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Magnesium Deficinecy – Symptoms, Causes and Dietary Sources

This blog is written by Bonny Casel, Director of the School of Natural Medicine UK


When I think of magnesium deficiency, I don’t aim for supplements or blame poor diet alone. Currently 70-80% of the population is magnesium deficient and, given how easy it is to obtain magnesium from our diet, this says a great deal about the diet and lifestyle of the general population.

Magnesium deficiency is caused by diet, stress, lack of sleep, strong emotions, digestive issues, pharmaceuticals and more…and each of these causes can lead to symptoms that become causes; thus creating and perpetuating a cycle of dis-ease.

The same is true, of course, for most deficiencies, symptoms and diseases, and this is why it is so important to take responsibility for our health and think holistically when nutrient deficient; taking into account all facets of life that contribute to imbalances.

Health conditions are caused by a unique blend of influences within the life of each individual. Increasing magnesium sufficiency, whether by diet or supplementation, is not the ‘whole’ answer…but learning about the causes and effects of magnesium deficiency can inform you of influences that can be valuable to consider when creating a holistic self healing programme.

I will provide a list of ‘what we do, and what we don’t do,’ that contributes to magnesium deficiency, along with an easy reference for magnesium rich foods, and a delicious magnesium rich green drink recipe, at the end of this article, but first lets have a look at some of the symptoms and illnesses that can be triggered by magnesium deficiency.

Symptoms and illnesses caused by magnesium deficiency come in two categories:

The first category is when there is an imbalance in the calcium-magnesium ratio in the body. Both calcium and magnesium are essential nutrients, however they should be in a ratio of 1:1 and in Europe and the US, most people have a 10:1 magnesium to calcium ratio. When this ratio is imbalanced, magnesium’s function of ensuring the correct amount of calcium in cells to cause them to contract is hindered, and this can lead to a range of health issues.

The second category of symptoms and illnesses caused by magnesium deficiency are initiated by muscle spasms.

Here is a brief list of symptoms and illnesses in each category:

Imbalance in Calcium-Magnesium Ratio

Inflammation is one of the fundamental underlying conditions that leads to physical and mental health issues. Magnesium is an anti-inflammatory and calcium (in excess) is inflammatory. When the Magnesium to calcium ratio is skewed, inflammation is an inevitable outcome.  

Musculo-skeletal Conditions
Insufficient magnesium and excess calcium cause sustained muscle contraction. The inability of muscles to relax may lead to cramping, fibrositis, fibromyalgia, chronic neck and back pain, jaw tension, and muscle spasm in any muscles in the body. Also exhaustion caused by the loss of energy used for maintaining muscle contraction.

Stress, Anxiety and Depression
Magnesium reduces stress hormones, increases GABA and, as an anti-inflammatory, reduces the incidence of depression, anxiety, and memory loss. The link between magnesium and anxiety is so strong that researchers deprive lab animals of magnesium to induce anxiety responses (I am personally against the use of animals for research). Inflammatory immune system messengers called cytokines activate inflammation in the brain and, in addition to being linked to stress, anxiety and depression, play a role in irritability, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, ability to focus, apathy and increased risk of suicide.

One of the major functions of magnesium is to send calcium to the bones and teeth, where it belongs. Without magnesium, calcium may be deposited in the blood vessels and tissues, where it causes hardening and contraction. Magnesium has been successfully used for sore joints, tendon rupture and osteoporosis.

Neuralgia and Nerve Problems
Low magnesium and relative excess of calcium cause excitation of nerve cells. Cells irritated by calcium fire electrical impulses repeatedly, depleting their energy store and causing cell death. Excess calcium can lead to burning pain, muscle weakness, numbness, sensations of pins and needles, skin sensitivity, tingling, twitching, dizziness, confusion, seizures, convulsions and paralysis.

Magnesium helps dissolve calcium that builds up in the joints and treats arthritic pain and inflammation.

Magnesium dissolves calcium, keeping it soluble in the bloodstream. Along with vitamin K2, magnesium directs calcium from the blood to the bones.

Blood Clots
Calcium buildup in the blood triggers blood clots. Magnesium prevents this calcium buildup.

Calcium buildup in the lining of the bladder and urethra causes irritation that mimics cystitis. Magnesium dissolves calcification in the bladder tissue and eliminates this type of incontinence.

Kidney Problems
Lack of magnesium can lead to calcium buildup in the renal arteries. Magnesium combined with vitamin B6 has been successfully used for preventing and treating kidney stones.

Excess calcium and deficient magnesium can cause the smooth muscles lining blood vessels to go in to spasm and cause high blood pressure. If cholesterol combines with calcium, it can cause atherosclerosis in the blood vessels, which worsens blood pressure. High cholesterol levels may also be caused by a deficiency of magnesium.

Tooth decay may be caused by excess concentration of calcium in the saliva, caused by magnesium deficiency.

All muscular spasms are related to magnesium deficiency.

Angina pain is caused by severe spasms in the heart muscles. Not only is magnesium a natural muscle relaxant, but the heart ventricles have the highest level of magnesium in the whole body. Some studies suggest that 40-60% of sudden deaths from heart attack may occur with no artery blockage, clot formation or heart rhythm abnormalities, and that these deaths are caused by spasm in the heart’s arteries, possibly related to a magnesium deficiency.

Chest pain is often due to an electrical imbalance rather than blocked arteries. Electrical imbalances are driven by a mineral deficiency – most commonly magnesium.

Other heart issues, such as premature ventricular contractions and atrial contractions, tachycardia and palpitations, are often due to a magnesium deficiency. Seven major clinical studies show that intravenous magnesium reduced the risk of death from acute heart attack by 55%.

Magnesium is lost in sweat, so anyone doing vigorous exercise needs to ensure proper magnesium intake. In addition, magnesium reduces the build-up of lactic acid, which occurs with exercise. Pain, muscle spasms, muscle tension, inflammation and scarring have all been helped with magnesium.

Asthma and Bronchial Problems
Asthma is caused by histamine and bronchial spasm of the smooth muscles of the bronchial tract, often relieved with magnesium.

Cystitis is often caused by bladder spasm, which causes urinary frequency.

Spasms in the head and neck can cause tension headaches, which are relieved with magnesium. (Different from migraine headaches)

Teeth Grinding
Teeth grinding is caused by clenching jaw muscles, due to anxiety, anger or stress. Any muscle tension is the result of magnesium deficiency. In addition, stress uses up magnesium.

Raynaud’s Syndrome
Raynaud’s Syndrome is caused by spastic blood vessels, which cause pain and numbness of the fingers — which has been relieved with magnesium.

Magnesium deficiency can be corrected by eating magnesium rich food and/or taking magnesium of the right quantity and quality over time. Some improvements are experienced within a few days or weeks, but with chronic problems of many years standing, it may take a person 1-2 years to reach correct magnesium saturation in the body. Lifestyle and the emotional life must always be part of a holistic programme that is integrate with diet and, if needed, supplementation.


Causes of Magnesium Deficiency 

1. A nutrient deficient diet is, of course, a primary cause of magnesium deficiency. Magnesium is sourced from chlorophyll, and plant foods are THE source, whether you eat the plant directly, or eat it indirectly through animal products. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables will be magnesium rich, while low percentages of magnesium are absorbed from animal sources.

2. Stress is a big one! When we are in an emotional state (angry, grieving, wounded and/or traumatized), overwhelmed, not sleeping 8 hours + each night, over-exercising or over-working, we are stressing our body-mind, and are rapidly depleting our reserves of magnesium.

Along with a nutrient rich diet, sufficient sleep, meditation, mindfulness and yoga are all approaches that lead to significant improvements in those who are magnesium deficient. Another great support is Epsom salts baths…one of my favourites. Flower essences and essential oils can be a powerful tools to help with overwhelm, strong emotional states and trauma release.

3. Pharmaceuticals. Many pharmaceuticals deplete magnesium, including birth control pills, antacids, diuretics, insulin, antibiotics and cortisone. Calcium supplementation can also throw off the 1:1 calcium to magnesium ratio, leading to symptoms of magnesium deficiency.

4. Coffee and Alcohol are major culprits. Each cup of coffee, each glass of wine or cocktail, is rapidly depleting magnesium for your body. If either of these drinks are a part of your life, then magnesium has to be at the forefront of your awareness with diet, and likely supplementation too. Switch out coffee with chicory or dandelion coffee, or a delicious blend of cacao and maca and use raw nut mylk or coconut milk instead of cow’s milk. If drinking alcohol, keep consumption to a minimum and, ideally, let it go.

5. Sugar, as we know, is exclusively bad for us. Soda, candy, and hidden sugars in processed food will, in addition to their harmful affects to the endocrine system, organs and body systems, will also deprive you of the magnesium you need to heal its harmful effects. Note: fruit sugar obtained from the ‘whole’ fruit does not fall into this category and is usually magnesium rich.

Sources of Magnesium
Magnesium in found in chlorophyll; the green pigment in plants. All greens are excellent sources of magnesium. Medicinal herbs can also be superb sources of magnesium, as well as a wide range of other nutrients. As nutrient from medicinal herbs is a big topic, I will save it for another time, so below you will find excellent food sources for magnesium and some thoughts on supplementation.

Foods that are a good source of magnesium
(* indicates ones that are particularly high in magnesium – all need to be organically grown)

1. Sea vegetables like *dulse, *kelp, nori, alaria, wakame, hijike

2. Bran: *wheat bran, *wheat germ, *brewers yeast

3. Green leafy vegetables: spinach, collard greens, kale, chard, curly lettuce

4. Seeds, raw unsalted: sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, cacao beans

5. Nuts, raw unsalted: *almonds, *cashews, *pecans, walnuts

6. Blackstrap molasses: organic, unheated

7. Dark raw chocolate (this has the highest magnesium content…so learn to make your own. It’s easy!)

8. Grains: *buckwheat, *millet, amaranth, quinoa, brown rice, rye

9. Fruit: Many fruits are high in magnesium, including *avocados, *guava, *bananas, *grapefruit, *papaya, *tamarinds, *apricots, *peaches, *blackberries, *raspberries, *cantaloupe, nectarines, currents, *figs and *prunes (fresh is best and perfect for making delicious smoothies and as a ready made snack)

10. Dried fruit: figs, dates, prunes, apricots


Magnesium Green Drink

Blend the following ingredients in a high powered blender:

1. 1/2 bunch fresh spinach
2. 1/2 bunch fresh kale
3. 1 tablespoon of chlorella
4. 4 figs (fresh or dried)
5. 1 avocado
6. 2 bananas
7. 1 or 2 pealed grapefruit – note that the white layer inside of the grapefruit is very high in magnesium
8. 2 cups of coconut water or pure water

You can also add ginger, cayenne, cinnamon or other spices to taste if you are a predominantly Kapha or Vata constitution and can add mint, coriander, cilantro, fennel and cardamom for its cooling effects if you are predominantly Pitta.