Magnesium is needed for the function of more than 300 enzymes in the body. However, many of us aren't consuming enough, which is especially a problem as we get older. Some 73% of older men and 41% of older women in developed Western countries like the UK get less than the estimated average intake (EAR) according to a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition.
This is partly due to a decline in magnesium in food (today’s beef for example contains 4-8% less magnesium than beef in the 1940s, while parmesan cheese contains 70% less) as well as our penchant for processed foods which are lacking in magnesium: white flour has 82% less magnesium than wholemeal flour and white rice has 83% less magnesium than brown rice.
Worryingly most people who are deficient in magnesium don’t know it because blood levels of magnesium don’t reflect the true amount of magnesium in the body, 99% of which is in muscle, bone and other tissues. This is a concern because subclinical magnesium deficiency is a key driver of heart and circulatory disorders as well as other chronic health problems.
These include type 2 diabetes, asthma and other respiratory problems, depression, stress-linked problems, Alzheimer’s and dementia, muscular diseases, fibromyalgia, brittle bones and cancer that all become more common as we age.
Indeed a paper published in the journal Nutrients in 2021 suggests that ongoing low level magnesium deficiency may be an important factor in ‘inflammageing’, the chronic state of inflammation thought to underlie age-related diseases.
Unlimited access to a qualified GP with Saga Health Insurance - you'll have access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to a GP consultation service. Find out more about our GP phone service.
However, it seems many of us aren't consuming anywhere near enough. Nearly seven out of 10 Americans fall short of the US recommended daily allowance (RDA), according to a 2014 survey by Prevention and Centrum. And 57 per cent say they have 'no idea' how magnesium keeps them healthy. Figures for the UK population are thought to be similar, partly due to our increasing love of nutrient-poor processed foods and takeaways.
Learn more about magnesium’s health properties
Why does magnesium do?
It creates energy
First and foremost, magnesium helps turn the food we eat into energy. Ready for the science bit? It binds itself to a compound called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in order to provide fuel for every single cell in the body. So if you feel like you're running on empty, low magnesium levels could be to blame.
Seven ways to increase your energy levels
It could help regulate blood pressure…
Despite magnesium’s reputation for lowering blood pressure, the results of studies have been mixed. But a 2021 meta-analysis published in the journal Nutrients suggests that taking a tablet containing 240 mg or more of magnesium can safely lower high blood pressure in people with uncontrolled high blood pressure taking blood pressure lowering medications. Meanwhile more than 600 mg a day can lower blood pressure in people with untreated high blood pressure. Ask your GP.
It's vital for healthy bones...
Magnesium helps the parathyroid glands – four tiny glands in the neck, which control the body's levels of bone-strengthening calcium – to function normally. There's also evidence to suggest it can help prevent bone fractures. A recent study from the Universities of Bristol and Eastern Finland followed 2,245 middle-aged men over a 20-year period. Those with lower blood levels of magnesium had a significantly higher risk of fracture.
It is needed for healthy muscles
Magnesium is vital for strong healthy muscles, a must as we get older to prevent sarcopenia (age-related loss of muscle mass and strength). Italian researchers found that low levels of magnesium were linked with lower muscle performance – as measured by grip strength, leg muscle power and other measures - in a group of 1453 men and women aged on average 66 years as part of the InCHIANTI study, which is looking at factors affecting ageing.
It helps keep you on an even keel
Magnesium plays a major role in mood regulation. A daily dose can help ease symptoms of mild to moderate depression after just two weeks, according to research from the University of Vermont. It's thought this effect may be partly due to the mineral's anti-inflammatory properties.
It helps regulate blood sugar
A large body of research suggests magnesium encourages blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity, which may help stave off type 2 diabetes. People who consume the most magnesium are 51 per cent less likely to develop the disease, according to a seven-year study published in the US journal Diabetes Care.
8 foods that help regulate blood sugar
It could help prevent migraines...
Various studies have demonstrated a link between low magnesium levels and migraine, according to The Migraine Trust – and some experts even advocate taking a magnesium supplement to prevent headaches.
What you need to know about migraines
It could help you to a good night’s sleep...
Because magnesium helps control our body's natural rhythms, it also plays a key role in promoting deep, restful sleep, say researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Cambridge.
What are the best sources of magnesium?
Magnesium is found in good supply in green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and kale, nuts, brown rice, wholegrain bread, fish and dairy foods.
What is the RDA for magnesium in the UK?
The current UK recommended daily allowance for adults aged between 19 and 64 is 300mg for men and 270mg for women. An 100g serving of spinach contains around 80g magnesium, while 100g almonds contains approximately 270mg.
Find all our tasty spinach recipes in one place
Should I take a magnesium supplement?
The jury's out on this one – but it really depends on your diet. According to the Department of Health, you should be able to get all the magnesium you need from a healthy, balanced diet. The only problem? Far too many of us fail to do this.
It's also worth noting that our bodies find it harder to absorb magnesium as we age and certain medications - for example diuretics and proton pump inhibitors - that are prescribed more often in older people – so you may need to increase the amount you eat in order to see the same benefits. Speak to your GP if you think this may apply to you.
Is it possible to have too much magnesium?
Yes – although it would be pretty difficult to do this. High daily doses of more than 400mg could cause diarrhoea.
In very rare cases, long-term high doses can lead to a condition called hypermagnesemia, which can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, muscle weakness and urine retention. People with kidney problems are at increased risk of hypermagnesemia as the kidneys are less equipped to cope with an excess of magnesium in the blood.
Non-dietary sources of magnesium
You don't have to rely solely on your diet to reap the benefits of magnesium. Add some Epsom salts – magnesium sulphate – to your foot spa or bath to soothe tired muscles or combat arthritis pain.
Subscribe today for just £29 for 12 issues...