Magnesium and Magnesium Supplements: Everything You Need to Know

Magnesium is involved in many critical processes in your body and is essential for your health and training. We’re not talking about the chalky stuff that gives you a better grip in the deadlift, but about the micronutrient and mineral magnesium. Let’s get into it!

Key Points:

  • You need 400–420 mg of magnesium per day if you’re a man and 310–320 mg per day if you’re a woman.
  • Magnesium deficiency is rare, but many people get less than optimal amounts from their diet.
  • Magnesium supplements might help protect you from diabetes, heart disease, and weak bones, but only if you’re not getting enough from regular foods.
  • According to some studies, magnesium supplements can boost exercise performance. Again, mainly if your diet doesn’t provide you with enough.
  • Not all magnesium supplements are created equal. Your body can use some much more easily than others.

What is Magnesium?

Magnesium is abundant in the human body, and you find it in many different foods, in dietary supplements, and certain medicines. Magnesium is a mineral and one of the essential elements, a cofactor for more than 300 enzymatic reactions in your body, and necessary for aerobic and anaerobic energy production. You need magnesium for a healthy immune system, protein synthesis, blood sugar regulation, blood pressure control, and to coordinate your muscles and nervous system. And that’s just a sample of the things for which your body requires magnesium. Also, magnesium plays an important role in keeping your bones strong and improves vitamin D3 uptake and status.

Magnesium is the seventh most abundant element in the earth’s crust, but you never find free-form magnesium in nature. In 1808, British chemist Sir Humphry Davis became the first person to isolate magnesium. Today, we get most of the magnesium we need for different industries from seawater. You get a whopping billion kilograms of magnesium from one cubic kilometer of seawater.1

Your body also contains plenty of magnesium. It’s the fourth most abundant mineral in your body, with around 25 grams spread out in various tissues. Your bones store about 60%, and the rest is found in your muscles and organs. A tiny amount of magnesium, less than 1% of those 25 grams, circulates in your blood.2 3

The most common way to determine whether someone has healthy magnesium levels or is magnesium deficient is to check the level of magnesium in the blood, or rather, the serum.4 Serum is the fluid that remains when you remove everything that makes your blood clot. There is no clear relationship between your serum magnesium levels and the total amount of magnesium in your body. Various other methods are also used to determine magnesium status, but none is entirely failsafe on its own.5 When evaluating magnesium deficiency, you need to look at both measured magnesium levels and symptoms of deficiency.

Where Do You Get Magnesium?

You get magnesium from most things you eat, both from vegetable sources and animal-based foods. Green leafy vegetables like spinach are excellent sources of magnesium, as are nuts, seeds, and whole grains, including breakfast cereals. Legumes, fruits, meat, and fish are pretty high in magnesium. Dairy products don’t provide a lot of magnesium, but many people eat and drink so much of them that they still contribute significantly to their daily magnesium intake.6

On average, vegetables, fruits, grains, and animal sources provide 16 % of our magnesium intake. Milk and other dairy products provide 20% of our magnesium in childhood and adolescence and 10% after 30.7 Of course, these are just average numbers based on the population as a whole, not necessarily representing your dietary patterns. If you exclude certain foods, like if you follow a vegan lifestyle or your diet deviates from the “normal,” whatever that is, they will be even less relevant to you. Also, the information is pretty old, but current reference literature is still based on it.8

In general, foods high in fiber are also high in magnesium. A 30-gram handful of almonds provides more than 80 milligrams of magnesium, while a quarter of a liter of yogurt gives you a little more than 40 milligrams.

You also get magnesium from the water you drink. On average, US tap water contains 10 mg or magnesium per liter.9 The magnesium content of bottled water varies depending on where it’s tapped.

You can also get magnesium from dietary supplements, which we’ll get to later.

Magnesium Uptake and Absorption

You absorb the magnesium from the foods you eat in the middle and lower part of the small intestine.10 If your diet provides enough magnesium to cover your recommended dietary allowance (RDA), you absorb about 30–40% of it. Your body is smart enough to adapt to how much magnesium you eat. Absorption can increase up to 80% if you don’t get enough, while it decreases to 20% if you overload magnesium.

Not just the amount of magnesium you get from your diet determines how much you absorb. What you eat also plays a role here. Different nutrients either increase or decrease magnesium uptake. One example is high doses of zinc, which can reduce both your magnesium uptake and your magnesium balance.11 Fortunately, we’re talking about amounts you can’t get from a regular diet, only through overdosing on supplements.

A diet with too little vitamin B6 also impairs magnesium uptake, as do large amounts of free fatty acids, oxalates, and dietary fiber.12 13

As for magnesium uptake from supplements, it depends a lot on which type of magnesium you’re using. There are a ton of them! I’ll discuss the most common ones and how well you absorb them later on in the article.

How Much Magnesium Do You Need?

Your magnesium requirements differ depending on where you live. Or rather, recommendations vary from country to country and from region to region.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), for example, recommends a daily intake of 350 mg of magnesium for adult men, while they consider 300 mg per day an adequate intake for women.14

Authorities in the United States recommend a little more magnesium than that, with the recommended dietary allowance (RDA), the intake meeting the nutrient requirements of 98% of all healthy individuals, set to 400–420 mg per day for men and 310–320 mg per day for women.15

Magnesium and Your Health

Because magnesium is involved in so many crucial processes in your body, it’s probably not too surprising that studies find a relationship between low levels of magnesium and various health issues.

Osteoporosis

Epidemiological research shows that diets low in magnesium are related to lower bone density. Magnesium affects your bones both directly and indirectly. Your bone mass goes through constant turnover when bone cells called osteoblasts create new bone tissue, and white blood cells called osteoclasts break it down in a never-ending cycle. Magnesium is involved in both processes.16 In addition, magnesium controls your calcium levels, the active form of vitamin D, and parathyroid hormone, all of which help maintain your bone mass.

Research suggests that magnesium helps keep your bones strong and that low magnesium levels are a potential risk factor for osteoporosis.17However, that doesn’t mean that more magnesium than you need is better for your bones. On the contrary, too much magnesium is also harmful to your bones. In other words, magnesium supplements might help prevent osteoporosis, but only if you are magnesium deficient or have low levels of magnesium. If not, overdosing on magnesium using supplements won’t benefit your bones but might have the opposite effect. A magnesium-rich diet is good for your bones, but currently, scientific evidence does not support magnesium supplements to improve bone health or treat osteoporosis.

Type 2 Diabetes

A magnesium-rich diet is associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. A 2007 meta-analysis tracked more than 285,000 men and women for up to 17 years.18 The researchers found that every 100 mg of magnesium in the diet was associated with a 15% lower risk of diabetes type 2. That’s the equivalent of three bananas or four tablespoons of peanut butter per day.

Another meta-analysis found a significant association between high fiber and magnesium intake and a lower risk of diabetes.19 Whole grains provide a lot of magnesium, and the researchers concluded that high-fiber foods might decrease diabetes risk.

Yet another meta-analysis with more than half a million participants came to the same conclusion: the more dietary magnesium, the lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.20 This study only found beneficial effects in overweight individuals, not normal-weight men and women.

Magnesium supplementation also seems to improve insulin sensitivity in persons with type 2 diabetes.21

The problem with observational studies such as this is that it’s tough to isolate the effects of a single factor, like magnesium in this case. Magnesium is, after all, far from the only thing that determines your risk of type 2 diabetes. Many other lifestyle factors, like the participants’ dietary habits, physical activity, genetics, and environmental factors, contribute. It’s tough to determine cause and effect when looking at a single factor. That’s why there is not enough evidence to recommend magnesium supplements to treat diabetes.22 There are very few clinical trials, and they come to opposite conclusions.23 24

Eating a diet with plenty of magnesium-rich foods seems like an excellent idea, though, especially since most diabetics have low magnesium levels.25 If and when magnesium supplements might be beneficial in diabetes prevention or treatment is still unclear.

High Blood Pressure

Older research was ambiguous, but meta-analyses and reviews from 2012 and onwards suggest that magnesium supplements can help treat hypertension (high blood pressure).

In 2012, a meta-analysis looked at 22 randomized placebo-controlled trials with a total of 1,173 participants who had either high or normal blood pressure.26 The researchers found that supplementing with an average of 410 mg of magnesium led to a significant decrease in systolic blood and diastolic blood pressure in studies. They saw the most considerable effect in studies where the participants received at least 370 mg of magnesium per day.

Four years later, another meta-analysis came to similar conclusions after looking at 34 studies with a total of 2,028 participants.27 It found that approximately 368 mg of supplemental magnesium per day for three months increased magnesium levels and decreased systolic and diastolic pressure.

A third meta-analysis, published in 2017, tracked participants’ medical conditions like insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.28 It found a significant decrease in diastolic pressure in subjects who had supplemented their diet with 365–450 mg of magnesium per day for one to six months.

A comprehensive review from 2017 found that magnesium might also help prevent high blood pressure, not just treat an already elevated blood pressure.29 Each additional 100 mg of magnesium per day was associated with a 5% decrease in risk of high blood pressure.

In summary, research suggests that magnesium supplements can be a valuable part of hypertension treatment and might also reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure in the first place.

Heart Health

Epidemiological research shows that both a magnesium-rich diet and magnesium supplements are associated with protecting against cardiovascular disease risk factors.30

A cohort study tracked more than 83,000 women for 26 years with regular follow-ups every two to four years.31 Women with a high magnesium intake and high magnesium levels were less likely to die in heart-related incidents like myocardial infarction.

In another study, researchers tracked 7,664 adults without cardiovascular issues between the ages of 20 and 75 for more than 10 years.32 Those who excreted the least magnesium through their urine, which is a sign of low magnesium intake, were more likely to experience coronary heart disease during the years of follow-up.

A large meta-analysis found that both the amount of magnesium in your body and how much magnesium you get from your diet are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.33 The more magnesium, the merrier, with up to 250 mg per day reducing the risk by 27%.

Magnesium might also help reduce the risk of stroke. A large meta-analysis with more than 240,000 participants found an association between a high intake of magnesium and a lower risk of stroke.34 Every 100 grams of dietary magnesium reduced the risk of stroke by 8%.

Remember that all the above is epidemiological research. It can’t prove cause and effect. However, it suggests that magnesium plays a role in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. High-dose magnesium supplements might not be the crucial aspect, but eating a diet sufficient in magnesium, in general, is likely beneficial for your heart and cardiovascular system.

Other Health Effects

Isolated studies suggest that magnesium might be beneficial in migraine management and improve sleep in the elderly. However, the scientific evidence is low.35 36 Magnesium is also popular for treating muscle cramps, but the research is very sparse. 37As long as you use reasonable doses, magnesium has no dangerous side effects, so there is no harm in trying it.

Magnesium Supplementation and Forms of Magnesium

Magnesium is available as a supplement in many different forms. They are not equal, as the absorption of magnesium varies a lot depending on type. Look at the package before buying a magnesium supplement to see the actual contents. Some common types of magnesium supplements include the following:

Magnesium Citrate

Magnesium citrate, magnesium salt combined with citric acid, is one of the most common magnesium supplements. Citrate is a good choice with high bioavailability, and you absorb it readily.38 39 Magnesium citrate is also used in clinical settings, for example, to treat constipation and to empty the bowels before surgery. It rapidly pulls water into the small intestine, and a substantial dose can trigger a trip to the bathroom in half an hour.

Magnesium Oxide and Magnesium Hydroxide

Magnesium oxide, the combination of magnesium and oxygen, is another popular type of magnesium supplement. It’s pretty cheap to make, too, but unfortunately, you pay the price in uptake instead. It’s inferior.40 If you take a 500 mg magnesium oxide capsule, you can only use 12 mg. However, it’s not useless for all purposes, as it effectively helps with gastric acidity.41 It can also be used to treat constipation.42 In other words, even though magnesium oxide is pretty much worthless if you’re looking for a magnesium supplement, it can be used for other purposes.

Magnesium hydroxide turns into magnesium oxide when it comes into contact with water. They are two different types of magnesium when dry and snug in a bottle of pills, but when you swallow those pills, they become the same thing because your body is mainly a big bag of water.

Magnesium Malate

What do you get if you combine magnesium with malic acid, a chemical found in certain fruits? You get a form of magnesium called magnesium malate, which is an organic magnesium salt. Rodent studies show that magnesium malate is easily absorbed, and it also seems to remain in the body longer than other types.43

Human trials are far and few between, but a 2017 study found that magnesium malate effectively increased the magnesium levels of the participants.44

Magnesium Orotate

Magnesium orotate is magnesium connected to orotic acid, a chemical similar to vitamin B6. You absorb it easily, and it doesn’t seem to have the laxative effect you might experience from many other magnesium supplements.45

Magnesium Lactate and Magnesium Aspartate

These two types of magnesium combine the mineral with lactic acid and aspartic acid, respectively. Both have an okay rate of absorption, definitely better than magnesium oxide.46

Magnesium Glycinate and Magnesium Bisglycinate

These two types of magnesium are the same: magnesium attached to the amino acid glycine. Only bisglycinate is approved in certain regions, like the European Union. Magnesium bisglycinate has a satisfactory absorption rate in healthy individuals and people who have undergone intestinal or bariatric surgery.47 In addition, you don’t seem to risk diarrhea like you do if you take a lot of some other magnesium supplements.

Magnesium Threonate

Magnesium threonate is a combination of magnesium and a particular metabolite of vitamin C. You absorb it readily. According to animal studies, it is extra helpful to increase magnesium levels of the brain cells. It also improves learning and memory in rats. However, no trials confirm these beneficial effects in humans as of yet.48 49

Magnesium Sulfate

The combination of magnesium and sulfate gives you magnesium sulfate, sometimes called Epsom salt. It has a pretty poor rate of absorption.50 Many people pour Epsom salt into their bathwater and find it a relief for tired and sore muscles, stress, and stiff joints. There is not much scientific support for these anecdotal effects.51 However, it’s not harmful, so no reason to advise against it if you find it useful.

Magnesium Chelate

Magnesium chelate, or chelated magnesium, is not a type of magnesium like the ones listed above. It simply means that the magnesium is connected to a substance, usually an acid, that helps you absorb it. When you see a magnesium supplement marketed as magnesium chelate, it’s one of the examples above: magnesium bound to a helping agent.

Magnesium and Exercise Performance

Because magnesium is a cofactor for hundreds of enzymatic reactions, many of which directly affect energy turnover and physical performance, it’s no wonder magnesium supplements are popular amongst athletes and physically active individuals. 

According to several studies, athletes risk getting too little magnesium, particularly female athletes and athletes looking to make a weight class. Regular high-intensity exercise increases your magnesium requirements by up to 20%.52 53 54 55

However, older studies find that, in general, athletes get enough magnesium, likely because they need more calories and therefore eat more food.56 Of course, that conclusion assumes that you eat enough food. Many athletes follow restrictive diets during parts of the year to attain a particular physical condition or reach a specific body weight. Female athletes, in particular, often eat fewer calories than they need. 

Read more: Performance Nutrition: Eating for Exercise Excellence

Low magnesium levels might lead to compromised immune function after a workout, increasing the risk of infections like a cold.57 If you already have adequate magnesium levels, however, adding even more by using a supplement doesn’t seem to do much of anything.58

Meta-analyses and review articles looking at the effects of magnesium supplements in athletes come to varying conclusions.

A 2000 review of 12 studies looked at the effects of magnesium supplements on physical performance.59 The researchers found that magnesium supplements have no impact on strength, endurance, or anaerobic training that accumulates lactic acid. The only possible exception was maximal oxygen consumption during treadmill tests, where untrained subjects had more use of magnesium than trained.

A 2006 update on the effects of magnesium supplements on exercise found that even a modest magnesium deficiency impairs physical performance and increases the negative consequences of high-intensity training, like reduced immune function and increased levels of oxidative stress.60 In other words, if you’re physically active, you might benefit from a magnesium supplement or eating more foods high in magnesium. If your magnesium levels are lower than they should be, that is.

In 2017, a systematic review analyzed the effects of magnesium supplements on anything having to do with muscle health, including things related to weightlifting, like bench press performance, muscle mass, and muscle strength.61 The researchers found no evidence that magnesium supplements benefit athletes or physically active individuals if their levels are sufficient. If they aren’t, a supplement might be of use to improve markers of physical performance, like lean mass and strength.

That same year, 2017, another review tried to answer the question “can magnesium enhance exercise performance”.62 The researchers looked at many animal studies and human trials. They found that physically active people with a low magnesium intake might perform worse than expected when training and during competition. Human studies suggest that magnesium supplements improve performance in aerobic and non-aerobic activities, meaning both endurance and strength sports. That might be because magnesium improves strength by increasing protein synthesis and helps muscle contraction and relaxation. You might also benefit from extra magnesium during aerobic exercise, as your muscle cells require less oxygen when working, which would improve performance.

Some reviews find that magnesium enhances exercise performance, while others don’t. In summary, yes, a magnesium supplement can likely help you perform better if you don’t get enough from your diet. If your magnesium levels are adequate, the evidence for such benefits by adding a magnesium supplement is low.

Magnesium Deficiency

Magnesium deficiency in otherwise healthy people is very rare. You get magnesium from most of what you eat, both animal-based foods and vegetable sources. Unlike some other micronutrients, it’s not automatically hard to get enough magnesium if you follow a particular diet, like avoiding animal-based foods. In addition, your kidney releases less magnesium if your diet doesn’t give you enough.

Individuals with certain diseases and medical conditions have a higher risk of magnesium deficiency.

  • Type 2 diabetes leads to more magnesium excreted through the urine.63 That happens during pre-diabetes and insulin resistance, as well.
  • Individuals with bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and enteritis (inflammation of your small intestine) have a higher risk of magnesium deficiency. If you have had surgery to remove parts of your intestines, especially the small intestine, your magnesium uptake might also suffer, leading to magnesium deficiency.64
  • Chronic alcoholism and high alcohol consumption are associated with lower levels of magnesium.65 A high alcohol intake can increase magnesium excretion through urine, steatorrhea (fatty stools), and an increased frequency of vomiting. Over time, it can also lead to impaired liver and kidney function, vitamin D deficiency, and reduced pancreatic function. All these factors contribute to an increased risk of magnesium deficiency.
  • Older people often get less magnesium than young people.66 Partly because of different dietary habits, partly because magnesium absorption decreases and urinary excretion increases with age.67 Also, older people often use more medicines, some of which can interfere with magnesium uptake.

Symptoms of magnesium deficiency include tremors, feeling exhausted, muscle twitches, and nausea. If the deficiency remains untreated and worsens, other symptoms like vomiting, muscle weakness, and personality changes might appear.68

If you’re healthy and eat a reasonably varied diet, you’re not magnesium deficient. However, your diet might still provide less magnesium than recommended without it leading to any actual deficiency. If that’s the case, you rarely experience any symptoms, but getting too little magnesium is associated with an increased risk of various diseases. It might also mean a decrease in exercise performance.

Safety of Magnesium

Magnesium you get from regular food has no adverse effects. No harmful consequences of dietary magnesium have ever been recorded. Your kidneys eliminate a surplus through the urine.69

However, you can overdose on magnesium supplements. Unless we’re talking massive doses, the side effects are not harmful, only annoying, like good old-fashioned diarrhea. In other words, you’ll notice if you take too much, and if you cut back on the magnesium, the side effects go away without any lasting issues.70

Really high doses of supplementary magnesium are toxic, even to the point of eventually killing you. The first signs of magnesium toxicity are nausea, vomiting, lethargy, depression, and low blood pressure. If you keep the massive magnesium intake up over time, it eventually leads to high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood, muscular paralysis, and in the end, heart failure.71 But don’t worry about that if you use recommended doses of magnesium supplements. We’re talking massive amounts, maybe 5,000 mg or more per day over a long period, and even then, you’ll notice that something is wrong long before any harm.

Do You Need a Magnesium Supplement?

As I said earlier, actual magnesium deficiency is very rare. However, many people don’t reach the recommended daily allowance through their diet. Up to 75% of the US population fail to reach the RDA of magnesium. Despite a low magnesium intake being so prevalent, it doesn’t seem to lead to any deficiency symptoms. However, some researchers speculate that even moderately low magnesium levels contribute to medical conditions like cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and hypertension over time.72 Some even suggest an association between magnesium deficiency in athletes and sudden heart failure.73

A balanced diet with plenty of magnesium-rich foods is, of course, the best way to ensure you get enough. If you want to be on the safe side, feel free to use a supplement. There are no harmful side effects as long as you don’t go far above the recommended daily intake. You don’t seem to have any use for more magnesium if your levels are already satisfactory, anyway. There are no risks to using a magnesium supplement to ensure you reach your recommended daily allowance or even a little more.

I see magnesium supplements more as an insurance policy to ensure you get enough rather than something improving your health or performance in a dose-dependent manner. As long as you don’t dramatically exceed the recommended daily allowance, magnesium supplements have no side effects. Low magnesium levels are not uncommon, and some research suggests that even levels a bit lower than optimal are associated with adverse health consequences over time. In addition, evidence suggests your training benefits from a magnesium supplement if your levels are sub-optimal. But, if you’re sure you’re already getting enough magnesium from your diet, you might consider spending your hard-earned cash on something more fun than a bottle of magnesium capsules.

Summary

  • Magnesium is an important mineral, playing a crucial role in any number of functions in your body, and you have to get enough of it to maintain good health. “Enough” is 400–420 mg per day for men and 310–320 mg per day for women
  • Plenty of people get too little magnesium from their diet, even though that doesn’t seem to lead to deficiency symptoms. Actual magnesium deficiency is very rare.
  • Some studies find an association between magnesium and health benefits like a reduced risk of osteoporosis, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
  • Some research shows that your exercise performance might benefit from a magnesium supplement if you’re having trouble getting enough from regular foods. 
  • Magnesium supplements come in many forms with varying rates of absorption. Some, like magnesium citrate, have a good uptake, while others, like magnesium oxide, are absorbed poorly.
  • Magnesium from regular foods has no side effects, but you can overdose on magnesium supplements. If you do, we’re talking about diarrhea, not something harmful, as long as you don’t exceed recommended dosages by a tremendous amount.

If you liked this article, check out our other supplement guides, always up-to-date and based on real science:

Creatine: Effects, Benefits and Safety

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Effects, Benefits, and Safety

Vitamin D: Effects, Benefits, and Safety

Whey Protein Concentrate vs. Isolate: What’s The Difference?

BCAA vs. EAA: Which Is Better For Your Gains?

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Andreas Abelsson

Andreas has over 30 years of training experience and is a highly appreciated writer and educator on exercise, fitness, and nutrition. Few people stay more up to date and have a better grasp of the field of exercise science than Andreas.