You probably know that calcium is necessary for strong, healthy bones. But in your rush to ensure you are getting enough calcium in your diet; you may have overlooked an equally important mineral—magnesium. Like calcium, magnesium is an essential mineral. And like calcium, magnesium also contributes to strong bones. However, unlike calcium, many Americans have not heard of magnesium and are not aware of just how important it is. Magnesium has been dubbed “the forgotten mineral” because it is often overlooked in favor of calcium. But overlooking magnesium can have serious health consequences. Research shows that besides reducing one’s risk of osteoporosis, magnesium also lowers one’s risk of heart attack and stroke and reduces migraines. Magnesium is critical for a healthy pregnancy, and magnesium has a role in proper lung health. Here is a primer on magnesium, including how much you need, and the likelihood that you are not getting enough.

Magnesium, The Spark of Life

If you are one of the millions of Americans who have never heard about magnesium, you are not alone. “Calcium, because it is the most abundant mineral in the body, has become ‘the star,’” writes Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D., in her book The Miracle of Magnesium. “Even though research has accumulated on magnesium over the past four decades, it has never been adequately publicized and discussed,” she adds.

So, what, exactly, is magnesium and why is it so important to health? Magnesium is an essential mineral. It is one of seven macro minerals (meaning it is required in relatively large amounts), including calcium, potassium, sodium, chlorine, phosphorous, and sulfur. “About 60 to 65 percent of all of your magnesium is housed in the bones and teeth. The remaining 35 to 40 percent is found in the rest of the body, including muscle, tissue cells, and body fluids,” writes Dean.

Magnesium performs a number of critical functions in the body, including helping muscles contract and relax, assisting in nerve function, and keeping heart rhythm steady and strong. In fact, every cell in your body needs magnesium. One of magnesium’s most critical functions is energy production. Your body’s cells need magnesium to activate ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is the primary energy source your body uses. “Without magnesium, there is no energy, no movement, no life. It’s that simple,” writes Dean.

Besides energy production, “magnesium is directly necessary to the enzymes that break down glucose (blood sugar), it controls the production of cholesterol, makes nucleic acids such as DNA, and breaks down fats,” adds Dr. Mildred Seelig, M.D., M.P.H., a researcher who has studied magnesium for most of her adult life, and is the co-author of the new book The Magnesium Factor.

A Nation Low in Magnesium

Several national and government studies have found that most adult American men and women do not get enough magnesium in their diet. According to some researchers, the average American adult consumes 76 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of magnesium. These experts believe that up to 75 percent of the U.S. population obtains less than the RDA. Children and teens—especially teenage girls—are at risk of not getting enough magnesium. A recent study by the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) found that only half to two-thirds of children get enough magnesium. For adolescent and teenage girls, fewer than 15 percent consumed the RDA. This nutritional shortfall can have serious health repercussions.

Related article: Magnesium Deficiency – Needs for Magnesium Not Met in Most People

Can Magnesium End PMS?

Could a magnesium supplement (pill form or liquid magnesium) end the painful symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)? Yes, say some researchers. Not only have low levels of magnesium been found in women with PMS, but several studies have shown that magnesium supplements can lessen the severity of PMS. In one double-blind, randomized study, women with PMS received a placebo or 360 milligrams of magnesium three times a day from day 15 of their menstrual cycle to the onset of their period. Magnesium performed better than placebo in some measures related to premenstrual mood changes. In a separate study of 192 women who took 400 mg of magnesium daily, 95 percent reported less breast tenderness and weight gain, 89 percent suffered less nervous tension, and 43 percent had fewer headaches.

Related article: Magnesium and Mom – Risks of Low Magnesium During Pregnancy

Magnesium Guide for Every Age

Magnesium is important throughout each stage of life. For children and pre-teens, magnesium (together with calcium) is needed for tooth and bone formation and growth. Research also shows that magnesium is needed for physical and cognitive development.

Related article: Micronutrients and Brain Function

Throughout the teens, twenties, and thirties, women need magnesium to help build strong bones and prevent osteoporosis. For pregnant women, liquid magnesium may ensure a healthy pregnancy. Some research shows that women with optimal intakes of magnesium had lower rates of preeclampsia, premature labor, and had bigger, healthier babies.

After age 40, magnesium is important for both men and women. It can help regulate blood pressure and blood sugar levels and normalizes heart rhythm, reducing the risk of diabetes, heart attack, and stroke.

Life-Stage Children
Ages 1 – 3 80 mg a day
Ages 4 – 8 130 mg a day
Ages 9 – 13 240 mg a day

Life-Stage Men  Women Pregnancy Lactation
Ages 14 – 18 410 mg 360 mg 400 mg 360 mg
Ages 19 – 30 400 mg 310 mg 350 mg 310 mg
Ages 31 +  420 mg 320 mg 380 mg 320 mg 

When the average American obtains only 76 percent of the RDA of magnesium needed to support critical body functions, moderate to severe health problems arise over time. Some of the symptoms commonly associated with low magnesium include confusion, irritability, fatigue, muscle cramps, heart arrhythmias, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and, for women, premenstrual syndrome. Seelig, as she discusses in her book, The Magnesium Factor, strongly believes that heart disease is the net result of not getting enough magnesium throughout one’s life.

Related: Magnesium for Asthma and Lung Health

Why Americans Are not Getting Enough Magnesium

So if magnesium is so important, why are so many not getting enough? There are several factors behind the widespread magnesium shortfall, explains Seelig, but America’s ultra-processed, high-sugar, high-salt, fatty diet is mostly to blame. Many of the foods Americans eat such as grains, vegetables, and other foods, undergo extensive processing (milling, blanching, boiling, etc.), which removes magnesium. “For wheat, a major staple of our processed-food diet, refining out wheat bran and germ lowers the magnesium content by 80 percent,” writes Seelig. Further, chemicals used in the preparation of frozen vegetables, and boiling vegetables for prolonged periods of time also significantly lowers magnesium content.

Eating too much fat, sodium, sugar, and protein, and drinking alcohol, also threatens the amount of magnesium in your body. Fat blocks the body’s ability to absorb magnesium as well as other minerals such as calcium. Eating a high-protein diet, such as the Atkins diet, says Seelig, also increases the need for magnesium. Salt, sugar, and alcohol cause the kidneys to excrete magnesium.

Kids are especially at risk for magnesium deficiency because they are often the biggest consumers of soda pop. According to recent USDA figures, 56 to 85 percent of children consume soda on a given day. Teenage boys are especially heavy soda-pop drinkers, with over a third reporting they drink more than three servings a day. Soda contains exorbitant amounts of sugar, which poses a number of health issues for kids. The standard twelve-ounce can of cola, for instance, contains nine teaspoons of sugar. According to Seelig, the high-sugar content of soda causes the kidneys to excrete magnesium. Further, some sodas (such as cola, diet cola, and Dr. Pepper-type drinks) also contain phosphates, which bind to magnesium, blocking its absorption in the body. The result is that many kids are not getting the magnesium they need to support healthy growth and development. In addition, excess consumption of soda in children has been linked with tooth decay, obesity, diabetes, and osteoporosis.

Some medications also increase your need for magnesium. Birth control pills, diuretics, insulin, and other antibiotics, all affect how much magnesium you need. According to Seelig, “Many diuretics prescribed for high blood pressure increase magnesium loss in the urine. Some antibiotics and digitalis long used for heart pain can increase magnesium need. Estrogen found in both birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy increases adrenaline which, in turn, increases magnesium need.” 

Related article: Many Medications can Induce Electrolyte Deficiency

Taking a calcium supplement that is not balanced with magnesium can drain your magnesium stores. “Calcium is an important nutrient,” writes Seelig. “But your body also needs magnesium to properly utilize calcium.” If you are currently taking a calcium supplement to prevent osteoporosis, S