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Many have forgotten how essential magnesium is for good health-and how a deficiency could result in myriad issues.
By Andrea Rosanoff, PhD, Center for Magnesium Education & Research LLC
One of the first lessons any student of biology learns is that cells are the basic structural, functional, and biological unit of all living organisms. It’s fascinating to think about: humans, plants, and animals all contain these microscopic units of life that provide structure for the body, take in nutrients from food, convert those nutrients into energy, and carry out specialized functions. Cells are called “the building blocks of life” and make us who we are as living things…but what makes a cell?
As a scientist, I know this is not an easy question to answer. We’ve been looking at cells since 1665 when Robert Hooke first noticed the tiny structures through his observation of cork, so it goes without saying that the literature and research on the inner workings of a cell are quite extensive. However, after receiving my PhD in Nutrition with a specialty in minerals from the University of California at Berkeley in 1982, I was shocked to realize that a certain element of cell chemistry (no pun intended) was not receiving the recognition it deserved in the academic and medical community. An integral part of a cell’s health and longevity, magnesium had more or less gotten lost in the shuffle of exciting research emerging in the world of nutrition.
Wonderful, impressive research has been conducted on nutritional magnesium, but unintended neglect of this body of work has led many of us to forget how essential magnesium is for good health-and how a deficiency could result in myriad issues. Magnesium is important to so many aspects of the cell, both in structure and function-at the cellular level, the microcellular level, and the protein structure level. Nutritional magnesium is deeply involved in energy production, oxygen uptake, central nervous system function, electrolyte balance, glucose metabolism, and muscle activity-including that of the heart.
The heart is composed of cells, and magnesium contributes to the integral strength of the muscle itself. When magnesium levels begin to drop, basic functions of energy production and cell structure can be affected. The cells begin to malfunction, suffering from a weak membrane system, and calcium and sodium will rush in, resulting in an inability to properly alternate between active and inactive states. This disruption results in a variety of symptoms of heart or cardiovascular disease. Further research has shown that low magnesium levels may cause muscle cramps, migraines, chronic fatigue, and other debilitating conditions.
It’s not a hard “cell”: Magnesium is the battery of life. Without it, cells lose the ability to energize, and, as cells are our building blocks, a living thing’s foundation begins to crumble.
So, why now? Why was magnesium research under-taught and under-promoted for so long? What changed since my days at Berkeley that has my colleagues and me so interested in promoting the essential role this mineral plays in health and wellness?
Take a look at the past 70 years, or so. Before the 1950s, reports of magnesium deficiencies were few and far between. Why? Because the average diet in the United States was still heavily plant-based and limited to what was readily available in the garden, cellar, or icebox. Many Americans lived and worked on farms, and the urban sprawl had not yet occurred, so the development of commercial food processing had not yet made its way into our stores and kitchens. Eventually, though, we learned how to make more food in less time.
The rise of industrialization no doubt changed the way the world eats-and, in many ways, for the better. Longer shelf lives, mass production, and an increased access to anything under the sun, in season or not, are innovations we’ve welcomed and embraced as we and our loved ones live longer, more prosperous lives. However, much of this innovation strips our food of essential vitamins and minerals, making it last longer and taste great but not as nutrient-rich. Therefore, we could all use a little refortification.
Magnesium is an oft-stripped mineral, and, as illustrated above, that’s a problem. It’s been identified as a shortfall nutrient according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, meaning we’re not getting enough in our diets. The softening of water and wheat processing are just two of the ways magnesium misses the tips of our tongues, so it’s crucial that we do our best to eat magnesium-rich foods-spinach, legumes, nuts, whole grains, bananas-and incorporate nutritional supplements containing magnesium into our daily regimens.
As research supporting the life-changing benefits of magnesium makes its way to the forefront of nutrition science, I urge my colleagues, the industry, and other stakeholders to take notice. Modern society continues to innovate, and we must applaud advancements and look ever toward the future, while keeping in mind that, without a solid foundation-those building blocks, those batteries-we’ll be unable to reach our full potential.
Andrea Rosanoff, PhD, is the director of research and science information outreach at the Center for Magnesium Education & Research, a group of independent scholars dedicated to the health of humankind by promoting knowledge of nutritional magnesium and its peer-reviewed science.