Magnesium: One of the most powerful and undervalued supplements for health and performance.
Magnesium (Mg) plays a critical role in a healthy, long life, and athletic performance.
Lowers stress response
Is Essential for healthy ageing
Is important for a proper inflammatory response
Is Essential for insulin and blood sugar control
Is Essential for energy production
Helps immune function.
Oh and you’re very likely deficient in it!
In the field of health, wellness and sports performance / fitness, a great many supplements are pedalled and promoted. Some are great, others good, and many either a complete waste of money or worse, dangerous. One rather bland, and therefore underrated supplement is magnesium. But I hope to convince you that this humble mineral deserves a great deal more attention than you currently give it, regardless of your goal.
Magnesium is the second most abundant intracellular cation, you will have around 24g in your body at any given time and it has over 400 functions in the human body. It’s involved in every enzymatic reaction needed to produce energy and improves athletic performance through at least 11 different pathways. Following is a breakdown of how my favourite mineral helps you perform better in life and training.
Firstly lets address the point of deficiency
In general supplementing with nutrients tends to have benefit only if the nutrient is deficient in the first place. Mega dosing on nutrients seems not, in most cases to benefit the individual once optimal levels have been reached. But in the case of magnesium you can pretty much guarantee that you’re at least insufficient, if not severely deficient. Research as far back as 1980 found that 80% of the US population were deficient and more recent research shows that if anything that percentage has gotten worse. I’ve never seen blood work showing ideal Mg levels in someone not supplementing. Correcting Mg deficiencies has been shown to extend lifespan. Due to it’s need in maintaining DNA transcription and telomerase activity (more on this later).
Even in athletes dietary intake has been found to be 30 - 50% of RDA, which is likely highly insufficient, especially if you’re an athlete.
Causes of deficiency include:
Inorganic Diet (nitrogen fertilisers block magnesium uptake by plants reducing dietary intake).
Poor diet (in terms of nutrient density)
Increased secretion due to diuretics (like caffeine)
I don’t know many people without at least a few of these factors.
So what are the benefits to fixing this deficiency and getting your levels to an ideal state?
Magnesium is one of the most anabolic, non-drug, completely legal, and healthy supplements you can take. There’s a number of reasons why. The amount of testosterone you produce is in part a function of the amount of Mg you have in your body. This is a direct and independent correlation between Mg levels and total testosterone, free testosterone and IGF-1. Mg not only improves Testosterone production and lowers cortisol production, but also frees testosterone from SHBG, making it free and usable. This action of magnesium is seen both at rest and at exhaustion. Meaning that it not only improves anabolic hormone profiles at rest but also improves the bodies ability to deal with training, from a hormonal perspective.
Mg is so anabolic, that when supplements doses are high enough, I’ve seen 40 year old men training twice a week while running a company gain up to 3 kg of solid muscle mass in a month.
One reason for these almost drug like effects of magnesium on muscle mass is a really interesting property of the physical molecule of magnesium itself. The dehydrated form you will supplement with is very small in comparison to hydrated form it will take once it has been transported into muscle tissue. In fact the Mg molecule will have a radius 400x greater than the supplement form once inside the muscle cell. This helps to fully hydrate the muscle cell and swells the physical muscle belly. Making for impressive gains in size. Obviously these impressive gains will plateau once the muscle is fully saturated with Mg, but the short terms gain can be exceptional and make a huge difference to one’s physique.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Mg benefits are all for show. Mg is critically important for the production of ATP. (ATP is the energy molecule, all “energy” in the human body is actually the chemical ATP). Not only that but all enzymatic reactions utilising ATP are Mg dependent. In simple terms this means that without optimal Mg levels there cannot be optimal energy levels. In fact one surefire sign that you’re exceptionally deficient is if you take a Mg supplement and feel highly energised. This shows that your levels were a limiting factor in energy production.
Essentially Mg optimises energy production through the following pathways:
Improves mitochondrial function
Improved oxygen delivery
Improved enzymatic function
How much of difference does it make? Research has shown an impact of as much as 10% less oxygen used for a given workload. That's huge. And this research was done with competitive rowers, not untrained regular people!
Looking at this from the other direction. Depriving dietary magnesium has been shown to increase oxygen requirement to complete sub maximal exercise and reduces endurance performance. (14)
Insulin sensitivity, for those who may not be familiar with the term, is a critically important factor in health and longevity. An inability to respond to the signals of insulin (insulin resistance) leads to chronically elevated blood sugar, poor blood sugar control after meals, and increases risk of obesity. Over a long period of time, high blood sugar leads to inflammation of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and negatively impacts cardio vascular health. Not to mention the deleterious effects on brain health. The more insulin sensitive you are the more carbohydrate you can tolerate without negative effects and the more efficiently you partition nutrients to the desired cells, which is great for recovery from athletic training.
Mg plays a critical role in insulin sensitivity and a deficiency plays a definite role in insulin resistance and diabetes. In fact the actual insulin receptor on the cell is activated by Mg, making adequate Mg fundamentally essential for insulin to work. In fact Mg supplementation has been shown to decrease the amount of insulin produced at a given dose of carbohydrate and improve glucose utilisation both in training and at rest.
Mg is essential to all enzymatic reactions involved in glycolysis. In simple terms your ability to effectively burn glucose as a fuel is dependent on Mg, this is important for health and athletic performance alike.
Inflammation is at the root of many of the degenerative conditions we struggle with in the west. Mg is actually a direct and significant player in the inflammatory process. From an athletic performance point of view, inflammation lowers testosterone and performance. Inflammation increases Mg usage and low Mg reduces testosterone and performance also, making it a double blow. Mg repletion has been shown to protect against reduced testosterone and performance in time of inflammation and actually reduce inflammation itself in a direct and independent manner.
Just 4 days on a Mg deficient diet has been shown to increase markers of inflammation such as IL-6. Equally there seems to be an inverse relationship between Mg and one of the most commonly used markers for inflammation, C Reactive Protein.
Lipid profiles and atherosclerosis:
Mg status is directly associated with HDL (“good cholesterol”), inversely related to waist circumference (a major sign of cardio vascular risk) and inversely related to triglycerides and body fat percentage (both being factors in your cardiovascular risk profile).
To summarise research from the university of Milan, Mg deficiency leads to a pro - atherogenic lipid profile, impaired insulin sensitivity, chronic inflammation and increased oxidative stress. Each independently of the other, but all four combining to result in atherosclerosis. Equally, Mg content of epithelial cells is critical to epithelial function and permeability, which are both important factors in preventing atherosclerosis and inflammatory conditions. So not only does Mg deficiency lead to this undesirable and dangerous condition, but is also compromises your ability to protect yourself from it.
As I mentioned earlier Mg is essential in energy production. The research on Mg and sports performance illustrates just how significant this is. For starters there is a direct correlation between Mg levels and grip strength, leg muscle power and upper body power. Not to mention the inverse correlation between Mg levels and lactic production at a given workload, oxygen consumption at a given workload and insulin production at a given dose of carbohydrate. Research has also shown increased (+17%) bench press performance in novices in response to acute supplementation.
Mg supplementation not only increases strength performance, but also improves recovery from strength training and subsequent strength performance during two-a-day training bouts at just 300mg per day. The benefits from Mg supplementation on strength and endurance performance have also been shown to occur in a dose dependent manner, with greater benefits at 500mg / day than at 250mg / day.
What's more is that Mg is a critical regulator of the sodium / potassium pump. Mg deficiency can cause intracellular potassium deficiencies, contributing to cramps.
In terms of recovery from training, Mg supplementation has been shown to blunt the stress response to endurance training specifically, without compromising recovery (it is thought that the stress response is in some ways needed to stimulate adaptation from training, maybe this is not so). In fact, in the same study Mg supplementation led to a 12% improvement in workload. Mg supplementation can also help to lower blood pressure and heart rate after aerobic training.
Remember how Mg levels were directly correlated with testosterone levels? Well Mg levels are also inversely related to cortisol levels in response to a given stress. Essentially the more Mg you have in your body the less of a stress response you have to the stressors in your life. Personally I think this is huge. We are bombarded with stress triggers every day in the modern world. If a Mg deficiency leads to further increased stress response and Mg supplementation can blunt our stress response, the net difference is a significant benefit in many wide reaching areas of health, including; cardiovascular health, mental health, reproductive health, blood pressure, blood sugar control, and sleep.
Asthmatics should pay special attention to Mg levels, as Mg helps to modulate smooth muscle contractility. In fact Mg infusion has been shown to be therapeutic in both chronic and acute asthma. The body releases significant Mg stores of its own immediately following an asthma attack, and acute infusion and supplementation has been show to have soothing effects.
Mg is also required for proper inflammatory responses, as mentioned earlier, but it also plays a role in mediating immune bodies, thus adequate Mg levels are important for properly functioning immune responses.
For the athletes reading this it’s all about sports performance, strength and muscle. But for the non athletes reading I’m guessing living longer and healthier is top of the list. Well good news, Mg helps here too. One of the most important and researched gene’s in the anti ageing world is Sirt-1, an important gene in mitochondrial biogenesis (mitochondria are the tiny, energy producing organelles that quietly sit inside your cells turning fats and carbs into useable energy. Without them we would all still be single celled organisms and they are truly a wonder of biology that deserve far more attention that this humble footnote. But rest assured, they are hugely important for health. Biogenesis is the act of making more mitochondria, something you need to be able to do if you want to age well. Mg deficiency leads to hampered Sirt-1 activity, reduced mitochondrial biogenesis, increases cell senescence (essentially cells damaged by ageing) and can lead to carcinogenesis via hampered antioxidant enzyme activity. This combination is very bad for healthy ageing.
To add to the above milieu of troubles induced by Mg deficiency, it also plays a role in telomerase activity. For those who don’t know, a telomere can be thought of as an aglet for your chromosomes. Protecting against damage and preserving your ability to make good copies of your cells, telomere length is used as an indicator of your biological age. Telomerase is an important enzyme that repairs your telomeres and help keep you young at the biological level. It’s also used as a predictor of projected lifespan. Mg deficiency leads to lower telomerase levels and inhibited function.
Finally, most people have heard of the wide ranging and highly impactful effects of vitamin D and the importance of keeping your levels optimal. What’s often overlooked is that vitamin D requires Mg not only for absorption but for the enzymatic reactions required to actually make use of that all important vitamin D.
How to correct a Mg deficiency
A dose of 10mg / kg of body weight (800mg per day for an 80kg person) has been extensively studied and shown to be generally safe and highly effective. Results, at least for sports performance, are dose dependent up to at least this point. In my experience looking at RBC magnesium levels, most people need at least 4 weeks at this level before dropping down to a maintenance level. Sometimes as much as 12 weeks is needed.
If you want to check your levels to inform your strategy, you need to take red blood cell magnesium level. This is a far more useful measure and a better indicator of body Mg levels than serum Mg, which the body will preserve at all costs and only represents 2% of body Mg stores. If this is ever low it’s extremely serious and life threatening. Your RBC Mg should be around 3mml/L. It is the single most common nutrient deficiency I see among clients.
As a footnote, do not take 800mg of magnesium all at once. This will make you evacuate your bowls VERY quickly. Spread the dose out over the day, ideally with food. As a second note, quality is key. Not all magnesium supplements are created equal. Many state the amount of Mg in each pill on the bottle to include the chelate (the amino acid that is bound to the Mg molecule to make it biologically available). This is misleading and can lead you to think that there is as much as 10x the actual Mg content in the product. It is a cheap trick of shady supplement manufacturers. Look for products that list “Elemental Magnesium”. I recommend Magnesium essentials by innovative performance sciences.
Mg levels are critical for health in myriad ways. This humble mineral plays a critical role in many areas that each have wide ranging and important roles in our overall health and wellness.
From proper inflammatory response, immune function, vitamin D utilisation, and anti oxidant activity. To testosterone levels, athletic performance in both strength and endurance, and even our stress response to our normal lives.
Mg is a big player in health and performance, deficiency is common and easily corrected.
Role of Magnesium in the Regulation of Hepatic Glucose Homeostasis. Chesinta Voma and Andrea M.P. Romani
On the Significance of Magnesium in Extreme Physical Stress. S.W. Golf, S. Bender, and J. Grüttner
The Interplay between Magnesium and Testosterone in Modulating Physical Function in Men. Marcello Maggio, Francesca De Vita, Fulvio Lauretani, Antonio Nouvenne, Tiziana Meschi, Andrea Ticinesi, Ligia J. Dominguez, Mario Barbagallo. Elisabetta Dall’Aglio, and Gian Paolo Ceda
Correcting magnesium deficiencies may prolong life. William J Rowe. Former Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine, Medical University of Ohio at Toledo, Ohio, USA
Magnesium - Advances in Nutrition review article
Testimony of the correlation between DHEA and bioavailable testosterone using a biochromatographic concept: effect of two salts. Claire Andre, Alain Berthelot , Jean Franc ̧ois Robert , Mireille Thomassin , Yves Claude Guillaum
Effects of Magnesium Supplementation on Testosterone Levels of Athletes and Sedentary Subjects at Rest and after Exhaustion. Vedat Cinar & Yahya Polat & Abdulkerim Kasim Baltaci & Rasim Mogulkoc
Magnesium chemistry and biochemistry. Michael E. Maguire & James A. Cowan. Department of Pharmacology, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland
Possible roles of magnesium on the immune system. M Tam, S Go ́mez, M Gonza ́lez-Gross and A Marcos
Correlation of magnesium intake with metabolic parameters, depression and physical activity in elderly type 2 diabetes patients: a cross-sectional study Jui-Hua Huang, Yi-Fa Lu, Fu-Chou Cheng, John Ning-Yuean Lee and Leih-Ching Tsai.
Endothelial cells and magnesium: implications in atherosclerosis Jeanette A. M. MAIER. Dipartimento di Scienze Cliniche L. Sacco, Universita` di Milano, Via G.B. Grassi 74, Milano, Italy
IGF-1, the Cross Road of the Nutritional, Inflammatory and Hormonal Pathways to Frailty Marcello Maggio, Francesca De Vita, Fulvio Lauretani, Valeria Buttò , Giuliana Bondi , Chiara Cattabiani , Antonio Nouvenne , Tiziana Meschi , Elisabetta Dall’Aglio and Gian Paolo Ceda
The effect of acute vs chronic magnesium supplementation on exercise and recovery on resistance exercise, blood pressure and total peripheral resistance on normotensive adults Lindsy S Kass* and Filipe Poeira
Effects of K+, Mg2+ deficiency and adrenal steroids on Na+, K+-pump concentration in skeletal muscle. Institute of Physiology, University of Aarhus, Denmark
A Pilot Study on the Effects of Magnesium Supplementation with High and Low Habitual Dietary Magnesium Intake on Resting and Recovery from Aerobic and Resistance Exercise Lindsy S. Kass , Philip Skinner and Filipe Poeira. School of Life and Medical Science, University of Hertfordshire, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom.
Magnesium in Hypertension, Cardiovascular Disease, Metabolic Syndrome, and Other Conditions: A Review. Catherine M. Champagne
Possible roles of magnesium on the immune system. M Tam, S Go ́mez, M Gonza ́lez-Gross and A Marcos
Increased phagocytosis and production of reactive oxygen species by neutrophils during magnesium deficiency in rats and inhibition by high magnesium concentration. Franc ̧oise I. Bussie`re, Elyett Gueux, Edmond Rock, Jean-Pierre Girardeau, Arlette Tridon, Andrzej Mazur and Yves Rayssiguier
Magnesium therapy prevents senescence with the reversal of diabetes and alzheimers disease. Ian James Martins. Centre of Excellence in Alzheimer’s Disease Research and Care, School of Medical Sciences, Edith Cowan University, Joondalup, Australia School of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, The University of Western Australia, Nedlands, Australia McCusker Alzheimer’s Research Foundation, Holywood Medical Centre, Nedlands, Australia
Magnesium deficit – overlooked cause of low vitamin D status? Armin Zittermann, BMC medicine.