Magnesium is one of the most important minerals in the body. Magnesium is required for all living cells because it is essential to the biochemistry of life.
The human body contains approximately 25 grams of magnesium. Fifty to sixty percent of total body magnesium lies in the skeletal system (bones) and the remaining thirty to forty percent is within cells (intracellular magnesium) of body tissues and organs, which includes 20% in skeletal muscle).1 This relatively high concentration of magnesium in skeletal tissues indicates the extreme importance of magnesium for the health, muscles, bones, and connective tissues.
The Role of Magnesium in the Body
Magnesium plays a fundamental role in the functioning of more than three hundred enzymes. These enzymes require magnesium to fulfill their function as catalysts for essential biochemical reactions. This is particularly the case for enzymes that utilize adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and enzymes involving nucleotides in the synthesis of DNA and RNA.2 Because of the essential roles enzymes play in biological processes related to energy production and intercellular communications, the proper functioning of enzymes is vital for optimal health. Magnesium is the mineral on which depends the viability of enzymes.
It is the prominent role magnesium plays in the creation of cellular energy (the production of ATP) that enables this mineral nutrient to support many functions in the body. These functions include increasing energy levels to support metabolism and organ system function, and helping the body adapt effectively to stress. Indeed, it is magnesium’s foundational role that explains how adequate magnesium levels are responsible for assuring proper operation of biological processes and how failing to maintain adequate magnesium can result in an astonishingly diverse range of deficiency symptoms.
When there is adequate energy in the body, then all systems can be supplied with energy. When there is not enough energy to supply needed amounts to organ systems, then that depletion of energy can pose significant problems.
Thus, one of the fundamental roles of magnesium in the human body is to assist in the production of the necessary energy required for all of the body’s functions. Without the foundation provided by sufficient magnesium, lower energy levels (among other consequences of deficiency) create difficulties for sustaining biological processes and carrying out activities the body performs easily when magnesium supplies are sufficient.
What Does Magnesium Do for the Body?
Magnesium supports many of the body’s primary systems: the nervous system, the muscles and tissues, and the circulatory system through its role in balancing the effects of calcium. Magnesium maintains the flexibility of tissues and cell membranes that is necessary for proper cell transport mechanisms, detoxification, and intercellular communication.
Magnesium and the Nervous System
Magnesium is necessary for brain function. This relates to the role magnesium plays in the production of cellular energy (ATP), which is needed to sustain all organ systems, including the brain. Other effects of magnesium in the nervous system include counteracting the excitatory effects of calcium.
Current high levels of magnesium deficiency among the population place a great number of people at risk for stroke (and post-stroke complications), slower than optimal recovery from head injuries (and subsequent neurological damage), injury from neurotoxins in the environment, seizure disorders, and brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.3 Dr. Carolyn Dean describes the similarities of brain tissue to heart tissue not only in terms of vascular function, but also in terms their requirements for magnesium to stabilize electrical energy. Brain tissue (like heart tissue) suffers from “hyperexcitability” affecting central nervous system tissues deprived of magnesium. In fact, many brain conditions are the neurological equivalent of heart disease.
Magnesium and Muscle Relaxation
Magnesium not only relaxes muscles directly, but also can ease emotional stress and mental tension, thereby further encouraging a relaxed physical state. Magnesium acts locally to reduce muscle tension and systemically to reduce excitation in the central nervous system. Magnesium thereby provides support for conditions of physical, mental, and emotional stress, including anxiety and depression.
The remarkable capacity of magnesium to relax muscles relates to its ability to reduce or inhibit cell excitation. Magnesium acts as an antagonist to the effects of calcium, which tends to rigidify cell structures (e.g., membranes) and promotes further excitability by inhibiting magnesium uptake.
Magnesium and Calcium
Magnesium balances the effects of calcium. When the balance of magnesium to calcium favors calcium disproportionately (as happens when calcium levels greatly exceed magnesium levels), then cellular structures (including cell membranes) tend toward greater rigidity, and there is more hyperexcitation of the cells, and ultimately throughout the nervous system. Whereas adequate magnesium levels will promote flexible cell membranes, and will prevent rigidity in cellular structures, relatively higher levels of calcium leads to greater rigidity in cells. In these cases, it becomes more difficult for magnesium to enter cells to reverse the rigidity and reduce cellular excitation.
Adequate magnesium levels balance the effects of dietary calcium, prevent progressive rigidification of cell walls, and keep cell membranes flexible. Flexible cell membranes maintain proper cell function, including removal of wastes and toxins, and allow unimpeded intercellular communication.
The Body’s Basic Need for Magnesium
When we consider that symptoms of magnesium deficiency include personality disturbance, muscle spasms, difficulty walking, and irregular heartbeat, the question “What does magnesium do for the body?” takes on special significance.
The essential roles played by magnesium in skeletal health, muscle function, and enzyme reactions are significant indicators of the basic need for magnesium in human health. Magnesium in the body is a part of healthy functioning on the lowest level: the cells. When magnesium levels are low, cellular function is impaired, and larger systems such as the heart, brain and muscles, suffer as a result.
The established fact that only about 33% of Americans obtain the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of magnesium provides evidence that this basic need for magnesium is not being met by the standard American diet (SAD). Although individuals vary in their needs for magnesium, nearly everyone requires more than the recommended intake for optimal health.
Given the prevalence of magnesium deficiencies in the general population, there is increasing awareness among health care practitioners that average intakes derived from typical diets do not provide adequate magnesium to meet the requirements of the body.