Should you take a magnesium supplement?
Magnesium is, hands down, one of my favorite supplements. Not only does it come with a laundry list of benefits – most of which you can feel immediately – it’s also really easy to get a quality supplement.
To be fair, magnesium comes with its challenges. First of all, there are eight (EIGHT) different kinds of magnesium. And they all do slightly different things.
To keep things organized and make sure you’re getting the best magnesium for your goals, I’ll outline a couple of key points here.
In this post I cover:
- What magnesium does in your body.
- How to tell if you’re deficient in magnesium.
- Symptoms of magnesium deficiency.
- How to choose the best magnesium supplement.
- The different types of magnesium, what they do, and when to take them.
What Does Magnesium Do?
In other words, without enough magnesium, important processes slow down. Here are a few things that require magnesium:
- Protein synthesis (think muscle building, blood and hormone production, and tissue repair)
- The proper functioning of nerves and muscles
- Synthesis and repair of DNA and RNA (DNA is like a biological architect, and RNA is the contractor who makes sure the plan is executed)
- Glutathione production (if Wonder Woman were an antioxidant, she would be glutathione)
- Bone formation
- Serotonin production in the brain (serotonin is the neurochemical that keeps you happy)
- Blood sugar regulation
- Heart health
Magnesium is kind of a big deal. You need this stuff to live; really low serum levels are even associated with higher mortality. (source)
I know – that’s dramatic. But, magnesium is an important mineral that you may not be getting enough of. So, let’s find out how to figure out if you’re at risk for deficiency, and how to get your levels back up to the optimum range by possibly using a magnesium supplement.
Are You at Risk for Magnesium Deficiency?
Honestly, we all are. Filtration and additives mean our water is depleted of most or all of its natural mineral content and the veggies we harvest today have a fraction of the nutrients they did 20 years ago (thanks, industrial agriculture!). (source)
Obviously that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook when it comes to getting your allotted amount of Brussels sprouts. Greens are great for you.
But you’ll get even more benefit if you also replenish the electrolytes many greens are lacking these days (minerals like magnesium, sodium, potassium, and calcium).
Here are a few signs you might be at risk for magnesium deficiency:
- You eat a diet low in magnesium-rich foods like leafy greens, nuts, and seeds.
- You take calcium supplements without taking a magnesium supplement as well.
- You’re stressed. Stress depletes magnesium levels.
- You’re on certain medications that make you excrete magnesium and other minerals. Talk to your doctor if you’re taking any prescription medications.
- You drink semi-regularly or have a sweet tooth. Alcohol and sugar cause rapid excretion of magnesium through your kidneys.
- The natural aging process can make it harder to absorb certain nutrients, including magnesium.
- Digestive disorders and certain genetic conditions can make it tough to absorb magnesium.
How Do You Know if You’re Deficient in Magnesium?
You can test your blood magnesium levels, but the results are questionable. You store most of your magnesium inside your cells, with only about 1% in your blood. (source) So testing serum (blood) levels isn’t an accurate representation of how much magnesium in your body.
Not only that, but your body will draw magnesium from your bones and tissues if your blood level drops. That means that a blood test, which is the most common test of magnesium levels, could easily show a normal reading while other parts of (like your bones and other tissues) are deficient. (source)
It’s a little like when celebrities look like they’re rolling in cash, but really they are about to go bankrupt.
How to Test for Magnesium Deficiency
Because blood testing is so imperfect, some doctors recommend magnesium bowel tolerance testing. Yeah, it’s exactly what it sounds like.
Bowel tolerance testing uses magnesium citrate (the type of magnesium is important here). To do a magnesium bowel tolerance test, you simply increase your dose of magnesium citrate over several days until you experience loose stools.
So, let’s say your magnesium citrate supplement is 150 mg per capsule. The first day, you take two (still under the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance)). The second day you take three, and so on. You continue this process until your stool becomes pretty loose.
Your bowel tolerance level is one pill less than the amount that gives you diarrhea. Continue that daily dose. It’s a good idea to reassess this every three months or so, as your body’s needs change over time.
You can also determine whether or not you’re deficient by taking a look at some of the most common symptoms of magnesium deficiency.
Symptoms of Magnesium Deficiency
- Muscle cramps
- Eye twitches
- Restless Leg Syndrome
- Trouble sleeping
- Irritability, anxiety, or depression
- Sensitivity to loud noises
- Acid reflux
- Chronic fatigue
- High Blood Pressure
- Kidney stones
- Tooth Decay
I know this may seem like a pretty broad list. But seriously, magnesium plays a huge role in so many of your body’s metabolic pathways!
Can You Get All Your Magnesium From Food?
At this point, you still may be thinking: “But Steph, do I really need a magnesium supplement? Why can’t I just get all of my nutrients from food?”
To be fair, you can totally increase your intake of magnesium-rich foods. In fact, I encourage it! Nutrients in your food work synergistically in a way that supplements can never replicate.
Plus, you can find meaningful amounts of magnesium in many of the foods we associate with a real food lifestyle: green leafy veggies, nuts, seeds, avocados, dates, and garlic.
But I still recommend taking a magnesium supplement for a couple of reasons:
- Your body only absorbs about 30% to 40% of dietary magnesium. (source)
- Soil depletion dramatically lowers the nutrient density of most of our food these days. (source)
- The RDA is already pretty darn low at 320 mg for women over 31. Many functional medicine doctors recommend taking 400-1200mg per day, depending on your needs (source, source, source). Supplementing is a great way to regulate and track your intake.
- Eating processed food
- Consuming alcohol, soda, or coffee
- Sweating a lot
- Bleeding heavily during menstruation
- Dealing with high stress levels
- Taking prescription or over the counter medications
How to Choose the Best Magnesium Supplement
There are a ton of different ways to supplement magnesium, so how do you choose?
Some general best practices for choosing a magnesium supplement are:
- First things first – don’t rely on the small amounts of magnesium in your multivitamin. Generally speaking, multis don’t contain enough to rely on and they often opt for the cheapest, rather than the most effective, form.
- Generally speaking, avoid magnesium carbonate, sulfate, and oxide. These are poorly absorbed. Aka, you’re paying for expensive pee and very few benefits.
- As with all supplements, choose brands that offer proof of quality testing and talk about how they source their ingredients. Not to be dramatic, but you really have no idea where most supplements are sourced. Are they processed from organic matter? Made in a lab? Do they use chemical agents during processing? Find a company you trust.
- Magnesium, like all nutrients, works synergistically with other nutrients. For the best absorption, make sure you’re getting enough selenium, vitamin B6, and vitamin D. (source) My favorite magnesium is from Puori and comes with zinc, vitamin B6, and malic acid for better absorption and to support energy metabolism. Score.
Types of Magnesium
Now for the fun part. There are seriously eight different forms of magnesium. And they all have different benefits, pitfalls, and absorption rates.
Here’s a rundown of the different types of magnesium and when to use them.
- Magnesium oxide for constipation. Mag oxide is the active ingredient in Milk of Magnesia. It’s the most likely to give you loose stools. Sometimes, that’s just what the doctor ordered. Other times, it’s a bummer. Magnesium oxide is the least bioavailable form of magnesium, for obvious reasons – you’ll likely excrete most of it before your body absorbs it. (source)(source)
- Magnesium chloride for topical absorption. Mag chloride is better than oxide for absorption, particularly if you use it as a spray-on oil or cream, which penetrates the skin and doesn’t have to go through the digestive tract. (source, source, source) This is great for people who have a hard time absorbing nutrients through their digestive tract, like those with Crohn’s or even IBS. I like to give myself a quick spritz before bedtime for muscle relaxation when I don’t have time for an Epsom salt bath. This is the magnesium oil that I like.
- Magnesium citrate for a relaxed body and mind. Magnesium citrate is amazing for mental and muscle relaxation and is famous for promoting deep sleep. Too much can cause a laxative effect, though, so start small. Take about 150-200mg and work your way up over time. Still, this form is highly bioavailable and you can save a bit of money on it compared to some of the other forms. (source, source) An example is Natural Calm.
- Magnesium malate for energy. This is one of the only forms of magnesium I recommend taking in the morning. Other forms may put you to sleep. Magnesium paired with malic acid means better absorption and an increase of cellular energy production. Mag malate will also soothe muscle pain. (source, source)
- Magnesium glycinate for better sleep. Magnesium glycinate is bound to the calming amino acid glycine, making it a one-two punch of sleep-inducing goodness. This form is the least likely to cause loose stools or diarrhea. It’s super well absorbed, too. (source)
- Magnesium taurate for better blood flow. Mag taurate is magnesium combined with an amino acid called taurine. This form shows promise for better blood flow to the brain and heart. It may even help treat migraines. (source, source)
- Magnesium sulfate for soaking sore muscles. You probably know magnesium sulfate by another name: Epsom salts. This form has a strong laxative effect if you use it internally, but not when you absorb it through your skin during a bath. An Epsom salt bath is an excellent way to relax your muscles after a good workout. Get Epsom salts here.
- Magnesium threonate for brain health. For mental sharpness and memory, try magnesium threonate. There is not a lot of research in humans about this form, but some really promising work in mouse models show rapid absorption in the brain. (source) Magnesium threonate might be worth a try if you want some extra brain support.
When Should You Take Magnesium?
You have a couple of options when it comes to timing your magnesium doses.
Most people take magnesium right before bed – especially mag citrate and glycinate – because it promotes mental and muscular relaxation.
Try magnesium malate in the morning or before a workout for a noticeable boost in energy. This stuff will make you feel great all day, which is why magnesium supplement contains malic acid.
You can take all the other forms in divided doses throughout the day.
One last thing about timing: while you can take magnesium on an empty stomach, it’ll probably absorb better with food. (source)
Who Shouldn’t Take Magnesium?
I might argue that everyone could use a boost of magnesium, but I’m not a doctor. It’s important to consult with a trusted health practitioner before taking magnesium or any other supplement.
The most common side effect of magnesium is pretty harmless, albeit uncomfortable. You’ll definitely get diarrhea if you take the wrong type or too much.
Your body will excrete excess magnesium through your urine or bowels, so you don’t have to worry about it building up in your body. Still, you should probably avoid starting magnesium if you have kidney disease, bowel obstruction, Myasthenia Gravis, or if you’re on prescription medications. (source, source, source)
Magnesium is one of the most important supplements I take. And it’s critical, in my opinion, if you sweat a ton, live a stressful lifestyle, or don’t always have super nutrient-dense food on hand.
Do you use a magnesium supplement? I’d love to hear which one you’re using and how it’s changed your performance in the comments!