all moments, it’s time to bring this key player into the conversation.

First of all, let me repeat what I just said – every single cell in our body requires magnesium in order to function properly. Even more, our bodies use this mineral in over 300 different chemical processes that regularly take place. Some of the most important processes include energy production in the cell, blood pressure regulation, and increasing bone density. If you took biology, you may remember learning about oxidative phosphorylation in our cells to create energy, and now I will add that magnesium from the diet is essential to that process. If you didn’t learn about oxidative phosphorylation, I will first of all say that you are the lucky one for not having to sleep through a million lectures talking about how teeny tiny particles move across barriers. All you really need to know is that this chemical process takes place in our cells as a mechanism to turn nutrients into energy. And thus, without magnesium, we are out of luck and experience symptoms of fatigue and weakness.

Beyond just energy, we also use magnesium to strengthen and increase bone density – this is actually where you can find the highest percentage of magnesium in one place in the body. And even more, magnesium is critical for our blood and heart health, as it plays a role in maintaining proper blood pressure and glucose (aka sugar) levels. Nobody wants to be the grandparent who falls down the stairs and breaks every bone in the body or has to watch high blood pressure at all times, so do yourself a favor to prevent that by maintaining proper magnesium levels.

Because magnesium plays such a vital role in our everyday functions, it is no wonder that if we don’t get enough of it in our diets, things can start to go wrong. The very first symptoms you might experience due to magnesium deficiency are fatigue, weakness, migraines or nausea. And if you don’t adjust your diet after these initial symptoms, then your body is at risk for developing worse conditions such as numbness/tingling or GI disorders like IBS, Chrohn’s or celiac. These GI issues can be especially problematic because people who experience conditions already have a hard time absorbing magnesium from food, and thus the cycle continues. Side note – if you think you do not have enough magnesium and already have GI disorders, then you can take additional supplements.

The tricky part is that most of the initial symptoms people might experience from low magnesium levels – fatigue, weakness, migraines and nausea – are common symptoms for just about anything, so it can be hard to recognize low levels of magnesium should they exist. But the good news is that magnesium is found in a variety of foods, so as long as you don’t keep a strict diet of hotdogs and potato chips, this deficiency is overall avoidable.

When trying to find foods with magnesium, one general rule to think about is if a food has fiber, it probably also has magnesium in it. Some of the most common foods rich in this mineral are spinach, beans such as black beans or lima beans, nuts, seeds, tofu, whole wheat, and bananas. As you may have noticed, all of these foods are natural and plant-based (so the vegans out there have truly nothing to worry about). And if you were paying really close attention, then you may realize that last week’s article about B-12 highlighted almost all animal-based foods like meats and dairy, while a diet for magnesium highlights plant-based food. Moral of the story is that the more variety you get in your diet, the better off you are in the long run!

I also want to point out that there is no reason you need to completely change what you are eating to get the vitamins and minerals you regularly need in your diet; instead, just substitute or add things. For example, if you’re eating a snack of an apple or banana, add peanut or almond butter to it (this will also give you protein to make you full for longer). Instead of eating a sandwich with white bread, choose wheat. Or if you are having cereal, yogurt, or granola in the mornings, just add some nuts to it to get a better variety. It sometimes can be daunting to think of all of these foods you need to be eating to have the “perfect” diet, but really perfection comes by just making small changes to things you already like and eat regularly. So on that note, have a happy 4th of July filled with all the popsicles and hotdogs you can imagine, but don’t forget that everything in moderation is the best way to set yourself up for success!

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