PART 1: Magnesium Deep Dive: Why Supplement and Which Form is Best?
Bio: Chett Binning
Chett is both a Nutrition and Health Coach and former competitive athlete. He finished his hockey career with Carleton University, where he also completed an Honours BA in Psychology. After this, he completed a Masters in Neuroscience (MSc) from Western University, and started his own company known as Brain Ignition. Chett offers health and nutrition consulting services to athletes and everyday people and is also the Scientific Specialist and Educator with ATP Labs, helping educate about ATPs unique formulations.
You can find him online at www.brainignition.ca or on Instagram @brainignition
Magnesium Deep Dive: Why Supplement and Which Form is Best?
Magnesium is finally getting its due as one of the most critical minerals for human health. From the many social media posts, website blogs and even mainstream media stories some commonalities concerning magnesium’s role in our body become clear, including:
Training & Performance:
- Creation of ATP (burst energy used during exercise)
- Improved recovery from exercise
- Muscle function
Health & Wellness:
- Balancing hormones
- Controlling cortisol and stress
- Preventing over-activation in the brain (which we can experience as stress or anxiety)
- Stabilizing blood sugar
- Healthy blood pressure
In short, over 300+ enzymatic functions rely on a steady supply of Magnesium for these biochemical functions! (1)
Now the important part: What does this mean from a practical standpoint? In other words, how does it relate to me? How do I know if I need to increase my mineral intake and what form is best?
To answer this, we will first quickly review why you should consider increasing Magnesium intake.
Causes & Symptomology of Magnesium Deficiency
Training & Performance:
While 50% of the American public was shown to be deficient (2), is interesting to note that so too were 42% of athletes! (3) Perhaps it’s not surprising that the average person might be deficient of such a critical mineral given potential eating habits, but why might those who are “elite” be so high?
- Note: Deficient means not enough or below safe levels. How many were running in an insufficient state, which also compromises performance?
Magnesium levels in food (even fruits and vegetables) has significantly declined in the last few decades and explains why deficiency has become so common (i.e. the average person). (4) Lesser known is the impact of physical stress (training) on the athlete which also taxes the stores of available magnesium. For this reason, even with an ‘improved’ diet, athletes are extremely prone to depleted magnesium in the absence of supplementation. This does not relate solely to the realm of the professional athlete – but also those who train actively (Cyclists, Runners, CrossFit, MMA, Bodybuilding, Equestrian etc.) are all susceptible to insufficiency, that is a shortage that can negatively affect athletic performance and recovery.
Health & Wellness:
Looking at the statistics from a health perspective, a shocking 80% of postmenopausal osteoporotic women were found to be deficient in magnesium. (5) Hyperinsulinemia and Hyperglycaemia (high insulin and blood sugar resulting from excess sugar intake/lack of activity) also drives down magnesium. Therefore type 2 diabetes is strongly associated with magnesium deficiency. (6)
Another study found low levels of magnesium in 119 of 179 (66%) patients admitted consecutively to the ICU. (7) Worse, many medications lower magnesium. If you are facing health challenges, mineral stores can be taxed even further (worse if one’s diet is suspect).
As if the risk of magnesium depletion wasn’t high enough, these numbers may very well be an underrepresentation considering the primary test used for magnesium levels is serum, but only 1% of the total body magnesium is found here! This does not give us information about the levels of the other 99%!
Here are some example symptoms or side effects of magnesium deficiency broken down into areas of impact:
- Physical: Muscle spasms, insomnia, muscle weakness
- Recovery: Lack of recovery from training, physical, or mental exertion
- Mental: Anxiety, stress, headaches, depression, poor tolerance to stress
- Wellness: High blood pressure, blood sugar dysregulation, cortisol dysregulation (excess stress) and more.
So obviously supplemental magnesium is important. Where can we get it?
Magnesium can be found in appreciable amounts in some nuts and seeds (like brazil nuts, cashews, and almonds), dark chocolate (>85%), or dark leafy green vegetables like swiss chard or spinach. However, as we will discuss, even a ‘nutritious’ diet is unlikely to supply adequate magnesium.
When it comes to supplementing with Magnesium, why does it matter which one I take? To answer, I love to use this analogy. Since we need minerals, why not simply grind up a rock and drink it? Would this not suffice to supply my body with what it needs? Were it only so easy!
While there are trace minerals, our body is not able to optimally absorb them which is why that strategy does not work! Elemental Magnesium is poorly absorbed in the body and thus must be bonded or chelated to other molecules to carry it. Therefore, when you shop for Magnesium supplements or even your basic multivitamin you see names next to the mineral like oxide, citrate, malate or glycinate. These forms are different and really do matter. They break into two groups: organic or inorganic forms.
Inorganic Forms: Oxide and Chloride
These are examples of inorganic molecules. Inorganic magnesium salts (and molecules) are naturally derived from harvested earth and rock sources. While the expression “naturally derived from rock” may sound great, but this makes them insoluble in water and therefore poorly absorbed.
In comparison, organic magnesium salts are created in a laboratory by combining an inorganic magnesium salt with either an acid or an amino acid (a protein).
Studies on the bioavailability of different magnesium salts consistently show that organic salts of magnesium have a higher bioavailability than inorganic salts (e.g., Mg oxide). (8)
Despite this you will find that these (particularly oxide) are commonly used because they are significantly cheaper than some of the forms discussed later. Oxides are often justified in their use because after being bonded to the inorganic molecule, they do hold the highest amount of elemental magnesium. As a result, this is often marketed as “better” and uses the common marketing strategy of more = better).
- Remember the rock analogy – you can drink all the magnesium you want; it does not mean your body can absorb it!
Each of the following examples are organic molecules, which have superior absorption compared to inorganic ones, and often also have unique benefits depending on the acid accompanying it.
Organic Form: Citrate
While absorbed better than non-organic forms, it is not advisable to intake large doses of magnesium citrate. Why?
This form works by increasing the water in the colon through the colon’s tissues by a process known as osmosis. When the magnesium citrate reaches the small intestine, it attracts enough water to induce defecation. (13) This is wonderful for someone who suffers from occasional (or chronic) constipation but may be not so great for others – especially during a workout!
- Tip: check your electrolyte drink or pre-workout for the form of Magnesium used. While individual tolerance does play a role, using more than 200mg would not be recommended, especially with limited blood supply in your intestinal tract!
Citrate is great for occasional use or as a small amount of a magnesium blend (multiple forms) but should not be the sole source. Graphically said, the amount you will need to take to meet your optimal requirements will most likely trigger an unfortunate incident . . .
Organic Form: Malate
Malic acid is as it sounds - an acid, which has a high affinity for muscles, and is also an intermediate in the Krebs cycle. This means two things.
- It helps magnesium get into your muscles
- It helps to start up the Kreb’s cycle - which helps your body generate more ATP that you use for the first 3 – 9 seconds of burst activity
In fact, research has shown that magnesium malate improves muscle recovery (by combating acidity in the muscle). (9) It has also been shown to improve fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and more. (10) This is a great supplemental form and can be found in the supplement I highly recommend to my clients. It is a combination of malate and the next organic form, glycinate offering multiple benefits.
Organic Form: Glycinate
Magnesium glycinate (or bis-glycinate) is also well absorbed.
The glycine is technically considered a “non-essential amino acid” because the body can make some on its own. But this might not meet demands, particularly for athletes, which is why combining this form with Malate is such a great pairing.
One of the major reasons why companies will include magnesium glycinate is because it (glycine) has a high affinity for the brain. It promotes a calming and relaxing effect since it is an inhibitory neurotransmitter (usually) plus it also helps the brain make GABA - another calming neurotransmitter.
Glycine also lowers cortisol and has anti-inflammatory properties, adding to the synergistic calming effect of magnesium. For those who train, controlling their stress levels (tied to the activation of their HPA axis and cortisol) is a big part of the recovery process (11) and the reason glycinate/malate combinations are so wonderful for both training and wellness applications.
Understanding Optimal Dosing
Many people underdose when using a supplement by reading either the capsule size or amount of listed mineral and assume the stated amount is what they are getting. While a capsule may state it contains 500mg of Magnesium, only a part of that amount is the elemental mineral. The balance is the organic bonding material whose job is to deliver that mineral to you. Below is a fitting example of what the label should look like on your supplement:
Still a little unclear? Here is another way of understanding it:
- When you consume a 100g chicken breast you are not eating 100g of protein. Rather, 100g of chicken yields 17-18g of protein. So too is a bonded mineral and in the example above case, the two magnesium forms (500mg of malate & glycinate) deliver 100mg of the elemental mineral (1:5 ratio)
How Much is Too Much?
The RDA (recommended daily intake) for magnesium is between 300 and 420 mg/day (for most people), however, other research suggests that closer to 10mg/kg per day is needed for optimal health and performance. (12) This optimal number is more appropriate because it takes modern ‘magnesium blockers’ into account, including the intake of vitamin D, phosphorus, calcium, low sodium, protein intake, and more. (12)
Every product will have its own dosing instructions but let's use the example I linked above – ATP Labs SynerMag. We know that each capsule provides 100mg of elemental magnesium per capsule in two slightly different, high-absorption forms.
- If we assume your dietary intake is about 250mg/day (a suggested average) (14) then 3-4 capsules daily of ATP Labs SynerMag would satisfy your magnesium requirements for optimal health.
- 100mg x 4 (capsules) = 400mg, now add this to your dietary intake of 250mg/day to get a total mg intake of 650mg
- This would be an optimal intake for a 65kg (143lb) person based upon the 10mg/kg suggestion
- A Simple Start: Supplementing with 1 capsule 2x per day and see how you feel! Most people notice the difference in a deeper sleep, improved recovery and small improvement in their daily wellness. Consider:
- 1 Cap dinner and 1 cap at bedtime OR
- 1 Cap post workout and 1 cap at bedtime
As your training ramps up or your stress load increases you can consider increasing your intake to 2 caps 2x daily. For those of you who want to know a little bit more about what we discussed today, consider viewing my college, Dr Dwayne Jackson’s video here.
Research on Magnesium for Brain Trauma
This will conclude our first look at Magnesium. In Part 2, we will look at a unique form of magnesium which is most effective for getting magnesium across the blood brain barrier and into the brain. We will touch on the benefits of this specific form as it relates to concussion and brain trauma recovery which is fascinating to say the least!
References:Institute of Medicine (IOM). Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes: Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Vitamin D and Fluoride. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1997.
magnéziového deficitu [The oral magnesium loading test for detecting possible magnesium deficiency]. Cas Lek Cesk.1993Oct 11;132(19):587-9. Czech. PMID: 8242695.
Lima Mde L, Pousada J, Barbosa C, Cruz T. Deficiência de magnésio e resistência à insulina em pacientes com diabetes mellitus tipo 2 [Magnesium deficiency and insulin resistance in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus]. Arq Bras Endocrinol Metabol. 2005 Dec;49(6):959-63. Portuguese. doi: 10.1590/s0004-27302005000600016. Epub 2006 Mar 16. PMID: 16544020.