The hidden dangers of magnesium deficiency and how you can prevent it

RHABDOMYOLYSIS muscle cramps

Last Updated December 20th, 2021

Magnesium: Quick Facts

  • Magnesium was discovered outside the Greek city of Magnesia. Hence, the name Magnesium.
  • Magnesium was used as a curative in ancient times, mostly as a laxative or as an Epsom salt.
  • Water from the famous Epsom spring in England was used as a popular curative, both as an internal remedy and as a purifier of the blood. In 1695, magnesium sulfate was isolated from the Epsom spring water by scientist Nehemiah Grew.
  • Richard Willstatter won the Nobel Prize in 1915, by describing the structure of chlorophyll in plants, noting magnesium as the central element in them.

Magnesium and its role in the body

Magnesium pumpkin seedsAn adult’s body contains 25 g of Magnesium. Of this, 50-60% is present in the bones and the rest in tissues. From making DNA to helping your muscles contract, it is involved in over 600 chemical reactions. Most of the Americans do not meet the recommended daily requirements, despite it being such an essential mineral and vital to the body. In many cases, the deficiency is underdiagnosed because the symptoms of a magnesium deficiency only become apparent after the levels of magnesium drop to those severely low. In addition, if you are very healthy and have no known medical conditions, you will know of a magnesium deficiency really late.

The deficiency of magnesium: Causes

The deficiency of magnesium, also known as hypomagnesemia, therefore becomes an overlooked health problem. According to a study, 75% of the participants were clearly not meeting their recommended intake of Magnesium. However, only 2% were diagnosed with a magnesium deficiency. Hypomagnesemia can occur if a person does not absorb enough magnesium from his/her diet. It can also happen if too much magnesium is released through the gastrointestinal tract or the kidneys. One of the main causes for a deficiency of magnesium may be malnutrition resulting from bulimia, heavy vomiting, or anorexia. In otherwise healthy people, however, this would not be the cause.

Some of the causes of a magnesium deficiency are:

  • Alcoholism leads to an imbalance in the body of the electrolytes and minerals. It also might cause the body to release more magnesium than it generally does.
  • With age, it becomes more difficult to absorb magnesium.
  • An imbalance of electrolytes can result from chronic diarrhea. One of these electrolytes could be magnesium. Related conditions like Crohn’s disease could lead to hypomagnesia.
  • Breastfeeding and pregnancy. These factors increase the need for magnesium.
  • When the glucose levels are high in the kidney, it will release magnesium. People with insulin resistance in Type 2 diabetes will have low levels of magnesium. Life-threatening conditions such as Diabetic ketoacidosis can reduce the magnesium level drastically.
  • Organ failure. The body in the case of organ failure, particularly in the case of the kidneys, may excrete too much magnesium.
  • Taking medications. People on certain medications may also lose large amounts of magnesium. Examples of such medications are antifungal drugs, diuretics, proton pump inhibitors, and the chemotherapy drug cisplatin. If you receive vasopressin or the thyroid hormone, then to you may be magnesium deficient.

Symptoms of a magnesium deficiency

Health problems associated with magnesium loss include diabetes, chronic diarrhea, poor absorption, celiac disease, and hungry bone syndrome. Alcoholics are also at increased risk. The following are the symptoms of a magnesium deficiency:

Twitches, tremors, and muscle cramps

RHABDOMYOLYSIS muscle crampsTremors, twitches, and muscle cramps are symptoms of a magnesium deficiency. In worst cases of hypomagnesemia, it could even lead to convulsions and seizures. Scientists believe that this is because of overflow of calcium into the cells, which overstimulates the muscle cells. Supplements of magnesium may help relieve symptoms in younger deficient adults, but it is not so effective in older adults. Further studies in other groups will help verify this.

Involuntary muscle twitches could be caused by caffeine or stress as well. It could also be the side effect of a medicine or a nerve-related problem. Occasional twitches may be normal, but if they are frequent, you must consult a doctor.

Mental Disorders

Other possible consequences of magnesium deficiency are mental disorders. One of these disorders is apathy, and it is characterized by numbness and lack of emotion. If the deficiency is severe, it might even lead to delirium and coma. There is also an increased risk of depression associated with low levels of magnesium.

Magnesium deficiency might also promote anxiety, but there is no direct evidence for this. Magnesium supplements could help a few people with magnesium deficiency, but there is no direct evidence for this.


Osteoporosis is a bone disorder characterized by weakness in bones and susceptibility to fractures. Osteoporosis can be caused by several factors. Some of them are old age, lack of exercise, and lack of Vitamins D and K.

Interestingly, a magnesium deficiency could lead to osteoporosis. Though deficiency might weaken bones directly, the expected way it affects is by lowering blood levels of calcium, which is very necessary for the building of bones and teeth.


Whole30 diet fatigueThough everyone becomes fatigued from time to time, and rest is the only solution, a permanent case of fatigue could be the symptom of an underlying medical condition. Fatigue is another symptom of the deficiency of magnesium.

Since fatigue is a non-specific symptom, it is necessary to identify the accompanying symptoms to arrive at an accurate diagnosis of what the issue really is. However, bone weakness need not be the only way that magnesium induces fatigue. It can also cause muscle weakness. The muscle weakness is called myasthenia. Scientists believe that this is caused by the loss of potassium in muscle cells, a condition associated with the deficiency of magnesium.

High blood pressure

Animal studies have clearly shown that magnesium deficiency can clearly lead to higher blood pressure. While studies in humans have shown variation in this respect, it could be reasoned that the same holds good for human beings as well.

Even if magnesium may not actually lead to higher blood pressure, the benefit of magnesium supplements in lowering the blood pressure has been proven. Several reviews have arrived at the same conclusion. However, fully understanding its role in the human body will require more studies.


In people with asthma, magnesium deficiency has been observed. This is the case, or the levels of magnesium are lower in asthmatic people when compared to others.

Scientists now believe that a build-up of calcium in the muscles in the lining of the airways constricts the lungs. This calcium build-up is the main reason why asthmatic patients may find difficulty breathing.

An inhaler containing magnesium sulfate helps expand the airways and restores breathing to normal in asthmatic patients.

Irregular heartbeat

Irregular heartbeat (or arrhythmia) is mild in most cases. However, it can in some cases lead to heart palpitations, chest pain, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath. This may be due to an imbalance of potassium levels inside and outside the heart muscles. This is associated with a deficiency of magnesium.

People with congestive heart failure and arrhythmia have been shown to have lower levels of magnesium than healthy individuals. When treated with magnesium injections, the heart function of these individuals improved.

How to get enough of Magnesium

Many plant and animal-based foods are rich in magnesium. Though at present, the average American is not getting the required intake of magnesium, this can be quickly remedied by picking the right food sources and making them a part of your diet. Every ounce of almonds, for instance, contains about 18% of the RDA of magnesium. Other sources of magnesium are almonds, peanuts, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, cocoa seeds, sunflowers seeds, flaxseeds, some fatty fish, bananas, avocados, etc.

Magnesium salmonIf you have a disorder that causes a depletion of magnesium from the body, your doctor will either recommend a magnesium-rich diet or ask you to take magnesium supplements that will increase the magnesium levels in your body and help you combat the condition.

Certain nutrients and conditions can affect how much magnesium a person actually absorbs. One can increase magnesium absorption by mitigating these conditions or avoiding such nutrients along with magnesium. People could try these simple tips:

  • Reducing or avoiding calcium-rich foods in a period of 2 hours before or after eating magnesium-rich foods.
  • Eating vegetables raw instead of cooking them
  • Treating vitamin D deficiency
  • Avoiding high-dose zinc supplements
  • Quitting smoking

Further notes on magnesium supplements

As magnesium absorption decreases with age, doctors may recommend magnesium supplements for people who are over 60 years of age.

Magnesium supplements are available in three different formulations. They are magnesium oxide, magnesium chloride, and magnesium citrate. The body generally absorbs magnesium from magnesium chloride and magnesium citrate more efficiently than from magnesium oxide.

Exceeding the recommended dose of magnesium can cause nausea, diarrhea, and cramping. Infants, older adults, and people with reduced renal function are at increased risk of magnesium toxicity and should avoid high-dose supplements.

Treatment of magnesium deficiency

Treatment is done with magnesium salts when the magnesium deficiency is symptomatic or the magnesium concentration is persistently less than 1.25 mg/dL (< 0.50 mmol/L). Alcoholic patients are treated empirically, a treatment method based on an educated guess in the absence of complete information. In such patients, deficits approaching 12 to 24 mg/kg are possible.

In patients with intact renal function, about twice the amount must be given. This is because generally about 50% of the administered magnesium is excreted in urine. Oral magnesium salts (eg, magnesium gluconate 500 to 1000 mg po tid) are given for 3 to 4 days. The onset of diarrhea limits the oral treatment.

In cases where magnesium cannot be taken orally, magnesium is administered as IV (intravenous) or IM (intramuscularly). The concentration of magnesium is higher when given intramuscularly than intravenously. In all cases of injection, the serum magnesium levels must be continuously observed to make sure it reaches the desired levels and stays there.

Magnesium deficiency and pregnancy

During pregnancy, the level of magnesium is known to reduce. It is known to play a role in conditions such as pre-eclampsia and pre-term birth, but studies have been inconclusive. Studies have been conducted to determine the prevalence of hypomagnesemia in pregnancy, and the effect it has on both the mother and the baby.

A study concluded that the prevalence of hypomagnesemia in pregnant women was as high as 16.3%. In this study, there was a positive correlation between hypomagnesemia and conditions such as pre-eclampsia, pre-term births, and leg cramps. However, there was no case of either the mother or the child dying due to hypomagnesemia in this study. Magnesium supplements or a magnesium-rich diet consisting of green leafy vegetables, soy milk, and legumes may improve the conditions of both the mother and the baby.

Final Words

Magnesium deficiency is observed across all age ranges, though the risk is certainly higher in elderly people, as the absorption of magnesium reduces with age. Magnesium deficiency also correlates with higher potassium levels and sometimes with higher calcium levels, both of which are harmful for the body.

Magnesium deficiency can be treated by the use of magnesium supplements taken orally as well as by injection. In the case of an injection, serum magnesium concentrations must be observed. In order to prevent a magnesium deficiency, one can get the RDA from several foods, many of which have been listed in this article.

Since magnesium deficiency is widely underdiagnosed, it takes careful observations to make out the symptoms. In addition, the symptoms of magnesium deficiency can be confused with those of other diseases and it is possible to arrive at an incorrect diagnosis. Always approach a doctor to make sure this does not happen and that your symptoms are treated in time.

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