3 Mechanisms for Magnesium Deficiency

Posted on May 16th 2014 (over 5 years)

In a previous episode, entitled "Maximizing Your Mitochondria with Magnesium," we learned that 45% of the US population is deficient in magnesium and the important role magnesium plays in mitochondrial function and how this relates to exercise performance by ensuring your muscle cells have the highest oxidative capacity (ability to produce ATP or "energy") possible.

In this post we are going to talk about:

  • the OTHER consequences of magnesium deficiency which are not strictly related to mitochondrial function ... and...
  • why over half of the US population is deficient.

The current RDA (recommended daily allowance) levels of magnesium are ~400 mg/day for a healthy adult. According to a large US national survey, the average magnesium intake is approximately 230 mg/day for women and 320 mg/day for men.* This is a pretty substantial shortfall for men, and particularly women! The average intake drops even further below the RDA for elderly demographics.

What makes this situation worse, however, is that the RDA value is based on the absolute minimum amount necessary in order to prevent severe diseases associated with magnesium deficiency. Even if you meet that 400 mg/day threshold you are still only running at the bare minimum necessary to avoid obvious consequences (as compared to say, potentially subclinical ones).

The wide array of diseases and symptoms of magnesium deficiency have to do with the fact that approximately 99% of your body's magnesium is located in bone, muscles, and soft tissue. The other 1% of magnesium is found in plasma and red blood cells.* Needless to say, this is a wide array of tissues for things to go wrong in!

The three reasons many people are starving for magnesium

Reason #1: Low intake of foods rich in magnesium (such as green leafy vegetables containing chlorophyll)

Magnesium is part of chlorophyll, the green pigment found in plants, so green leafy vegetables are particularly high in magnesium. The average American consumes foods that are rich in energy and poor in micronutrients such as processed foods, sugar, sodas, and even meat. This is the most significant cause of magnesium deficiency in The US-to little consumption of green vegetables.

Example of products and ingredients that contain very little magnesium:

  • Meat (very little)
  • Milk (very little)
  • Soda (virtually none)
  • Sugar (virtually none)
  • White flour (virtually none)

Conversely, here's a descending list of the foods that have the most magnesium:

  • Oat bran - 96mg in a ½ cup.
  • Spinach (chopped) - 78mg in a ½ cup.
  • Swiss Chard (chopped) - 75mg in a ½ cup.
  • Brown rice - 86mg in a ½ cup.
  • Almonds - 78mg in 1 ounce (23 almonds).
  • Lima beans - 63mg in a ½ cup.

Just 2.5 cups of spinach per day are enough to satisfy the daily requirement. Among this list, the green chlorophyll-rich vegetables are actually the best choice despite the fact that oat bran, for example, has more magnesium. The reason for that is related to bioavailability & absorption which we'll get to in the next section.

Reason #2: Poor intestinal absorption of minerals

The pH of the intestinal lumen can affect the ability for magnesium to diffuse across your large and small intestine's intestinal wall. In general, the more alkaline your intestines, the poorer your ability to absorb minerals in general and magnesium, in particular, will be. Most mineral salts, including magnesium, require very low pH to be solubilized and then absorbed. _In general, the more alkaline the lumen, the lower the rate of absorption of most minerals.

Despite the fact that oat bran and brown rice are both very high in magnesium they are, in fact, a poor first choice. The reason for this also has to do with absorption. The magnesium in oat bran and many legumes is misleading in that the bioavailability is reduced as a consequence of these minerals being complexed (bound) to phytates. Humans are unable to digest phytate, thus phytate impairs the absorption of minerals (mostly zinc) but also magnesium to a lesser extent. In addition, high-dose supplementation with others minerals can result in competition for mineral digestive enzymes can also impair mineral absorption. For example, relatively [high doses of zinc (142 mg/day) have been shown to inhibit magnesium absorption.

Reason #3: Excessive excretion of minerals *

Your kidneys play a major role in magnesium homeostasis by filtering magnesium and then allowing ~95% of this to be reabsorbed, but allowing the remaining 5%  (approximately) to go on to be subsequently excreted in the urine. Your kidney is able to conserve magnesium and prevent deficiency by reducing its excretion; on the other hand, magnesium might also be allowed to be excreted in larger amounts in cases of excessive intake by being filtered but not then being re-absorbed in the ordinary proportions.

There are a few factors that can significantly affect the reabsorption step that comes subsequent to kidney filtration:

  1. Alcohol - this DOUBLES the excretion rate of magnesium in both cases of acute (one time) and chronic (frequent) alcohol consumption.
  2. Diabetes Mellitus-both type 1 and type 2 diabetics have an increased rate of magnesium excretion as a consequence of general kidney dysfunction.

Other ways that excessive excretion can come about that are not related to the kidneys homeostatic processes being disrupted include:

  1. Gastrointestinal problems - Crohn's disease, Irritable Bowel Disease, etc. increase the secretion of magnesium into feces.
  2. Excessive sweating from exercise or sauna can also result in magnesium loss but to a much lesser extent than any of the aforementioned reasons.

Supplementing magnesium? The variety of magnesium you choose may matter.

Magnesium supplements that are enteric coated are absorbed 67% less than non-enteric coated supplements.  In a study that compared four forms of magnesium supplements, data suggested lower bioavailability of magnesium oxide, with significantly higher absorption and bioavailability of magnesium glycinate, magnesium lactate, and magnesium citrate.1,2 High doses of magnesium supplements are used for their laxative effect by causing a type of osmotic diarrhea.


In summary, magnesium deficiency in nearly half of the US population is largely a consequence of increased consumption of processed foods, meats, and dairy products and too little green vegetables. In order to combat this major problem, we need to change our dietary habits and increase our intake of green vegetables. It should be noted that cooking, especially boiling, green vegetables results in a significant loss of magnesium ions from the vegetables and into the water. For that reason, eating a good portion of raw spinach salad is recommended. Supplementing with the right form of magnesium, such as magnesium citrate, is another way that you can raise your magnesium levels. The other factors that regulate the magnesium levels in your body include intestinal absorption and excretion.  In times of magnesium deficiency, your intestines try to increase absorption, your kidneys slow excretion, and sometimes magnesium will be pulled out of your bones (this is a risk factor for osteoporosis). Finally, if you spent a weekend binge drinking you definitely need to replenish your magnesium levels with a nice green salad (or smoothie) the next day.

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