Over the past decade I've done hundreds of interviews and articles on the dozens of benefits of magnesium. In fact, magnesium can do so much that it makes people skeptical that one simple mineral can be crucial for so many activities in the body. After all, magnesium is necessary in over 325 enzyme systems in the body that control thousands of chemical interactions.
We know that magnesium is necessary for bone health but it has a much broader scope than even I imagined. Most people think that calcium is the most important factor in bone health. Some are now realizing that vitamin D is also a necessary component. However, it's not well known that magnesium is necessary to convert vitamin D into its active form so that it can turn on calcium absorption.
I became aware of the close association between vitamin D and magnesium after receiving emails from people experiencing magnesium deficiency symptoms after they began taking high doses of Vitamin D. Some doctors are prescribing 50,000iu of Vitamin D in the synthetic D2 form instead of the previous standard of 400iu per day.
It turns out that all the enzymes metabolizing vitamin D require magnesium as a necessary co-factor., When you take high doses of Vitamin D and if you are already low in magnesium, the increased amount of metabolic work drains magnesium from its muscle storage sites. That's probably why muscles are the first to suffer magnesium deficiency symptoms -- twitching, leg cramps, restless legs and charlie horses. Angina and even heart attacks affecting the heart muscle are all magnesium deficiency symptoms.
A reader of my blog reported that her vitamin D levels remained chronically low (below 30) despite months of high-dose supplementation of vitamin D. It wasn't until she added magnesium that things changed quite dramatically. After adding magnesium, her last vitamin D level was 67, which for her was a miracle. This turn about surprised her endocrinologist as well. She also noticed a big difference in how she felt. She no longer had chronic "unexplained" muscle tenderness, and could exercise longer on her treadmill and felt great.
Personally, I think we should consider that part of the vitamin D deficiency epidemic is an underlying magnesium deficiency. That could mean that we don't really need extraordinarily high doses of vitamin D, but a combination of vitamin D along with magnesium to make the vitamin D work. I often recommend 1,000-2,000iu along with 600 mg of elemental magnesium.
What about calcium? Magnesium stimulates the hormone calcitonin, which helps to preserve bone structure by drawing calcium out of the blood and soft tissues back into the bones. This action helps lower the likelihood of osteoporosis, some forms of arthritis, heart attack and kidney stones. So, if you're taking lots of calcium and not much magnesium, you are susceptible to these conditions.
Almost half the population of the U.S. (almost 70 percent of adult women) uses dietary supplements containing calcium. In general, we absorb less than half of the calcium we ingest. Some researchers warn that calcium supplements are responsible for an increase in calcification. Calcium causes constipation and builds up in the body in soft tissues where it can harden (calcify). The sites of calcification include artery walls, kidneys, gall bladder, muscles and breast tissue.
Recommendations for calcium intake vary greatly. In the U.S., adults are advised to take 1,200 mg per day of supplemental calcium over an above their intake through food and water. And women over 50 are told to take up to 1,500 mg. In the United Kingdom, the RDA is 700 mg daily, while the World Health Organization recommends only 400-500 mg. Adding to our calcium load are many foods that are fortified with calcium, including orange juice, sports drinks and breakfast cereals.
In 2011, a British Medical Journal meta-analysis sounded the alarm that "Risks outweigh benefits for calcium supplements." The study indicates that calcium supplements do more harm than good. They cause more cardiovascular events (such as heart attacks and stroke) than the number of fractures they prevent.
The seven authors of the study expressed concern that with so many people taking calcium supplements, "Even a small increase in incidence of cardiovascular disease could translate into a large burden of disease in the population." They even go so far as to "suggest that a reassessment of the role of calcium supplements in the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis is warranted."
That's a huge admission of failure of the main treatment for osteoporosis -- high-dose calcium supplementation. In fact, researchers in a study of postmenopausal women with high milk intake speculate that high levels of calcium may actually be a cause of osteoporosis and osteoporotic bone fractures. The researchers fail to realize that it's not just the high doses of calcium but the lack of magnesium that's the underlying problem. So they can't just say calcium is bad for bones; calcium is required for bones, but so is magnesium.
The effectiveness and benefits of calcium in preventing and treating osteoporosis are enormously impaired in the absence of adequate levels of magnesium. Magnesium keeps calcium dissolved in the blood. Too much calcium along with too little magnesium can cause some forms of arthritis, kidney stones, osteoporosis and calcification of the arteries, leading to heart attack and cardiovascular disease. So, it's not just the calcium causing these problems but an associated lack of magnesium.
Why have we become a nation of calcium pill poppers? Because it's the agreed-upon solution to osteoporosis and the mantra of the dairy industry that "Everybody needs milk."
Even the commonly agreed-upon ratio of 2:1 calcium to magnesium found in many supplements is a major stumbling block overcoming the overcalcification of our population.
In fact, it's a myth. This so-called recommendation traces back to French scientist Jean Durlach who warned that the 2:1 ratio was a "never to be exceeded" level when considering calcium intake from all sources (food, water and supplements). His warning has been greatly misunderstood and is taken as a recommendation of a 2:1 calcium-to-magnesium imbalance instead of something to avoid.
The fact that most people do not get their minimum daily requirement of magnesium exacerbates the situation. A hundred years ago we enjoyed a diet high in magnesium with a daily intake of 500 mg. Today we are lucky to get 200 mg. However, calcium in the diet has never been higher. This high-calcium, low-magnesium diet, when coupled with calcium supplementation, can give a calcium to magnesium imbalance of 10:1 or even higher -- which constitutes a walking time bomb of impaired bone health and heart disease.
What I do for my mineral balance is exercise daily; eat lots of vegetables, nuts and seeds; take a magnesium supplement. And for my other important minerals, I take an eighth of a teaspoon of sea salt in each pint of water that I drink.
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1. Saggese, G. Bertelloni, S. Baroncelli, G. I. Federico, G. Calisti, L. Fusaro, C. Bone demineralization and impaired mineral metabolism in insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. A possible role of magnesium deficiency. Helv Paediatr Acta. 1989 Jun; 43 (5-6): 405-14.
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4. National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. 2011. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Calcium. "Calcium Intakes and Status."
5. Bolland, MJ, A Grey, A Avenell, GD Gamble, and IR Reid. 2011. "Calcium Supplements with or without Vitamin D and Risk of Cardiovascular Events: Reanalysis of the Women's Health Initiative Limited Access Dataset and Meta-Analysis." Epub BMJ (Apr 19): 342:d2040.
6. Feskanich, D, WC Willett, and GA Colditz. 2003. "Calcium, Vitamin D, Milk Consumption, and Hip Fractures: a Prospective Study among Postmenopausal Women." Am J Clin Nutr (Feb) 77(2): 504-11.
7. Durlach, J. 1989. "Recommended Dietary Amounts of Magnesium: Mg RDA." Magnes Res (Sep) 2(3): 195-203.
8. Altura BM, "Introduction: importance of Mg in physiology and medicine and the need for ion selective electrodes." Scand J Clin Lab Invest Suppl, vol. 217, pp. 5-9, 1994.
Carolyn Dean MD ND
Dr. Carolyn Dean is a medical doctor and naturopathic doctor, patent holder and Medical Director of the Nutritional Magnesium Association www.nutritionalmagnesium.net.
Dr. Dean has been in the forefront of natural medicine for over 30 years. She is the author/coauthor of 29 health books (print and eBooks) including "The Magnesium Miracle, Future Health Now Encyclopedia and Death by Modern Medicine."
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