Magnesium is a mineral, not a vitamin. Humans get their magnesium through food, in particular, plants. The plants draw the mineral out of the soil and when we eat certain vegetables, our body digests the food and we absorb the magnesium from the plants.
Magnesium is important for certain metabolic processes such as the co-factors to help absorb B vitamins, immune functioning and the health of muscles and organs. The body likes to keep blood magnesium levels very very stable and even small fluctuations of one or two percent can have a big impact. Magnesium has an important role in the health of nerves and muscles, maintaining the rhythm of the heart, the immune system and bones. It is also involved in more than 300 chemical processes within the body. Muscle cramps, palpitations and confusion are just some of the effects that low levels of blood magnesium can have on the human body, which can become severe and even life-threatening.
Other effects of magnesium deficiency include: high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, blood sugar dysregulations, insulin resistance, migraines and brain seizures.
It is rare, however, for people to be significantly deficient in magnesium. The body does it’s best to make use of the magnesium we get through food and make the most of it. Some of the people most likely to have low magnesium levels include: alcoholics, people with digestive problems such as Chrohn’s disease or gluten sensitivity, diabetics who do not manage their diabetes well, people taking certain pharmaceutical medicines that can inhibit the absorption of magnesium or force the excessive passing of magnesium in the urine, and older people who tend to have a diet lower in magnesium-rich foods.
It is recommended that we get about 400 – 420mg of magnesium a day for males, non-pregnant women 320mg, and although supplementation is popular the best way to get enough magnesium is to eat the right foods.
Foods that contain good amounts of magnesium include vegetables, nuts and beans (legumes), as well as wholegrains. Chocolate is also high in magnesium, which is why many body-builders and gym-goers make a few squares of high-cocoa, dark, low fat chocolate part of their daily supplementation regime! (Magnesium can help with muscle relaxation and health, which may also be why women that experience menstrual cramping crave chocolate at certain times of their menstrual cycle).
Other foods that contain significant amounts of magnesium include: bran (from grains such as rice, wheat and oats); herbs especially coriander, chives, spearmint, dill, sage and basil; squash, pumpkin and watermelon seeds; tahini (sesame seeds), flax and sunflower seeds; as well as Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews and soy beans.
Including a variety of foods and herbs as part of your normal diet can help ensure that you get enough magnesium. Adding a nuts and seeds to a salad or into your muesli at breakfast time, cooking with a variety of herbs not just bottled sauces, snacking on pitta bread with tahini or humus, and choosing unrefined, mixed seed and wholegrain breads will help manage your magnesium levels, as well as providing a range of other health benefits.
Soils that are over-farmed can result in fewer minerals and nutrients entering the human food chain, so being increasingly conscious of consuming a variety of foods will help balance out any deficits. This is true not just of the mineral magnesium, but other minerals and nutrients food originally in our soils, such as selenium and copper, which also play important roles in maintaining our health and the optimum functioning of our bodies.
Katherine West is a health freak and freelance writer who in 2003 studied for a Diploma of Nutrition. She is also into yoga and pilates.