The History of Magnesium
The Case for Magnesium
I’ll build my argument for magnesium beginning with three case histories of people who successfully overcame their magnesium deficiency.
Mary joked that she felt as though she were constantly being run over by a slow--moving bus. Cramping in her legs startled her awake at night, making her an insomniac, and she had heart palpitations daily. Her doctor also found that she had high blood sugar. It wasn’t bad enough for her to need insulin injections. but he prescribed pills to try to stimulate more insulin production. Finally, frightening panic attacks came out of nowhere and made this vibrant, fun--loving woman afraid to go outside.
To try to relieve her leg cramps, Mary began taking calcium at night, having read that it was good for cramps and sleep. At first the calcium seemed to help, but after a week or two the pains got worse. If she yawned and stretched in bed, her calf muscles would seize up and catapult her to the floor, where she would lie frantically massaging her muscles to try to release the spasm. All the next day she would limp about with a very tender, bruised feeling in her calf.
Although Mary’s heart palpitations had improved somewhat after she’d given up her three cups of coffee a day, they resumed after a few weeks. Every time the palpitations occurred, which was several times a day, they made her cough slightly and catch her breath. She found it frightening, even though her doctor said her stress tests for heart disease were negative and she didn’t need further testing with an angiogram.
Both Mary’s parents had suffered adult--onset diabetes, and Mary knew that she should watch her diet, but she was overweight and found sugary and high--carbohydrate foods hard to resist. When the panic attacks hit on top of everything else, Mary knew she had to seek help, and came to my office. She was only fifty--three, far too young to be feeling so ill, and she was worried about her future health.
Sam was just forty--nine and experiencing chest pains. At first he thought they were indigestion, but sometimes the pains would occur in the middle of the night. Concerned, he went to a cardiologist, who found two slightly blocked arteries, not serious enough for bypass surgery. Sam’s cholesterol was somewhat elevated, as was his blood pressure, which he attributed to his high--stress occupation and the fact that he had not exercised regularly for the past six months, when he was sidelined with back pain.
The cardiologist warned Sam that his arterial blockage would almost inevitably worsen over time and eventually necessitate surgery. The doctor offered him medication for his high cholesterol and slightly elevated blood pressure, told him not to eat butter or eggs, and gave him nitroglycerine to take whenever he had the pain. He said that if the symptoms got worse, he would prescribe more medications. Sam couldn’t imagine taking pills for the rest of his life and waiting to have surgery when he got worse! He knew there must be something he could do to avoid surgery, and came to me for advice.
At thirty--five, Jan had actually begun to look forward to menopause. That’s how bad her PMS symptoms were every month. And as soon as those horrible PMS feelings lifted, she was hit by the sledgehammer of menstrual cramps. She also had migraines, which for years had come before her period but now were occurring once or twice every week. She was so miserable that she was considering a complete hysterectomy, with removal of her hormone--producing ovaries, but wondered whether the migraines were not actually hormonal, since they were happening all month.
Different as their symptoms are, Mary, Sam, and Jan were all suffering from magnesium deficiency. While women and men seem equally susceptible to magnesium deficiency, women, pound for pound, have less magnesium. Women have fewer circulating red blood cells, which carry magnesium, and perhaps less magnesium available, but they seem to utilize the magnesium they do have more efficiently than men.
There are a few other gender differences. Because of magnesium’s effect on hormonal regulation and vice versa, women appear to have more problems with low magnesium because they can suffer deficiencies during pregnancy, when breast--feeding, with premenstrual syndrome, and with dysmenorrhea (painful periods).
Osteoporosis, which affects more women than men, is evidence of an imbalance of calcium and magnesium. An overactive thyroid, which afflicts more women than men, increases the metabolic rate, which uses up magnesium--requiring ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the energy packets made in each cell in the body. Without magnesium, ATP would not be produced. However, women’s efficient use of magnesium may explain why prior to menopause they are more protected from heart attacks than men.
Let’s follow Mary, Sam, and Jan and see how they overcame their magnesium deficiencies.
When Mary visited me, I charted her health history in detail, according to procedures commonly used by naturopathic doctors, and found several symptoms of magnesium deficiency. In her case it had been made even worse by too much calcium, however, so simple magnesium supplementation wouldn’t be enough for Mary. Her diet and lifestyle needed a complete overhaul. I explained that calcium appears to help leg cramps, at least initially, because excess calcium forces magnesium to be released from storage sites. But if someone is magnesium--deficient, the excess calcium will eventually cause more problems.
I gave Mary a list of magnesium--rich foods that she needed to start eating, which included nuts, beans, greens, and seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin. Mary realized that she’d been avoiding almost all of these foods: she thought nuts were fattening, beans gave her gas, and greens never seemed fresh enough at the supermarket. She had never even thought about eating seeds.
After a week of enthusiastically eating a lot more magnesium--rich foods, Mary felt somewhat better. To make sure she could get fresh organic greens regularly, she tracked down a local CSA (community--supported agriculture) program and bought a share from a neighboring organic farm. Mary also learned how to soak and cook beans to prevent them from causing gas, and began eating nuts and seeds rich in magnesium and healthy oils, such as almonds, walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds.
After her second visit I recommended that Mary begin taking magnesium supplements. Starting with a dosage of 75 mg a day, we added another 75 mg every two days to build slowly to 600 mg. I cautioned her that it could take months to eliminate magnesium deficiency symptoms and that not all her symptoms would necessarily respond quickly. Mary, excited by the improvement she felt by just increasing magnesium--rich foods, expressed impatience and wanted to know if she should have intravenous magnesium to saturate her tissues more quickly. I explained that IV magnesium would indeed do just that, but a more effective and much less expensive way would be to stay with her picometer ionic magnesium (ReMag) and use Epsom salts regularly in baths, including foot baths.
Within one month Mary was singing the praises of magnesium. Her palpitations and panic attacks had disappeared. Her cravings for sweets were fewer, she was able to control her blood sugar with diet alone, and tests for blood sugar were normal. Her leg cramps were gone, and with them her insomnia. At three months we added calcium--rich foods along with magnesium supplements to keep a 1:1 ratio between the two. Mary’s internist was quite surprised at her improved health and told her to keep up the good work with her diet and supplements.
Sam had an inquiring mind, and I encouraged him to start reading about heart disease and magnesium. He found that up to 30 percent of angina (chest pain) patients do not have badly blocked arteries but may be suffering from an electrical imbalance that is driven by mineral deficiency, most commonly magnesium.1 An astonishing 40 to 60 percent of sudden deaths from heart attack may occur in the complete absence of any prior artery blockage, clot formation, or heart rhythm abnormalities, most likely from spasms in the arteries (magnesium is a natural antispasmodic).2, 3, 4, 5 Moreover, he found that magnesium deficiency has been linked to sudden cardiac death.
Sam didn’t want to wait around for a heart attack to happen; he was determined to find out what was causing his problem. The more he read, the more intrigued he became. When he read that magnesium deficiency is also associated with muscle pain, especially back pain, that really got his attention, since he started having back pain four or five months before he developed chest pain.6
With a packet of information on magnesium, Sam went back to his cardiologist. After Sam had been waiting impatiently for the doctor a full thirty minutes, a nurse took his blood pressure; it was elevated, even though at home it was usually only a few points above normal. (Doctor--induced hypertension, often called “white coat syndrome,” is commonly reported by patients.) After hearing the blood pressure reading from his nurse, the cardiologist swept into Sam’s room and immediately began talking about blood pressure medication. Sam countered with magnesium. The cardiologist visibly cooled and said that magnesium was used to control hypertension that occurred in pregnant women because there were no side effects, but that there were plenty of effective drugs for everyone else. When Sam said he would rather not have side effects either, the cardiologist gathered up his file and told him to come back when he was ready to take medications for his heart disease.
When Sam came back to see me, he was still pretty upset by this encounter; he didn’t like the specialist refusing to discuss a possible magnesium deficiency as part of the picture. Sam and I agreed that magnesium seemed to be the best treatment for him to initiate at this time since he was not willing to take medications. Sam began adding magnesium to his diet by eating magnesium--rich foods. After a week he felt much calmer, but he still had chest and back pain. So he added magnesium supplements, and in about three months he felt almost normal.
Among the studies Sam read was one that looked at the correspondence between type A personalities and magnesium deficiency. From the description, Sam realized he was a type A, an aggressive guy who lived on adrenaline, time pressure, and stress. This type of behavior drains the body of magnesium and can lead to disorders such as heart disease, muscle spasms, hypersensitivity, and irritability.7
Prolonged psychological stress raises adrenaline, the stress hormone, which depletes magnesium.8 Both Sam’s back and chest pain would hit when he was under stress. Sam worked on ways to control his stress and added more magnesium when he knew he couldn’t avoid it. On days when he exercised, Sam added an extra 150–-300 mg of magnesium to his regime, since sweat loss during heavy exercise (cycling and jogging) and working in the heat deplete magnesium. Drinking plain water won’t replace the minerals lost. And electrolyte drinks contain mostly sodium and sugar. By paying attention to the many factors that affected his mind--body health, Sam lowered his cholesterol and stress levels and reduced his chance of a heart attack and of needing surgery to unblock his arteries.
Jan heard that yoga might help her PMS and painful periods, and she really needed to learn to relax, so she took classes at a local health club. The teacher also ran regular detox and cooking classes, which Jan decided to join when she realized she didn’t have to “give up everything” and become a vegetarian.
One of the first things Jan learned in the detox class was the importance of having regular bowel movements. Jan felt she was lucky if she had one a week. If the bowel doesn’t empty once a day, toxins can be reabsorbed back into the body from the colon. The longer debris sits in the colon, the more fluid is reabsorbed, making stools more solid and difficult to pass. PMS and endometriosis, which causes painful periods, are considered by some natural--health experts to be triggered by constipation and toxicity.9
During cooking classes, Jan faced the fact that she was a junk food addict. Magnesium is necessary in hundreds of enzymes in the body but is almost totally lost during the processing of packaged and fast foods. The older women in her class were suffering from a variety of problems that included cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Jan wondered if that was how she would end up in ten or twenty years if she didn’t take care of her health now. Learning how many basic nutrients she lacked in her diet made her marvel that she wasn’t even more ill.
Her new diet included greens, beans, nuts, and seeds, which cleared up her constipation and almost eliminated her PMS and painful periods. When she came to see me on the advice of her yoga teacher, it was clear she was on the right track. I recommended that she begin taking a magnesium supplement and a multimineral supplement, as well as increasing her dietary calcium. With all her lifestyle changes, Jan soon felt like a new person.
CAUSES OF MAGNESIUM DEFICIENCY: THE MAGNESIUM BURN RATE
It is quite a shock to see all the ways that magnesium can become depleted or burned off. I’ll talk about most of these magnesium deficiency factors throughout the book in more detail. I’ve also listed “100 Factors Related to Magnesium Deficiency” later in this chapter. However, the following list of twenty--six major causes of magnesium deficiency is a good summary and bears repeating so you can truly understand what we are up against in our magnesium--depleted world.
Causes of Magnesium Deficiency
1. Athletic performance causes sweat loss of magnesium.
2. Alcohol causes magnesium depletion due to its diuretic effect.
3. Antacids counteract stomach acid, decreasing magnesium absorption.
4. Acid rain is high in nitric acid, which draws calcium and magnesium out of the soil to try and neutralize the acidity and consequently depletes the soil of these minerals.
5. Caffeine causes magnesium depletion with its diuretic effect. It also stimulates the adrenal glands, causing adrenaline surges and magnesium loss.
6. Most drugs cause magnesium depletion; this is especially true of drugs containing fluorine atoms.
7. Fertilizers do not replace necessary minerals but are high in phosphorous, potassium, and nitrogen. Excess potassium and phosphorus are preferentially absorbed into plants, inhibiting magnesium absorption.
8. Fluoride and fluorine in water, from dental procedures, in toothpaste, and in drugs bind magnesium, making it unavailable to the body. Magnesium fluoride (MgF2), called sellaite, is an insoluble compound and replaces magnesium in bone and cartilage with a brittle, unstable crystalline substance.
9. Food processing and cooking decrease magnesium levels.
10. Herbicides such as Roundup bind with magnesium, making it unavailable for plants to utilize for decades.
11. Pesticides kill worms and bacteria and thus their function of processing the soil and breaking down minerals is lost, which means fewer minerals are absorbed by plants.
12. Intestinal disease, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), leaky gut, gluten and casein sensitivities, funguses, and parasites, interferes with magnesium absorption.
13. Junk foods, especially sugar products, drain magnesium. The liver needs twenty--eight atoms of magnesium to process one molecule of glucose. Fructose requires fifty--six atoms of magnesium.
14. Meat from animals eating magnesium--depleted food is low in magnesium.
15. Oxalic acid (found in rhubarb, spinach, and chard) and phytic acid (found in cereal grains and soy) block absorption of magnesium.
16. Low potassium levels can increase urinary magnesium loss.
17. High-protein diets can decrease magnesium absorption and require more magnesium for digestion and assimilation.
18. Refining grains, especially rice and wheat, reduces magnesium.
19. Sauna therapy for weight loss, to detox, or just to stay healthy can cause enough mineral loss through sweating to create magnesium deficiency symptoms.
20. Soil on farmland is woefully depleted of magnesium.
21. Soil erosion makes it easier for heavy rain or irrigation to wash away soil, leading to a loss of minerals, including magnesium.
22. Stress or trauma of any type—-physical, mental, emotional, environmental—-can cause magnesium deficiency.
23. Stomach acid deficiency due to stress results in decreased absorption of magnesium.
24. Tannins in tea bind and remove minerals, including magnesium.
25. Trans fatty acids and mineral deficiency alter cell wall integrity, making the cell walls more rigid, which affects receptor site function and prevents the flow of nutrients in or out of cells.
26. Water softening treatment reduces magnesium.