Magnesium 101

Top 10 Functional Benefits of Magnesium Supplements

Magnesium is an essential mineral that plays a vital role in maintaining overall health and well-being. From promoting heart health and reducing fatigue to supporting bone and muscle health, magnesium is a cofactor in over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body.

While anecdotal reports and clinical studies often highlight magnesium’s potential benefits for a range of health concerns, in this article, we’ll look at the top functional benefits of magnesium supplements that have been rigorously reviewed and authorised by the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA).

What are the Benefits of Magnesium Supplements?

magnesium contributes to electrolyte balance

Electrolyte balance

Magnesium is an electrolyte, a substance that has an electrical charge when you dissolve it in water. In your body, which is around 60% water, electrolytes like magnesium are responsible for conducting electrical charges throughout the cells and fluids. 

These electrical charges have some critical roles in the body. For example, they’re responsible for nerve impulses and muscle contractions, which means they control everything from your heartbeat to the blink of your eye. They also regulate your fluid levels, hydration, and pH balance (the balance of acid to alkaline in your body). And they play a key part in the body’s many chemical reactions; magnesium alone is involved in over 300!

Magnesium is just one of the electrolytes we need to function normally; others include sodium, potassium, calcium and phosphate. All of these electrolytes interact with and depend on each other, so in addition to having enough of each, it’s important that they’re properly balanced. 

You take in electrolytes through your diet, and you lose them through sweat and urine (as regulated by your kidneys). You can develop an imbalance, then, if you have a deficiency in your diet, you’re dehydrated, or you have a health problem that affects your ability to regulate your levels. 

The EFSA notes that a magnesium deficiency “always includes secondary electrolyte disturbances” and is usually associated with low calcium levels. They explain that this is because calcium balance is partly controlled by a mechanism that needs magnesium to work. In conclusion, they say that there is a definite relationship between magnesium intake and maintaining electrolyte balance. 

magnesium contributes to normal functioning of the nervous system

Nerve function

Broadly speaking, you have three different types of nerves in your body: 

  • Sensory nerves carry information from your body to your brain, e.g. touch, and pain. 
  • Motor nerves carry information from your brain back to your body to trigger a certain response, e.g. muscle movement, or hormone secretion from a gland. 
  • Mixed nerves carry information both ways. 

For those nerves to communicate properly, a few things need to happen. Here’s what they are and why they rely on magnesium… 

First, the electrical charge of the cells needs to change from negative to positive. The strength of this charge is measured in volts, so the change from negative to positive is essentially an increase in voltage. Magnesium helps to move other electrolytes in and out of the cell so that this can happen.

Second, if the voltage increases past a certain threshold, it will trigger an electrical signal to be fired along the length of the nerve. Magnesium helps to regulate how high the voltage goes, making sure that the strength of the signal is appropriate for whatever triggered it. That means that having your toe stepped on won’t feel as painful as breaking it!

Magnesium also regulates the threshold for sending the electrical signal, so your nerves don’t just fire for no good reason. This ensures that your muscles don’t twitch while you’re trying to relax, for example, or that your glands don’t overproduce hormones. 

Finally, at the end of each nerve, the electrical signal needs to be passed along to the next nerve by chemicals called neurotransmitters. Magnesium is essential for the creation of many of these neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. It can also help to regulate or even mimic the actions of others. 

magnesium contributes to normal muscle function

Muscle function (including the heart)

As we touched on in the last section, your muscle movement is controlled by your nerves. An electrical signal is fired down the nerve, all the way to the muscle, causing it to contract. You can do this consciously (e.g. clenching your fist), but sometimes it happens involuntarily (e.g. snatching your hand away from a hot surface). And in the case of your heart, it happens constantly and automatically (more on that in a moment!).

So you know that magnesium plays a big part in how the nerve fires, leading to that muscle contraction. But the muscle also needs to relax afterwards — imagine if you couldn’t unclench your fist! Magnesium helps by restoring your cells to their normal resting voltage. The electrical signal stops firing, the muscle is no longer being “shocked”, and so it stops contracting. 

You might be familiar with what happens when this process goes awry! If there isn’t enough magnesium to relax the muscle properly after a contraction, it can start to spasm and cramp up. A lack of magnesium can also lead to constant firing from the nerve even when you’re not trying to use the muscle, leading to twitching, muscle fatigue and soreness. 

Magnesium is especially important when it comes to your heart, which is also a muscle. Each heartbeat begins with an electrical signal sent from the brain to the heart’s “pacemaker”, triggering another wave of electrical signals through the heart’s muscle tissue. 

The electrical signals cause the upper chambers of the heart to contract, squeezing blood into the lower chambers. The lower chambers then contract, squeezing blood out to the lungs and body. That’s the quick 1-2 of your heartbeat — the upper chambers contracting, followed by the lower chambers. The upper chambers then relax, filling with blood again, and the cycle repeats. 

It’s this repeated “contract and relax” that creates the pumping action of your heart, and you can’t have either without magnesium. While a lack of magnesium is bad news for any muscle, it can be especially serious for your heart. The EFSA agrees, confirming the important relationship between magnesium intake and normal muscle contraction, including the heart.

magnesium contributes to normal psychological function

Psychological function

The EFSA says a cause-and-effect relationship has been established between magnesium intake and normal psychological function, noting that magnesium deficiency is associated with symptoms like “depression, psychosis, irritability or confusion”. 

That’s because magnesium is involved in many important biochemical reactions and functions that relate to stress, mood, and cognitive skills. Notably, magnesium is required for the normal production of serotonin. It’s often referred to as “the happy hormone” because it makes you feel calm, emotionally regulated and happy. On the other hand, low levels are associated with depression. 

Magnesium also helps to regulate the nervous system. One specific branch of the nervous system is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and it controls all of your involuntary functions. The ANS has two branches of its own: the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is in control when you’re calm and relaxed, and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which kicks into gear during times of stress and anxiety. If you’ve heard of the “fight-or-flight” response, that’s your SNS in action. 

When your SNS is in charge, you experience a flood of “stress” hormones like cortisol. Magnesium helps to regulate the part of your brain that triggers cortisol, making sure it produces the right amount for the situation. It also helps to get rid of the stress hormones in your system afterwards, handing control back over to the PNS and calming you down. This is important because high levels of cortisol can be harmful over a long period, and may lead to chronic stress.

Another major contributor to normal psychological function is healthy sleep, which we’ll explore shortly…

magnesium contributes to normal energy-yielding metabolism

Energy-yielding metabolism

The EFSA says that there is “good consensus on the role of magnesium in energy-yielding metabolism.” 

As you probably know, your body’s main source of energy is glucose from your diet. However, before you can use the energy from glucose, you have to extract it using a process called the Krebs cycle. Here’s a simplified overview of how that works…

The Krebs cycle is a repeating series of chemical reactions. During these reactions, energy is released from glucose and captured by a little molecule called ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. ATP acts like a shuttle, carrying energy all over the body and escorting it into the cells. 

You need magnesium both to make ATP and to use it. Magnesium binds to ATP and keeps it stable, ensuring that it reaches the cell and passes through the cell membrane. Without it, ATP would instead be broken down into other compounds, rather than used for energy.

magnesium contributes to a reduction of tiredness and fatigue

Reduction of tiredness and fatigue

It goes without saying that if you’re not producing enough energy, you’re going to feel exhausted. That’s one way that magnesium contributes to a reduction of tiredness, a benefit confirmed by the EFSA. They note that magnesium deficiency is associated with symptoms like muscular weakness and fatigue. 

Magnesium might also help tiredness and fatigue because of its many roles in normal sleep. 

Your sleep-wake cycle is controlled by your body clock or your circadian clock. Two main hormones influence the rhythm of this cycle: cortisol, which rises during the day to make you feel alert, and melatonin, which rises in the evening to make you feel sleepy. Magnesium helps your circadian clock to “keep time” so that it can trigger these hormones at the appropriate time of day. 

Melatonin and cortisol act in direct opposition to each other — when one is high, the other is low. If your cortisol levels remain high into the evening, melatonin will be suppressed. That’s why stress keeps you awake at night! But by regulating cortisol and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, magnesium helps clear the way for melatonin to work its magic. Magnesium is also needed to make serotonin, which is necessary for making melatonin in the first place. 

magnesium contributes to the maintenance of normal bones

Maintenance of normal bones

Similarly to the way your skin cells renew themselves, your bones also go through cycles of regeneration. This process is called bone remodelling. 

Bone tissue is broken down by specialist cells called osteoclasts, and then new bone is built by cells called osteoblasts. To maintain bone mass and density, you’ll need to rebuild at least as much bone as you break down. If the rate of breakdown exceeds the rate of rebuilding, the bones will start to lose the minerals that give them their strength.

So where does magnesium come in? According to the EFSA, as much as 60% of all the magnesium in your body can be found in the bones and teeth. Citing a cause-and-effect relationship between magnesium intake and normal bone maintenance, they confirm that magnesium deficiency can lead to loss of bone strength and impaired development.

Magnesium’s major benefit is the way it affects other key players in bone health, like calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D. Here are just a few examples: 

  • Vitamin D is required to absorb both calcium and phosphorus from food, but you need magnesium to turn vitamin D into its active form. As the EFSA confirms, magnesium deficiency can therefore lead to calcium and vitamin D deficiencies. 
  • Magnesium stimulates calcitonin, a hormone that moves calcium into the bones.
  • Magnesium suppresses parathyroid hormone, which would otherwise draw calcium out of the bones and into the soft tissues. This would be harmful to both the tissues and the bones. 
magnesium contributes to the maintenance of normal teeth

Maintenance of normal teeth

Just like your bones, your teeth require calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D to stay strong and healthy. And just as with bones, magnesium is essential for making sure those nutrients can do their job. 

Tooth enamel is the hardest material in the human body. It gets its strength from hydroxyapatite, a tightly bonded network of crystals made from calcium and phosphate minerals. Magnesium helps to move the minerals into this hydroxyapatite network, creating a strong tooth structure. Without sufficient magnesium, the tooth enamel will be soft and vulnerable to decay. 

Tooth decay is caused by regular and prolonged exposure to acid. When plaque builds up on the teeth, the bacteria in the plaque metabolise your food and produce acid as a by-product. This acid leaches minerals from the enamel. Saliva can neutralise acid and restore minerals to the enamel, but it can only do so much! If you lose more minerals than you put back regularly, the tooth will eventually weaken and decay. Magnesium affects your ability to put those minerals back, potentially increasing decay risk.

The health of your teeth also depends on the health of the jaw bone that holds them in place. As you now know, this depends on magnesium too. 

magnesium contributes to normal protein synthesis

Protein synthesis

Protein synthesis is the creation of proteins. Each protein is made from a unique sequence of building blocks called amino acids, and then used for essential functions like: 

  • Building and repairing tissues. 
  • Creating hormones and enzymes. 
  • Catalysing (spending up) chemical reactions. 
  • Regulating the expression of genes. 
  • Regulating the immune system. 

The specific instructions for each protein are stored in your DNA, in the nucleus at the heart of the cell. When a protein is needed, a copy is made inside the nucleus and then taken out into the cell. The protein is then built from this copy, drawing from lots of different amino acids found in the cell, and folded into a unique shape. Proteins can contain hundreds or even thousands of amino acids. Even a single error can create a different protein, or render the protein useless or even harmful. 

So what role does magnesium play? In addition to delivering the energy the cell needs to perform protein synthesis, magnesium acts as a cofactor (enabler) to almost every enzyme involved in the process. The EFSA confirm that there is a relationship between magnesium intake and normal protein synthesis, adding that protein synthesis is “sensitive to magnesium depletion.” This is supported by an earlier study showing that deficiency decreased protein synthesis in certain cells by as much as 50%.

magnesium has a role in the process of cell division

Process of cell division

Last but not least, the EFSA says that there is a relationship between magnesium intake and normal cell division. This is the process by which cells make “copies” of themselves for your body to grow, repair, and reproduce.

Cell division goes all the way back to conception when a sperm cell and an egg cell join together. The two cells divide to become four cells, and the four cells divide to become eight cells, and so on, eventually creating a human made of billions of cells. 

Cell division continues after birth. Your cells continue to rapidly multiply as you grow throughout childhood, building bigger bones, organs and other tissues, until you reach full adult size at around 18-20 years old. 

Throughout your life, cell division continues at a slower pace. Most of your cells undergo cycles of regeneration, where old, dead or damaged cells are removed and replaced by new cells. Think of a cut that eventually heals without a trace; the damaged skin cells have gradually been replaced by fresh ones. 

Protein synthesis is a key step in cell division, and we already know that magnesium plays an important role here. Another key step is DNA replication — making sure that each “new” cell also has a copy of the original DNA in its chromosomes. Magnesium is essential to this process and also helps to separate those chromosomes when the cell divides.

Should I Take a Magnesium Supplement?

Theoretically, you should be able to get all the magnesium you need from your diet. However, experts agree that this is quite difficult these days due to soil contamination, poor soil quality, and excessive processing. These all deplete the actual magnesium content of our food, so even someone eating a supposedly magnesium-rich diet could be deficient.

In addition, lifestyle factors such as stress, and excessive caffeine or alcohol consumption can all impact your body’s magnesium levels. Certain medications can also affect your bodies ability to absorb and use magnesium.

Below are a few telltale signs of magnesium deficiency you can watch out for:

  • low appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • fatigue and weakness
  • muscle spasms or tremors
  • abnormal heart rhythms

What is the Best Magnesium Supplement?

We’ve put together an in-depth guide to the best magnesium supplements, reviewing the most popular types of magnesium and their benefits, recommended dosages and top product recommendations.

Please always remember to always consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new supplement. They can help you determine the appropriate dosage based on your unique circumstances and nutritional requirements. They can also advise you on potential interactions with medications or other supplements you may be taking.