When you think of magnesium, what probably springs to mind are muscle cramps and eye twitches, or perhaps a high school science experiment. But this mineral is actually vital for many processes in the body.
Thankfully, we can obtain magnesium through our diets, specifically by eating loads of plant foods — including dark chocolate.
Why do I need magnesium?
"Magnesium is a mineral that our bodies rely on to feel fit, healthy and full of vitality," nutritionist Fiona Tuck told HuffPost Australia.
"This mineral is an important one, being that it is a co-factor for hundreds of enzyme reactions within the body. These enzymes are vital for a variety of important processes such as the conversion of energy from carbohydrates, fats and protein, not to mention healthy DNA synthesis, blood sugar balance, bone health and a calm nervous system."
Magnesium is also required for "formation of bones, muscle contractions and blood pressure regulation", accredited practising dietitian Alexandra Parker explained.
"Magnesium is also thought to play a role in sleep by improving our sleep quality. On average, men require around 400mg of magnesium per day and women need around 300mg per day."
What happens when I'm magnesium deficient?
According to accredited practising dietitian Anna Debenham, magnesium deficiency is not overly common in otherwise healthy people.
"In the short-term, low intakes of magnesium won't actually result in any noticeable symptoms as our kidneys conserve magnesium when intakes are low," Debenham told HuffPost Australia. "However, low intakes over extended periods can lead you to become deficient."
When this occurs, we can experience an array of negative symptoms, mostly to do with energy levels.
"Magnesium is involved in helping to regulate calcium, vitamin D, blood sugar and hormonal balance, so there is little surprise to learn that low magnesium levels can lead to chronic fatigue-type symptoms, low mood, anxiety, eye tics, insomnia, high blood pressure, muscle cramps (which can be due to low calcium too) and a poor tolerance to dealing with stress," Tuck said.
Symptoms of magnesium deficiency include:
- Loss of appetite
- Abnormal heart rhythms
- Numbness or tingling
- Muscle contractions and cramps
"When our magnesium levels are low, we can start craving stimulants such as coffee to boost our energy, or chocolate which is a natural source of magnesium (but not the sickly sweet milk chocolate commonly found in the confectionery aisle)."
Which foods contain magnesium?
"Magnesium is found in a variety of foods, but the best sources tend to be green leafy vegetables, raw cacao, nuts and seeds," Tuck said.
"Include magnesium-rich foods at every meal to help boost magnesium. Aim to include at least two servings of vegetables with every meal and a couple of pieces of fruit daily. Reduce sugar, alcohol and processed foods to help up your magnesium intake."
Foods which contain magnesium:
- Green leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach and kale)
- Fruit (figs, avocado, banana and raspberries)
- Nuts and seeds
- Legumes (black beans, chickpeas and kidney beans)
- Vegetables (peas, broccoli, cabbage, green beans, artichokes, asparagus, brussels sprouts)
- Seafood (salmon, mackerel, tuna)
- Whole grains (brown rice and oats)
- Raw cacao
- Dark Chocolate
- Baked beans
- Chlorella powder
How can I test if I'm magnesium deficient?
While you can get magnesium levels tested via a blood test, this isn't always a reliable method.
"If your doctor suspects that your magnesium level is too low, they may order a serum magnesium test. However, this has not been properly validated as a reliable indicator of body magnesium status," Parker explained. "Assessing magnesium status is difficult because most magnesium is inside cells or in bones."
In any case, if you are in doubt over your magnesium levels, see a qualified healthcare practitioner who can look at possible signs and symptoms of magnesium deficiency and trigger factors, such as high stress levels or a diet low in magnesium.
"Combined with pathology tests, this can give a better overall picture of whether you need more magnesium," Tuck said.
Should I take magnesium supplements?
As with most supplements, it's best to obtain important vitamins and minerals through your diet.
"If you want to maximise your health, you can't go past a balanced diet. Loading up on plenty of plant foods is the simplest way to get magnesium into your diet," Debenham said.
"You can, however, increase your magnesium intake by taking supplements, and this may be beneficial for some people. It is best to talk with your doctor or dietitian about magnesium supplementing, as excessive supplementation can lead to diarrhoea and stomach upsets."
Magnesium supplements can also be poorly absorbed and thus work better for some people than others, Tuck explained.
"Those with poor gut function or malabsorption issues may be better to start with a topical magnesium spray. This is absorbed transdermally through the skin and can be used daily," Tuck said.
"For those people in need of a higher intake of magnesium, they may do better with a magnesium powder supplement and drink it in liquid form."
Click below to subscribe to the Refresh podcast by HuffPost Australia on iTunes.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST AUSTRALIA