Micronutrients

Magnesium deficiency: Causes, symptoms and what you can do

from Mag. Margit Weichselbraun
on 31.07.2023
Do you actually already know your magnesium level? No? But you should! Because an under supply of this multi-faceted all-rounder can be felt in many places. But effectively how does a magnesium deficiency actually manifest itself? And what preparations are available to address this? Let us throw some light on the matter.

Why is magnesium important in the body and what is it for?

Magnesium is a vital mineral, because it cannot be produced by our body itself. That is why we human beings need to absorb this light metal in our diet. Basic research shows that life simply would not be possible without this all-rounder in our body. This light metal is involved in more than 600 enzymatic reactions, biological processes and cellular functions. As a result, its impact is incredibly diverse and can be felt across all levels – both physically and mentally. Find out where magnesium is involved here:

All about magnesium

How great is the need for magnesium?

The German Nutrition Society (DGE) does not provide a recommended intake of magnesium, but merely provides anestimate for an appropriate intake. This is 350 mg magnesium per day for adult men and 300 mg magnesium per day for adult women.

When should we talk about magnesium deficiency?

If we ingest less magnesium in the long term than we need or we lose it (e.g. via sweat), this imbalance can lead to a magnesium deficiency. This can be proven by means of modern laboratory diagnostics. The determination of the magnesium content in whole blood is considered particularly meaningful. The whole blood value also reflects the red blood cell content. Thus, a more reliable statement is possible than with the serum value. If the measured values fall below the normal values of at least 29.8 mg/l magnesium in the whole blood, this is called a magnesium deficiency.

Normal values for magnesium: 

The normal values for magnesium in whole blood are within a reference range of 29.8–37.5 mg/l (equivalent to 1.23–1.54 mmol/l) in women and 31.2–39.1 mg/l (equivalent to 1.28–1.6 mmol/l) in men. In addition to the classic normal range for magnesium, the BIOGENA Good Health Study – Europe's most comprehensive study on micronutrients, health & well-being – showed further optimal ranges after performing a regression analysis, which could be detected in women with values between 29.8-35.0 mg/l and in men between 31.2-35.0 mg/l.

Causes: What causes magnesium deficiency?

There are a number of different causes for low magnesium levels in the body. One of the main reasons for an undersupply is the diet, especially if the food used does not contain enough magnesium to provide the required amount in the body.

Through an unbalanced diet

An unbalanced diet in particular often leads to a magnesium deficiency. The same effect occurs with diets. However, even with a balanced diet, the magnesium requirement is often difficult to cover. In these cases, it is advisable to take magnesium supplements.

Through sport, medication and for other reasons

A magnesium deficiency can also occur due to increased physical activity, nervous tension and stress, as well as during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

Symptoms: This is how magnesium deficiency manifests itself

Since the use of magnesium in our body is extremely diverse, a shortage of the mineral can also have an extremely diverse effect. However, amongst the numerous symptoms of deficiency, there is no single symptom with which a magnesium deficiency could be definitively diagnosed. At the end of the day, all these symptoms can also occur in the course of other imbalances or diseases. However, muscle symptoms such as calf cramps, mild eyelid twitching or cramps and tension of the chewing muscles are relatively common in the case of magnesium deficiency. Cardiac arrhythmias or non-specific complaints such as nervousness and fatigue can also be indications of a magnesium deficiency. Magnesium is also believed to play a role in some lifestyle diseases. Examples of this are high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. An overview of the most important symptoms of magnesium deficiency:

Neurological and psychological symptoms

Increased sensitivity to stress

Anyone suffering from stress should also think of magnesium. An undersupply of the mineral can negatively impact the stress spiral and unleash a vicious circle. Magnesium deficiency increases the susceptibility to stress, while stress is a well-known magnesium thief.

Depression

Magnesium is essential for the smooth functioning of our nerves. In addition, this lightweight mineral also regulates our mood and mental state via so-called neurotransmitters (= messenger substances). Studies show that magnesium deficiency increases the risk of depressive moods as well as full-blown depression.

Headaches through to migraines

Magnesium deficiency can promote the occurrence of tension headaches and migraines. A magnesium shortage can thus cause increased irritability of muscle and nerve fibres and vascular constriction in the brain. In contrast, the fact that prophylactic intake of magnesium has an "anti-migraine effect", which was demonstrated in 2016 by the review study by Dr Chiu et al.: Targeted intake of the mineral reduced the frequency and intensity of migraine attacks.

Sleep disorders, internal restlessness

Sleep disorders can have many causes. This sometimes includes physical symptoms (e.g. calf cramps) as well as mental causes (e.g. stress, worries) that interfere with sleep. Those who sleep poorly have more susceptible nerves – they feel tired, irritated, stressed more quickly and often take this distress to bed with them. Magnesium can help the body to rest in the evening. This is due to the GABA receptors in the brain and nervous system, which do not function without magnesium. GABA lowers nerve cell excitability, and has a calming and relaxing effect.

Difficulty concentrating

 Due to the supporting role of magnesium within our nervous system, a mineral deficiency can manifest as impaired cognitive abilities and reduced concentration.

Sensitivity disorders

In the course of magnesium deficiency, sensory disturbances such as tingling or numbness in the hands and feet can also occur. The reason for this is a dysfunction in the muscles and nerves caused by the deficiency.

Physical symptoms

Muscle cramps and muscle twitching

Painful muscle cramps and unpleasant muscle twitching may also be caused – amongst other reasons – by a deficiency in salts such as magnesium, which can lead to impaired excitability of the muscle fibres and thus to uncontrollable spasms.

Diabetes mellitus

Medical studies show that magnesium deficiency not only increases the risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus, but can also adversely affect the course of the disease. This is because the mineral improves the action of the only glucose-lowering hormone, insulin. However, diabetics in particular often exhibit magnesium deficiency, not least because their magnesium excretion is increased due to their illness.

High blood pressure

Magnesium deficiency can increase the risk of high blood pressure by promoting neuromuscular excitability. Conversely, magnesium is a natural calcium counterpart with vasodilatory, anti-hypertensive and antiarrhythmic effects. A scientific review of 34 studies confirms that this light metal can be useful both as a preventive measure and to reduce elevated blood pressure.

Digestive problems

Like any other muscle cell, our intestinal muscle cells need magnesium to function smoothly. Any deficiency can have a negative effect on digestion. Constipation or diarrhoea can result – sometimes both alternating.

Women's complaints – menstrual pain, PMS

A magnesium deficiency can intensify two common women’s conditions – period pain and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Studies suggest that women suffering from PMS often have low magnesium levels. This deficiency can in turn worsen certain symptoms in the symptom complex (e.g. headaches, circulatory problems, indigestion or mood swings).

Osteoporosis

According to scientists, a magnesium deficiency can lead both directly and indirectly to poorer bone condition and exacerbate existing osteoporosis. A good intake of the mineral, on the other hand, is beneficial for bone health.

Brittle fingernails

Scientists suspect that in addition to a number of other micronutrients, too little magnesium can also lead to brittle nails.

Magnesium deficiency during pregnancy and lactation

Every person needs magnesium – even the smallest of us. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers must therefore not only provide themselves, but also their baby, with sufficient magnesium. A mineral deficiency, on the other hand, always poses a certain risk for the mother-child duo. This may promote unwelcome pregnancy symptoms (e.g. constipation, premature labour) and the occurrence of pre-eclampsia, a feared complication of pregnancy. Find out more about the importance of magnesium in pregnancy and lactation here.

Magnesium deficiency during menopause

In women during menopause, the declining formation of oestrogen and sweating caused by hot flushes can lead more rapidly to a magnesium deficiency. This is particularly unpleasant during menopause, since the symptoms of deficiency may intensify with hormone-related symptoms. Such "deficiency-exacerbated" problems of the menopause include, among others, Sleep disorders, irritability, nervousness, lack of drive, depressive moods, increased susceptibility to stress or a decrease in bone density. Read more about micronutrients during menopause here.

Consequences: What happens if you have a magnesium deficiency?

In the case of a magnesium deficiency, the finely coordinated metabolic processes of our body get out of sync. This affects not only the more than 600 magnesium-dependent bodily reactions, but also all the other micronutrients (e.g. vitamin D, potassium, calcium). Against this background, it is no wonder that a magnesium deficiency can have far-reaching consequences.

Short-term magnesium deficiency

Short-term magnesium shortages can be bridged by the body’s magnesium stores in the bones and teeth.

Years of magnesium deficiency

If the body is inadequately supplied with magnesium over a long period of time, this can have far-reaching consequences. Thus, the long-term deficiency can increase the risk of diabetes, hypertension or osteoporosis.

Preventing & remedying magnesium deficiency: what to do about it

If your health is intact, magnesium deficiency can largely be covered by food intake. However, once a magnesium deficiency has occurred, it is very difficult to replenish the deficiency through food alone, if it can be achieved in this way at all. In this case, the most promising strategy is to remedy the magnesium deficiency with suitable supplements.

Increasing problems falling asleep or prolonged nervousness also point in this direction. In such cases, taking magnesium supplements for several weeks is usually the best way to quickly get the problem under control again.

In some life situations, it can make sense to increase your magnesium intake as a precautionary measure without waiting for the effects of deficiency symptoms. This is the case during pregnancy or breastfeeding, for example, or if you are facing a prolonged period of increased pressure where it is foreseeable that stress levels will rise. In such cases, a combined strategy of magnesium-rich food and support from magnesium supplements is advisable.

It is important to observe the first warning signals. If you experience repeated tension or calf cramps, you should seriously consider the possibility of magnesium deficiency

We have summarised more about magnesium requirements in pregnancy in an extra article:

More about magnesium in pregnancy

Food supplement – tablets, capsules, etc.

Magnesium is available in various dosage forms. Products that are produced according to the pure substance principle (mostly magnesium capsules) achieve the best tolerability here. This is because only they guarantee that unnecessary excipients and additives have been dispensed with in the specific magnesium preparation. This "less-is-more principle" is also helpful when it comes to the bioavailability (= absorbency) of the mineral, because additives can hinder the intake of magnesium.

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All about magnesium

Magnesium deficiency despite intake?

Successfully combatting a magnesium deficiency takes quite a lot of persistence. Depending on the severity of the under-supply, your actual physical condition (e.g. illnesses, individual additional requirement due to stress or sport, condition of the intestine) and the recommended therapy (e.g. composition and dosage of the magnesium preparation), refilling your magnesium supplies can be of varying duration – however, at least 3 months must be expected in all cases in order to refill your supplies.

Magnesium deficiency test: How to measure your values with a blood count

Only those who know their magnesium level can take a targeted approach to any possible deficiency. Modern diagnostic centres, such as BIOGENA PLAZA, and specialist doctors work with specialist diagnostic laboratories that offer the most advanced type of magnesium measurement – taken in whole blood. In contrast to the serum analyses that are conventionally used, whole blood analysis examines the entire blood, including the components bound in blood cells. Thus, the whole blood diagnostics are clearly superior to a serum test – especially when determining a mineral supply, such as magnesium.

Conclusion

Magnesium deficiency can manifest through many symptoms. However, definitive clarity about your own magnesium balance can only be obtained by means of modern laboratory diagnostics. This is also helpful in the case of refilling your magnesium stores when it comes to individually selected magnesium dosages, duration of use and progress of therapy.

Frequently asked questions about magnesium deficiency

Although a magnesium deficiency can cause typical deficiency symptoms, it is not possible to draw any definitive conclusions from the symptoms alone. If you want a black-or-white answer regarding your own magnesium balance, you’ll need a special blood test.

Magnesium thieves – as the name suggests – rob our body of magnesium. Known magnesium thieves include stress, sports, stimulants (e.g. coffee, alcohol), as well as hormone preparations (e.g. contraceptive pill, hormone tablets) and certain medications (e.g. proton pump inhibitors, drainage agents).

Just as magnesium functions differently in our bodies, its absence can also be noticeable in many ways. Typical symptoms of a deficiency include muscle cramps, twitches, and tension, abdominal cramps during periods, headaches and migraines, digestive problems (particularly constipation), irritability, nervousness, and increased susceptibility to stress.

Magnesium deficiency occurs when our body loses or consumes more magnesium than it receives externally via diet and dietary supplements – for example through exercise, stress, high alcohol consumption or various diseases.

In the case of a magnesium deficiency, the more than 600 magnesium-dependent bodily reactions and the other micronutrients (e.g. vitamin D, calcium) that are linked with magnesium get out of sync. A magnesium deficit can therefore manifest in many ways and have far-reaching consequences.

Magnesium deficiency is a reduced concentration of magnesium in the blood.

To combat a magnesium deficiency, a magnesium-rich diet, paired with a corresponding magnesium preparation in an individually adjusted dosage, is the best strategy.

Further reading:

(1)    Schmidbauer, C., Hofstätter, G. et al. 2022. Biogena Mikronährstoffcoach. 4. Auflage.

(2)    ELDerawi W.A. et al. 2018. The Effects of Oral Magnesium Supplementation on Glycemic Response among Type 2 Diabetes Patients. Nutrients. 2018 Dec 26;11(1):44.

(3)    Veronese, N. et al. 2020. Magnesium and health outcomes: an umbrella review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses of observational and intervention studies. Eur J Nutr. 2020 Feb;59(1):263-272.

(4)    Volpe, S. L. 2013. Magnesium in disease prevention and overall health. Adv. Nutr. 4(3):378S–83S.

(5)    Rylander, R. 2014. Bioavailability of Magnesium Salts – A Review. J Pharm Nutr Sci. 4:57–9.

(6)    Witkowski, M. et al. 2011. Methods of assessment of magnesium status in humans: a systematic review. Magnes Res. 24(4):163–80.

(7)    Maggio, M. et al. 2014. The Interplay between Magnesium and Testosterone in Modulating Physical Function in Men. Int J Endocrinol. 2014:525249.

(8)    Kupetsky-Rincon, E. A., Uitto, J. 2012. Magnesium: novel applications in cardiovascular disease – a review of the literature. Ann Nutr Metab.

(9)    61(2):102–10.

(10)Moslehi, N. et al. 2013. Does magnesium supplementation improve body composition and muscle strength in middle-aged overweight women? A doubleblind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial. Biol Trace Elem Res. 153(1–3):111–8.

(11)Veronese, N. et al. 2014. Effect of oral magnesium supplementation on physical performance in healthy elderly women involved in a weekly exercise program: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 100(3):974–81.

(12)Santos, D. A. et al. 2011. Magnesium intake is associated with strength performance in elite basketball, handball and volleyball players. Magnes Res. 24(4):215–9.

(13)Serefko, A. et al. 2013. Magnesium in depression. Pharmacol Rep. 65(3):547–54. (10) Eby III, G. A. et al. 2011. Kapitel 23: Magnesium and major depression. In: Magnesium in the Central Nervous System. University of Adelaide Press, South Australia. S. 313-330.

(14)Yary, T. et al. 2013. Dietary intake of magnesium may modulate depression. Biol Trace Elem Res. 151(3):324–9.

(15)Kass, L. et al. 2012. Effect of magnesium supplementation on blood pressure: a meta-analysis. Eur J Clin Nutr. 66(4):411–8.

(16)Švagždienė, M. et al. 2015. Correlation of magnesium deficiency with C-reactive protein in elective cardiac surgery with cardiopulmonary bypass for ischemic heart disease. Medicina (Kaunas). 51(2):100–6.

(17)Fang, X. et al. 2016. Dose-response relationship between dietary magnesium intake and cardiovascular mortality: A systematic review and dose-based metaregression analysis of prospective studies. J Trace Elem Med Biol. 38:64–73.

(18)Sarrafzadegan, N. et al. 2016. Magnesium status and the metabolic syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition. 32(4):409–17.

(19)Rodríguez-Moran, M., Guerrero-Romero, F. 2014. Oral magnesium supplementation improves the metabolic profile of metabolically obese, normalweight individuals: a randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Arch Med Res. 45(5):388–93.

(20)Chiu, H. Y. et al. 2016. Effects of Intravenous and Oral Magnesium on Reducing Migraine: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Pain Physician. 19(1):E97–112.

(21)Samaie, A. et al. 2012. Blood Magnesium levels in migraineurs within and between the headache attacks: a case control study. Pan Afr Med J. 11:46.

(22)Ahmad, A. A. et al. 2015. Assessment of serum magnesium level in patients with bronchial asthma. Egypt J Chest Dis Tuberc. 64(3):535–9.

(23)Rylander, R. 2014. Magnesium in pregnancy blood pressure and pre-eclampsia – A review. Pregnancy Hypertens. 4(2):146–9.

(24)De Sousa Rocha, V. et al. 2015. Association between magnesium status, oxidative stress and inflammation in preeclampsia: A case-control study. Clin Nutr. 34(6):1166–71.

(25)Wienecke E., Nolden C.: Langzeit-HRV-Analyse zeigt Stressreduktion durch Magnesiumzufuhr. In: MMW – Fortschritte der Medizin, Volume 156, 2016; S. 12-16.

(26)Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung e.V.: https://www.dge.de/wissenschaft/referenzwerte/magnesium/, Zugriff:

(27) Peikert A., et al. 1996. Prophylaxis of Migraine with Oral Magnesium: Results From A Prospective, Multi-Center, Placebo-Controlled and Double-Blind Randomized Study. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1046/j.1468-2982.1996.1604257.x?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori:rid:crossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%20%200pubmed

(28) Steinacker, J.M., Grünert-Fuchs, M., Steininger, K., Wodick, R.E. (1987). Die körperliche Leistungsfähigkeit unter Langzeit-Magnesium-Gabe. In: Rieckert, H. (eds) Sportmedizin — Kursbestimmung. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-72571-5_104.

(29) Jurczak A., et al. 2013. Effect of menopausal hormone therapy on the levels of magnesium, zinc, lead and cadmium in post-menopausal women. Ann Agric Environ Med. 2013;20(1):147–151.

(30) Micke O. 2020. Magnesium: Bedeutung für die hausärztliche Praxis – Positionspapier der Gesellschaft für Magnesium-Forschung e. V. Dtsch Med Wochenschr. 2020 Nov; 145(22): 1628–1634. Published online 2020 Nov 3. German. doi: 10.1055/a-1166-7229.

(31) Singal A., Arora R. 2015., Nail as a window of systemic diseases, Indian Dermatol Online J, Bd. 6, Nr. 2, S. 67–74, 2015.

(32) Cashman M.W., Sloan S.B. 2010. Nutrition and nail disease, Clin. Dermatol., Bd. 28, Nr. 4, S. 420–425, Aug. 2010.

(33) Siminiuc R, Ţurcanu D. 2023. Impact of nutritional diet therapy on premenstrual syndrome. Front Nutr. 2023 Feb 1;10:1079417. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2023.1079417. eCollection 2023.

(34) Heid K. et al., Oral Mg2+ Supplementation Reverses Age-Related Neuroendocrine and Sleep-EEG Changes in Humans, Pharmacopsychatry 2002; 35: - 143.

(35) Effatpanah M. 2019. Magnesium status and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): A meta-analysis. Psychiatry Res. 2019 Apr;274:228-234. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2019.02.043. Epub 2019 Feb 19.

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