Magnesium: Your Body’s Spark Plug

This mineral is one of the most critical nutrients in your diet. Are you getting enough?


It’s hours before dawn, and your legs are twitching like you’re running a marathon. During a stressful meeting later in the day, your heart pounds in your chest. Back at home that evening, you recognize the telltale signs of another migraine coming on.

You might chalk up these symptoms to the costs of a busy life. In reality, though, these seemingly unrelated issues could be signs of a magnesium deficiency.

The fourth-most-abundant mineral in your body, magnesium is vital for overall health, including the prevention and treatment of many diseases. Yet only one in three of us gets enough of this mineral through diet. A shortage can manifest in symptoms that are often mistakenly viewed as separate maladies.

“Magnesium works like a spark plug for multiple processes in the body,” explains Kathie Swift, MS, RDN, education director for Food as Medicine at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine and author of The Swift Diet. “It works in partnership with other nutrients as an important catalyst for more than 375 reactions that we need to keep our systems going strong.”

Magnesium is a key electrolyte, and among the biochemical reactions it regulates are protein synthesis, blood-glucose control, and blood pressure. Heart function, digestion, and sleep are also directly affected by it.

The mineral regulates nerve and muscle function, helping your muscles relax. Low levels can cause muscles to tighten and contract — so it’s not surprising that many common symptoms of a magnesium deficiency tend to be neuromuscular, including spasms, cramping, fibromyalgia, and facial tics.

If levels continue to decrease, it may cause numbness, tingling, seizures, mood swings, abnormal heart rhythms, and coronary spasms.

Read on to learn more about this underappreciated mineral, signs of a possible deficiency, and how to get more magnesium-rich foods in your diet.

The Mineral at Work

Magnesium keeps your body running smoothly and is key to your vitality. Here are just a few of the processes that this multitasking electrolyte supports.

Whole-Food Magnesium Support

Nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults don’t get the recommended daily intake of 310 to 420 mg of magnesium. If you suspect a deficiency, eating more of these whole foods is a great place to start.

Magnesium Nutrients

When Food Is Not Enough

If you still suspect a deficiency, despite eating magnesium-rich foods (and taking a good multivitamin with minerals), it may be time for more support. But it’s best not to experiment with magnesium supplements on your own, says Cindi Lockhart, RD, LD, CPT, nutrition program manager at LT Proactive Care Clinic in St. Louis Park, Minn.

“It’s important to have the right measures in place through effective testing,” Lockhart says. Start by working with a health professional and getting a magnesium red-blood-cell test. A few other good things to know:

  • Form matters: Organic-bound magnesium salts, such as magnesium citrate, gluconate, orotate, and aspartate, have high bioavailability. Lockhart likes magnesium glycinate, “which has been shown to have the best absorption and bioavailability at a cellular level.”
  • Dose matters: Depending on your clinical needs, Lockhart suggests starting with 250 to 300 mg. “More is not necessarily better,” she warns. “Minerals work in pairs and balances. Take the least amount needed to create a positive impact, and avoid using any single-nutrient supplement long term.”
  • Interactions matter: Many common drugs, including antibiotics and blood-pressure medications, can affect magnesium levels. If you have any issues with kidney disease or compromised kidney function, let your doctor know.

This article originally appeared as part of “Magnesium Your Body’s Spark Plug” in the May 2016 issue of Experience Life.  To order a back issue, call 800-897-4056 (press option 3 when prompted). To get all the articles from each issue of Experience Life, subscribe online at

is a food, health, and science writer based in Minneapolis.

Illustrations by Mark Allen Miller

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Newsletter Signup
Weekly Newsletter
Special Promotions