Dr Libby: Magnesium, the magic mineral

Green leafy vegetables are a great source of magnesium.
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Green leafy vegetables are a great source of magnesium.

Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body and we don't talk enough about it and the vital role it plays in great health and energy, as well as disease prevention. Approximately 50 per cent of total body magnesium is found in our bones. Magnesium is required for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body. It helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function, keeps heart rhythm steady, supports a healthy immune system and keeps bones strong.

It also contributes to the makeup of teeth and bones. Most importantly, it activates enzymes, contributes to energy production and helps regulate calcium levels, as well as copper, zinc, potassium, vitamin D and other important nutrients in the body. It's also a wonderful mineral for helping us to relax. It can be particularly beneficial at night to assist with muscle relaxation and a good night's sleep. Basically, it would be more accurate to ask what doesn't magnesium do?

Although you may not get enough magnesium from your diet, it's rare to be truly deficient in magnesium. However, certain conditions can disrupt the body's magnesium balance. For example, a gastrointestinal infection that causes vomiting or diarrhoea, some gastrointestinal diseases (such as IBS or ulcerative colitis), type 2 diabetes, pancreatitis, hyperthyroidism (high thyroid hormone levels), kidney disease and certain medications such as diuretics can lead to deficiencies.

Dr Libby Weaver.

Dr Libby Weaver.

From a dietary perspective, too many fizzy drinks (or carbonated water), caffeine, excess salt and alcohol can all lead to a decrease in magnesium status. Heavy menstrual periods and excessive sweating too can lead to a magnesium deficiency, as can prolonged stress. This is because for every unit of adrenaline – a stress hormone – that your body creates, the body uses up magnesium. So the more stressed you are, the greater your requirement for magnesium. 

Symptoms of a magnesium deficiency can include agitation and anxiety, restless leg syndrome (RLS), sleep disorders, irritability, nausea and vomiting, abnormal heart rhythms, low blood pressure, confusion, muscle spasm and weakness, hyperventilation, insomnia, constipation, fatigue and poor nail growth.

Magnesium supplementation is currently being studied in the management of various conditions, including hypertension, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Recently there has been increased interest in its role in the prevention and management of hypertension.

Along with appropriate supplementation guided by an experienced nutrition expert, dietary changes can go a long way towards naturally increasing your magnesium levels. Include in your daily diet foods naturally high in magnesium such as brown rice, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, halibut (a type of fish) and black beans. Dark chocolate, quinoa, dates and bananas also contain magnesium.

Dr Libby is a  nutritional biochemist, best-selling author and speaker. She is a regular contributor to Well & Good. Dr Libby is speaking throughout NZ during October. Details at drlibby.com

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