The various nutrients we’d ideally get from food do everything from give us the energy we need to move through the day, to keep our bones and teeth nice and strong, to protect us from a host of diseases. Unfortunately, though, many of us fall short on at least one of these ever-important nutrients.
One that’s gotten more attention throughout the last few years: magnesium, which as many as 50 percent of Americans don’t get enough of, according to the American Osteopathic Association. Here’s the lowdown on why the mineral is so important, what red flags indicate you’re not getting enough of it, and how to increase your intake.
Why Magnesium Matters
“Magnesium is a mineral found in our skeleton, muscles, soft tissues, cells, blood, and extracellular fluids,” explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N. “It’s needed in over 350 processes in the body, including nerve function, blood pressure and blood sugar management, energy metabolism, immune support, cardiovascular health, bone health, and protein synthesis, to name just a few.”
Signs You’re Not Getting Enough Magnesium
Since the body can’t produce magnesium on its own, we must get it from foods (think spinach, cashews, almonds, and dark chocolate), says The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Karen Cooney, M.A., C.N., C.H.H.C.
When we fall short, however, our health is impacted in multiple ways. Here are seven signs your body needs more magnesium.
1. You experience muscle cramps or restlessness
Both full-on muscle cramps and general muscle restlessness (think jumpy legs at night when you’re in bed) are tell-tale signs of low magnesium levels. “If your muscles won’t settle down after a long, sweat-drenched workout, you’ve most likely lost too much magnesium via your sweat,” says Michels. Fail to replace it and your muscles pay the price.
2. You have trouble sleeping
If you have a hard time falling and staying asleep, being low on magnesium could be behind it, notes Erin Palinski-Wade, R.D., C.D.E., dietitian and author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies. “Magnesium is a natural relaxant in the body that helps to deactivate the stress hormone adrenaline, which acts as a stimulant and can keep you awake,” she explains. “It has been found that diets lacking in the mineral are associated with difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, so adding more of it to your diet can play a large role in improving sleep.”
3. You feel fatigued all day
According to Cooney, chronic fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of magnesium insufficiency. “Low levels affect the production of energy, as well as the muscles and nerves,” she explains. Even though you might think muscle contractions only matter during your workouts, poor muscle function also means you may feel tired just walking up the stairs, too.
4. You’re stressed all the time
Stress can be caused by myriad factors, including everything from your job or social life, to mental health conditions, to chronic illnesses or injury. That said, feeling anxious or having trouble managing stress are also potential signs of low magnesium levels, notes Michaels. “During times of unmanaged stress and chronically elevated levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), magnesium can not help lower cortisol levels and boost the production of GABA, a neurotransmitter that signals relaxation and rejuvenation,” she says. Through both of these functions, the mineral can help you feel more at ease.
5. You’re constipated
Chronic constipation is another not-so-fun situation that can occur for a number of reasons—one of which is a low intake of magnesium. “Magnesium can help pull water into the intestines, which then helps to ease constipation,” explains Palinski-Wade. “Since many mag-rich foods also contain fiber, which also helps reduce constipation, adding more from whole-food sources can be especially beneficial.” (Pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, black beans, and edamame all offer a solid dose of magnesium and fiber.)
Read More: 9 Natural Ways To Unclog Your Pipes
6. You experience tingling or numbness
A more serious sign that’s typically associated with severely low magnesium in the body is numbness in the face, feet, fingers, or toes, notes Cooney. “Numbness occurs when electrical impulses traveling through nerves do not get to their destination, which leads to nervous system dysfunction that can cause numbness or tingling in these areas,” she says. (One of the mineral’s many roles in the body is to support these nerve signals!)
7. You notice an irregular heartbeat
Another more advanced and serious sign of extremely low magnesium is an irregular heartbeat or heart arrhythmia. “Low magnesium leads to low potassium levels, which then affect normal heart rhythm and cause missed heartbeats or heart palpitations and/or chest pain,” says Cooney. (These may be accompanied by light-headedness and fainting.) “Arrhythmias are usually mild, however, if they go untreated, they may lead to heart failure or stroke.” In this dangerous case, magnesium injections are often used by healthcare providers to get levels to a safer place, Cooney adds.
How to get more magnesium
If you’re experiencing any of the more severe symptoms of low magnesium, call your doctor to identify the root cause and get some professional guidance on how to ease the issues and restore balance in your body.
Otherwise, working with a dietitian (The Vitamin Shoppe’s nutritionists offer free consultations), can help you incorporate more of the mineral into your diet in order to meet your needs.
The best sources of magnesium are rich food sources like leafy green vegetables, nuts (yes, peanut butter included!), seeds, beans, and whole grains into your diet. That said, a magnesium supplement can also come in handy—especially if you have allergies to any magnesium-containing foods or a health condition that can impact your ability to absorb the mineral, such as Crohn’s disease or celiac disease, says Palinski-Wade. Since certain medications (like diuretics) can increase magnesium losses, people on prescription drugs should also talk to their physician or dietitian about supplements.
While too much magnesium from food isn’t a concern, you can definitely go overboard in the supplement department. “High doses from supplements can cause nausea, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea,” according to Cooney. The recommended daily intake is 400 to 420 milligrams per day for men and 310 to 320 for women, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH), so start there when supplementing. Cooney also recommends taking your magnesium in the form of magnesium glycinate, which tends to be easier on the stomach.
If you’re an athlete, Michels also recommends adding ZMA to your nighttime regimen. This combination provides magnesium plus zinc (which is needed for cellular growth and tissue repair) and l-theanine (an amino acid that promotes calm) to support healthy magnesium levels, recovery, and quality rest.