What is magnesium?
Magnesium is a mineral essential to human health. In the past, we were able to get all of the magnesium we needed from the foods we ate, particularly leafy greens, whole grains, legumes, and seafood. Today, however, much has changed. Conventional farming methods have stripped soils of their mineral content, preventing plant foods from having access to magnesium while they grow. Food processing also eliminates some or all of the magnesium contained in foods, particularly the removal of the bran from grains to make refined flours. Additionally, the trend over the last century of moving away from a vegetable-heavy diet has reduced our exposure to magnesium-containing foods. Magnesium in the body is also depleted by heavy exercise, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and birth control pills. Because of these issues, magnesium deficiency is an epidemic.
Why do I need it?
Magnesium plays many roles in the body. The most noticeable effect is in its “anti-stress” properties. Magnesium works in concert with calcium. While calcium functions to contract muscle fibers and vascular tissue, magnesium is the opposing mineral, causing relaxation. The benefits include prevention of muscle spasms and cramps, as well as lowered blood pressure and reduced risk of cardiovascular event. Much media coverage over the past several decades has focused on calcium intake, and many people have an imbalance between calcium and magnesium as a result. Improving this balance by somewhat reducing calcium intake (focus on reducing “calcium-fortified” processed foods) and increasing magnesium has been shown to be helpful with managing hyperactivity, epilepsy, asthma, PMS, and kidney stones.
How can I get it?
As mentioned above, leafy greens, whole grains, legumes, and seafood are the whole foods that carry the biggest magnesium punch. There are several complicating factors involved, however. Today’s leafy greens contain far lower magnesium levels than those veggies did in the past. Few people are eating these foods in sufficient quantities today to reach recommended levels of magnesium. One interesting idea is to dehydrate green veggies (think collard greens and kale), then grind them into a powder that can be used in smoothies, in salad dressings, on roasted veggies, in soups, etc. Several large green leaves will become just a quarter to a half teaspoon of powder.
Whole grains are frequently promoted as being magnesium powerhouses, but the bran, or outer covering, of the seed contains phytic acid. Phytic acid binds with magnesium, as well as other minerals, and makes it unusable. The magnesium-phytic acid cluster will simply pass through the digestive system. Because of this, only a tiny amount of magnesium in grains is usable and absorbable. Soaking grains (like wheat berries, steel cut oats, or buckwheat groats) before eating them reduces the phytic acid load. This should be done in filtered water with a tablespoon or two of lemon juice or whey (strained from plain yogurt) for about 12 hours. Legumes should be similarly soaked.
Fortunately for Alaskans, one of the greatest magnesium sources is halibut. A half-pound serving provides nearly 50% of the daily recommended value of the mineral! Most informational sources barely mention this, as frequent halibut is unusual for most Americans. Be sure to eat your halibut!
While there is great variety in food sources of magnesium, all of the additional factors still make adequate intake a challenge. Luckily, there are several supplement options. Epsom salts contain magnesium which is absorbable through the skin. Taking a nice Epsom salt bath will actually increase your magnesium levels. There are also a few drink mixes on the market that are a good source of the mineral. Natural Calm by Natural Vitality comes in several plain as well as stevia-sweetened flavors. This makes a great bedtime drink, for both adults and kids, and is extremely supportive a restful night’s sleep. Garden of Life also makes a Relax & Restore mix that contains a dose of probiotics as well. The main limitation on these kinds of supplements is that the body can only absorb so much magnesium at a time; excess is passed through the digestive tract (diarrhea!). If you are new to magnesium supplementation, start slow and gradually increase to the recommended dosage. If even low dosage causes digestive discomfort, you may want to look into a magnesium transdermal patch.