What Are Magnesium Deficiency Symptoms?

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Magnesium is an element and nutrient that everyone needs in their diet to keep the body functioning normally. About 80% of all known metabolic functions use magnesium.

However, magnesium is not just limited to metabolism; magnesium plays a role all over the body. So if your body is running a little dry on its available magnesium, you might feel it in a variety of ways.

To better understand the symptoms of magnesium deficiency, we need to look at what magnesium is and what it does.

What is Magnesium?

Magnesium is an essential mineral and electrolyte that plays a role in many bodily processes. It is the eighth most common element in the crust of the earth. One of the most heavily concentrated locations of magnesium on the planet is in the Dead Sea, which has been reported to have a concentration of 198 mmol/L.

This is perfectly reasonable once you consider magnesium salts dissolve very quickly in water, making them very bioavailable to us, humans, and other animals. The mechanisms behind magnesium are very similar to calcium but in reverse.

The two elements are antagonists to each other in many biochemical scenarios. For example, just like calcium, the majority of magnesium is stored in the bones.

About 99% of the magnesium in our body can be found in our bones, muscles, and soft tissue -- about 50-60% of which is just in the bone. Over time the body can access these magnesium stores to ensure that it can still function.

Magnesium is a critical cofactor that makes over 300 reactions in the body possible. Most of these reactions have to do with energy production in the form of ATP.

Understanding Free Radicals

Like in the non-microscopic world, producing energy is bound to create some form of pollution, and in the body, these pollutants are called free radicals.

Free radicals are a class of highly reactive compounds that are responsible for what is called oxidative stress. When these oxidized substances -- free radicals -- are formed, they can be dangerous to the body, reacting with otherwise stable molecules and compromising the integrity of some cells.

Substances that donate hydrogen molecules can reduce the oxidized molecules back to their normal state before they dish out too much destruction.

Magnesium plays an essential role in stabilizing the enzymes related to ATP creation so they can keep on working -- think of them as the control rods on a nuclear reactor.

But that's not all that magnesium does. In fact, magnesium is involved in essentially everybody process that requires energy, including:

  • Glucose utilization
  • Fat synthesis
  • Protein synthesis
  • Muscle contraction
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Methylation
  • Heart rhythm
  • Bone formation
  • Neurotransmitter release (all brain and nerve functions)
  • Enables signalling cascades (Sodium/Potassium pump)
  • Calcium reuptake in nerves and muscle

Magnesium imbalance

Magnesium imbalance can come in two flavors: too much magnesium (hypermagnesaemia) or too little magnesium (hypomagnesemia).

It is very uncommon for someone to experience excessive magnesium. More often, someone might experience common signs of magnesium deficiency if they have some underlying health condition. In worst case scenarios, deficiency may even result in seizures and convulsions.

Some symptoms of magnesium deficiency include:

  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Chest Pain (angina)
  • Tiredness and Fatigue
  • Muscle Spasms and Weakness

While symptoms are not common, one study found that most Americans were not getting enough magnesium in their diet.

Some risk factors that might make you more likely to experience symptoms due to a magnesium deficiency include:

  • Continually eating a low-magnesium diet
  • Having gastrointestinal disorders
  • Genetic sweating disorders
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Parathyroid disorders and hyperaldosteronism
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Celiac disease
  • Obesity or metabolic syndrome
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Twitches, tremors, and muscle cramps
  • Certain medications, such as proton pump inhibitors, diuretics, bisphosphonates, and antibiotics

Long-term magnesium deficiency may have adverse effects on:

  • Bone density
  • Brain function
  • Nerve and muscle function
  • Digestive system

What Causes Magnesium Deficiency?

There are numerous factors at play that are responsible for the increased magnesium deficiency within the population. Perhaps the most concerning factor is that magnesium levels in vegetables have dropped by somewhere between 85% over the past hundred years.

Other factors have also contributed to the decreased magnesium in the American population, namely behavioral habits. One study showed that these foods lose 80% of their magnesium during processing before they even hit the shelves of your local grocery store.

How Is Magnesium Deficiency Diagnosed?

There has been incredible difficulty amongst researchers to establish a consistent way of measuring the magnesium status of a person. This struggle is because different parts of the body all use magnesium and in varying amounts, as well as the fact that most of the magnesium that a person has is still in their bones and other tissues.

Typically, one could just measure the levels of the important molecule in the blood or the urine, and they would get their answer about the status throughout the body, but this will not work in the case of magnesium.

In fact, many of the biomarkers that are used for clinical data on magnesium today have been shown not to be sufficiently accurate enough to make proper diagnoses.

One diagnostic method proposed in the past is to do magnesium loading. Loading tests give a person a specified amount of the nutrient or hormone being tested.

After a set amount of time, they will do a blood draw or otherwise measure the level of the nutrient or hormone. They will then repeat this process over the course of a few hours in order to get a good data set that can give diagnostic results. This testing procedure has been used in the past for the earliest recognition of type two diabetes.

With diabetes, a glucose tolerance test can be used to measure how quickly the pancreas produces and the body reacts to insulin. Whether this diagnostic tool will be employed for common use in testing for the magnesium status of a person has yet to be seen.

A diagnostic blood test may not be the best way to determine if you have low magnesium levels.

Check your symptoms and see if any of them line up and work on preventative care. If you are concerned, please talk to your doctor.

What Can You Do

One of the easiest ways to protect yourself against low levels of magnesium is through general preventive care. Based on the mechanisms we have seen here today, the importance of getting magnesium into the diet is profound.

Other evidence that was shared we know incorporating more magnesium into our diet is simple, although not necessarily easy: cut out processed foods!

With a greater amount of natural foods losing up to 90% of their magnesium nutrients over the past hundred years, the last thing we should be doing is eat foods that strip out even more magnesium from the diet. Instead, focus on whole foods, especially vegetables, which can help your magnesium intake based on the recommended dietary allowance (RDA).

Here's a list of some of the most magnesium-rich foods:

  • Cocoa and Dark Chocolate
  • Bananas
  • Leafy green vegetables, like spinach, kale, and swiss chard
  • Pumpkin Seeds
  • Nuts like Almonds and Cashews
  • Beans and Legumes
  • Black Beans
  • Lima Beans
  • Salmon
  • Avocado
  • Acorn Squash
  • Artichokes
  • Kale
  • Green Peas
  • Okra
  • Sweet Corn
  • Potatoes
  • Whole Grains

Talk with your doctor about creating a healthy diet plan to increase your magnesium intake.

A doctor may recommend magnesium supplements for those with poor magnesium absorption. If magnesium depletion is happening in the whole foods we get nutrients from, it's time to target the magnesium specifically.


About 80% of all known metabolic functions use magnesium. However, magnesium plays a role all over the body as well. Magnesium is involved in many body processes, from protein synthesis to muscle contraction to all brain and nerve functions.

Sometimes magnesium can get out of balance and cause various symptoms, but this generally is pretty unlikely. If you are experiencing a magnesium deficiency, it is likely because of some other underlying condition. While magnesium measurements are unreliable new methods are being proposed and may become mainstream in the future.

In the meantime, the best thing you can do to maximize your level of magnesium is to cut our processed foods and incorporate a magnesium supplement into your diet.

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Healthy Directions Staff Editor