Talking on the phone to my mom a while back, she mentioned having some severe leg cramps especially at night. I told her to purchase some magnesium glycinate and take 400mg at bedtime. She did this (presumably without waiting for confirmation from Dr. Oz) and was delighted with the result. When she returned to the pharmacy to replenish her supply, the pharmacist said he was sold out, confessing that he was baffled by an unprecedented run on magnesium. She then remembered telling several friends about relief from cramps and improved sleep and realized that the word had spread rapidly.

If I was restricted to using only one supplement, it would likely be magnesium. (Vitamin D and fish oil are close seconds) Why magnesium? It’s due to the combination of large numbers of people having low levels, the numerous and sometimes serious consequences of low levels, safety of supplementation unless one has kidney failure and symptomatic benefits in most people who take it.

Image-1 (7)Why are nearly 3/4’s of Americans likely to have low mag levels? Depletion of soils due to farming methods, consumption of processed foods devoid of the mineral and reduced consumption of healthy foods which contain magnesium are some of the reasons. Also the ubiquitous high insulin levels of metabolic syndrome cause excess excretion of magnesium by our kidneys. Many take calcium supplements causing an imbalance involving too much Ca and too little Mg. Stomach acid blocking drugs like “the purple pill” cause reduced magnesium absorption. Finally, diuretic drugs, given for high blood pressure and fluid retention deplete magnesium as well as potassium. Giving magnesium supplements in my practice has resulted in symptomatic improvement in most patients with muscle cramps, trouble staying asleep and anxiety.

Magnesium is involved in over 300 enzymatic reactions in our bodies. It plays important roles in blood vessel health and preventing high blood pressure, maintaining normal heart rhythm, keeping our airways open, calcium and potassium regulation and prevention of muscle cramps. In part, it plays these roles by regulating the flow of calcium into cells. Calcium flows into nerve and muscle cells causing an electric charge and thus a stimulus. Picture magnesium as the bouncer inside the cell who prevents excess calcium from entering the cell and causing overstimulation and damage. In the heart, excess calcium entering cells could lead to stimulation causing dangerous rhythms or overly constricted arteries causing angina or even heart attacks. In the rest of the arterial system, excess calcium can lead to high blood pressure and in the lungs to constricted airways and asthma. Finally, an overstimulated artery in the brain can lead to migraine headaches. Drugs called “calcium channel blockers” are potentially beneficial in each of these circumstances, but it makes sense to check for a magnesium deficit first.

Next time: other benefits of magnesium, checking levels, food sources and supplementation.