What Does a Magnesium Deficiency Look Like?
Without enough magnesium, your body will have huge disruptions in the most fundamental processes of life. Not enough cellular energy. Not enough proteins synthesized. All kinds of metabolic reactions interrupted. It’s hard to tell how which disruptions will rear their ugly heads. Migraines, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, anxiety, infertility, or more muscle cramping.
You might experience one, two, or several symptoms all at once. You may show no signs at all until much later. Or it might trigger a cluster of abnormal biochemical conditions that will increase your risk of other secondary problems.
Can I test for magnesium deficiency?
When it comes to testing your magnesium level, it’s a little complicated. Magnesium is kept mostly in bones and in soft tissues. The amount that travels through our bloodstream is less than 1%, and those levels are tightly regulated by your body.
Magnesium levels in blood or urine might not relate to magnesium levels in the body as a whole. There are a few other tests that are more accurate (for example testing magnesium inside red blood cells), but we recommend, as a first defense, to become familiar with magnesium deficiency symptoms and risk factors.
Because magnesium flows between blood, the bones and inside cells, testing magnesium in just the blood can be inaccurate.
If you decide to requisition a magnesium red blood cell test, try taking one baseline test before supplementing with magnesium and again three to four months after supplementation. Steady, consistent supplementation will help build up the reserve stores in your bones and tissues. Repeating this test every three to four months will provide a guide for how much magnesium you should be supplementing.
When supplementing, you’ll want to aim for a test result in the higher end of the range, say around 2.4 to 2.52mmol/L.
One last thing, If you take the RBC test, the reference range you might see is between 1.65 and 2.52 mmol/L. That’s a very wide interval and you may still experience deficiency symptoms at the lower end of this range.
What are the signs of a deficiency?
A sign or symptom on its own can easily be mistaken for another condition, but when reported together, can provide you a better confidence that you may not have enough magnesium. Understanding the mechanisms of magnesium in the body can help you understand why you might experience symptoms too.
Am I at a higher risk for magnesium deficiency?
Certain conditions can upset your body’s magnesium status. Gastrointestinal diseases like IBS or colitis may disrupt your gut’s ability to absorb dietary magnesium.
Hyperthyroidism, intense athletic activity or chronic stress may increase the demand for magnesium as your body metabolizes faster or creates more hormones like cortisol. Conditions like type II diabetes may increase the amount of magnesium excreted through the kidneys.
What if don’t I see any symptoms? Silent deficiencies
Sometimes, micronutrient deficiencies may not exhibit the usual array of signs and symptoms.
Why does this happen?
Dr. Bruce Ames is a professor emeritus of molecular biology at the University of California Berkeley and a senior scientist at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. In his research on degenerative diseases, he noted that deficiencies in various micronutrients may lead to DNA damage and cellular aging. He theorized that this was the consequence of something called triage allocation.
Triage allocation theory hypothesizes that during commonly lived episodes of micronutrient shortages, scarcer micronutrients are allocated towards urgent short-term survival at the expense of sustaining long-term health. For example, in a vitamin K shortage, the body will allocate what little it has to fuel critical metabolism in the liver at the expense of the vitamin’s bone-building function. A shortage of iron will draw from stores in the liver before it draws from iron stores in the heart.
Triage allocation theory can help explain why moderate shortages of minerals and vitamins might increase the risk of chronic diseases but have no overt symptoms of a deficiency. It can also explain why someone might not be getting enough magnesium despite lacking the classic signs of deficiency, like cramps, tics, seizures or irregular heart beats.
Can I have too much magnesium?
The body is highly competent at regulating magnesium levels. If too much dietary magnesium is consumed, it can flush the excess through the digestive tract as diarrhea. Too much magnesium in the bloodstream is flushed out through the kidneys in urine. As long as these safety mechanisms are functioning, it is very difficult to take too much magnesium. The worst you may experience is loose stools.
If these safety mechanisms are not functioning, then you should consult your healthcare practitioner prior to oral magnesium supplementation. In particular, if you suffer from kidney (renal) failure or bowel obstructions, you will not be able to clear magnesium from the body.
You should also consult a healthcare practitioner if you have any conditions that involve too much muscle relaxation such as very low blood pressure or irregular heartbeat.
Read the full magnesium primer (which covers why it’s important, how it works, and how it can help your body), by downloading it here.
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