Diet diary: Magnesium deficiency — a less detected condition with serious effects

Magnesium deficiency in our bodies is one of the most under-recognised deficiencies compared to other nutrients. The mineral, widely available in our food supply and environment, seems to be causing serious concern. According to research published in the journal ‘Nutrition Reviews’ in March 2012, more than half (56 per cent) of the US population consumed less than the required amount of magnesium in 2001-02, which corresponded to a sharp increase in type-2 diabetes in the country.

Magnesium plays an important role in energy production and storage, muscle contraction and maintenance of blood glucose levels. It has been established as a key nutrient, especially for individuals with a regular exercise regimen and athletes.

The mineral is known to improve athletic performance as it increases glucose availability as well as lactase clearance in the muscles during exercise. Magnesium is also known to promote strength and cardio-respiratory function. Its role among athletes appears to be far more significant than realised and can have life-threatening consequences if overlooked.

Magnesium deficiency is associated with muscle weakness, cramps, structural damage of muscle fibre, strength and power limitation, therefore increasing susceptibility to cellular damage and affecting muscle performance. Symptoms of the deficiency include insomnia, muscle cramps, muscle weakness, headaches, fatigue, dizziness, irritability, hyper-excitability, decreased concentration and depression. Severe magnesium deficiency may cause low blood calcium and potassium levels, loss of appetite, nausea, arrhythmia (irregular heart beat), even cardiac arrest and sudden death.

As magnesium is lost through sweat and urine, individuals engaged in intense exercise or those working out at high temperatures lose more of the mineral than the average person; hence their requirement is 10 to 20 per cent more than most individuals. Accumulating evidence supports the theory that athletes and those involved in regular exercise must pay special attention to their nutrient and micronutrient status.

Magnesium deficiency is not only extremely common but is also linked to several diseases and health problems. But many symptoms of low magnesium are not unique to this deficiency alone, making it difficult to diagnose accurately. Blood or serum magnesium levels may not always reflect the true status. Therefore, low magnesium levels often, go completely unrecognised and untreated.

Magnesium deficiency is common among those suffering from chronic digestive problems, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, mal-absorption, celiac disease, gluten-related disorders, endocrine problems, vitamin D deficiency, diabetes, chronic alcoholism, diuretics or among those who consume excess sugar or caffeine.

The mineral is found abundantly in foods like green vegetables, legumes, peas, beans and nuts (specially almonds), some shellfish and most whole unrefined cereals. Hard water has been found to contain more magnesium than soft water. Cooking decreases the magnesium content of food.

There is experimental and clinical evidence that the amount of magnesium in urban and western diets is insufficient to meet individual demands and that magnesium deficiency may be contributing to common health problems. However, supplementation must be done under the care of a qualified professional.