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Magnesium deficiency – symptoms and causes

Magnesium deficiency – symptoms and causes

Almost every one of us knows the feeling: suddenly a muscle contracts hard – this is known as a muscle cramp. For example, a calf cramp most commonly occurs at night in bed or during sports. Such a muscle cramp is usually harmless and can be a symptom of a magnesium deficiency …

runner checking the shoes

Which tasks does magnesium assume in the body?

Magnesium is an essential mineral that cannot be produced by the organism itself. That is why we must ingest an adequate amount via food intake. 

About 25 grams are stored in the human body, of which the greatest share (approx. 60 %) of magnesium is stored in the bones. Our skeleton is therefore the largest reservoir of magnesium in the body. The muscles require another 30 % of the magnesium, while the remaining share is stored in the soft tissue.

Magnesium is involved in many processes in our body. All functions which are associated with energy processing and supply are only possible due to the mineral, since it is involved as a constituent of enzymes or as a coenzyme. In fact, our body could not use fats or carbohydrates at all for energy production without magnesium. 

Furthermore, it ensures the stability of cell walls and also controls their permeability. Magnesium also stabilises the resting potential of excitable nerve and muscle cells as well as the nerve cells of the autonomic nervous system.

The mineral also plays a role in bone strength and is even required for hormone release. Only a sufficient concentration of magnesium can secure the function of all muscles – also including the cardiac muscle.

Therefore it is not without reason that magnesium is also referred to as the “bone & muscle mineral”.

In summary, it can be said that the preservation of the health and function of all our cells, bones, teeth, tissue and organs are dependent on an adequate supply of magnesium.

How high is the daily magnesium requirement?

On average, the magnesium content for healthy adults is indicated by the German Nutrition Society (DGE) at 300-400 mg daily:

Age Male / magnesium content Female / magnesium content
1 to 4 80 mg / day 80 mg / day
4 to 7 120 mg / day 120 mg / day
7 to 10 170 mg / day 170 mg / day
10 to 13 230 mg / day 250 mg / day
13 to 15 310 mg / day 310 mg / day
15 to 19 400 mg / day 350 mg / day
19 to 25 400 mg / day 310 mg / day
25 + 350 mg / day 300 mg / day

Causes of magnesium deficiency

A magnesium deficiency (hypomagnesaemia) can have many causes. They can range from insufficient absorption through our nutrition, disturbed magnesium absorption (resorption), increased excretion of magnesium or increased magnesium content in stress situations.

  • Nutrition: Since our body cannot produce magnesium itself, we must make sure to ingest enough magnesium via our foodstuffs. A one-sided or unbalanced diet or otherwise some types of diets can lead to a magnesium deficiency.
    Cooking dishes for a long time can lead to the fact that a portion of the magnesium is lost in the cooking water. The magnesium content in highly processed foodstuffs or ready-made products can also be reduced. Increased alcohol or coffee consumption can also contribute to increased excretion of magnesium.

  • Sports and intense physical burdens: The body loses minerals via sweat during sports or other intense physical burdens – this also applies to magnesium.
    The greater the physical burden, the more magnesium will be excreted.
    At the same time, there is an increased demand for energy in the muscles, particularly during physical strain. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the body’s carrier of energy that is bound to magnesium in the muscle. That is why it is particularly important for physically active people to be mindful of a substitution of the mineral.

  • Stress: Unfortunately, stress is quite ordinary for many people today. It should actually only be a brief state of alert for the body that was essential to survival for our ancestors. 
    In particular stress situations our body releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which in turn makes the consumption of magnesium increase – because the mineral regulates the release of these stress hormones. 
    A vicious circle can emerge if not enough of the “anti-stress mineral” is available: stress consumes magnesium, which in turn leads to an increased excretion of magnesium.

  • Pregnancy and breastfeeding: In addition to magnesium, many nutrients are increasingly required during pregnancy and breastfeeding. The concentration of magnesium in the blood plasma can particularly decrease in the last trimester of pregnancy. Pregnant women should ingest 310 mg of magnesium daily in order to obtain a protective effect against complications. 
    The requirement among breastfeeding mothers increases to 390 mg daily, because the baby also has to be supplied with magnesium via breast milk.

  • Diseases and medications: Certain diseases or absorption disorders can lead to the fact that magnesium from food intake cannot be sufficiently absorbed from the intestines. For example, inflammatory bowel diseases as Crohn’s disease or coeliac disease can result in a magnesium deficiency.

A deficiency of the mineral can also be caused by an increased excretion of magnesium, for instance due to metabolic diseases such as diabetes mellitus, hyperthyroidism or other gastrointestinal diseases.  

Some medications can also contribute towards development of a magnesium deficiency. For instance, this includes diuretics, the birth control pill or cortisone. 

But last but not least, a magnesium deficiency can also be genetically related – yet this is rarely the case. 

runner holding his knee

Symptoms of magnesium deficiency - the calf cramp

Our organism requires magnesium because it assumes essential tasks in the body. Approximately 300 enzymes are dependent on the help of the mineral – it stabilises the skeleton and plays a major role in the transmission of stimuli from nerves to muscles. And naturally it is indispensable for muscle contraction. 

Since magnesium is essential for so many different bodily functions, a magnesium deficiency and its effects usually cannot be limited to one symptom. Moreover, a magnesium deficiency can also only become noticeable years or decades later and lead to perceptible symptoms. But calf cramps, particularly at night or during sports, are among the most common symptoms of an insufficient magnesium intake. 

All other muscle cramps, the twitching of an eyelid, tensions, vertigo, migraines or cold hands and feet can also be indicative of a deficiency of the mineral. Less tangible sensations such as restlessness, weakness, insomnia or susceptibility to stress can also be accompanying symptoms of an inadequate supply of magnesium.

But a magnesium deficiency does not have to be immediately behind all of these physical symptoms. A poor supply situation or a short-term bottleneck is also possible. But anyone who has more frequent symptoms of a poor magnesium status should preferably have the cause clarified by a doctor.

Diagnosis of magnesium deficiency

A magnesium deficiency is usually diagnosed by a doctor due to the symptoms and the medical history. A blood test is conducted to measure a person’s magnesium status. But it is difficult to diagnose a magnesium deficiency at an early stage solely through the analysis of blood values. 

About 59 % of the magnesium is in the bone tissue, while 40 % is in the muscles and somatic cells. Only 1 % of the magnesium is contained in the blood serum.

The body initially releases the magnesium from these endogenous depots in the event of a deficiency. The bone tissue serves as a long-term depot, while the organs and muscles serve as rapid depots – whereby blood levels initially remain constant. A magnesium deficiency only becomes visible in the blood level measurement when the reservoirs in the bones and muscles are no longer adequately filled and magnesium can no longer be released. 

The determination of the magnesium level occurs via the blood serum. Normal values among adults are between 0.7 – 1.0 mmol/L. A deficiency is referred to if the concentration of magnesium in the blood has fallen below 0.65 mmol per litre.

Treatment of magnesium deficiency

A magnesium deficiency can often be treated by means of a nutritious balanced diet; magnesium preparations are prescribed in the event of a pronounced magnesium deficiency. 

For example, here there is a whole spectrum of dosage forms which range from tablets, coated tablets, capsules, effervescent tablets to granules in sachets. A daily dose of 400 mg of magnesium can often be enough to remedy a magnesium deficiency.  

But several weeks can pass by until a deficiency is remedied. In principle, research regarding the cause should be conducted in the event of a pronounced magnesium deficiency.

Long-term consequences of a magnesium deficiency

A pronounced magnesium deficiency can not only be expressed in the well-known unpleasant acute consequences such as calf cramps or fatigue, but can also lead to serious effects on health.

Studies indicate that there is a connection between a magnesium deficiency and the risk of an ischaemic stroke (vascular occlusion in the brain). The risk of cardiovascular diseases also increases in the long run, because hypomagnesaemia facilitates inflammatory processes which can constitute the risk of vascular diseases such as heart attacks or thromboses.

Prevention of magnesium deficiency

maize in a bowl
Maize contains approx. 120 mg of magnesium per 100 g
peas in a bowl
Peas contain approx. 120 mg of magnesium per 100 g
lentils in a bowl
Lentils contain about 130 mg of magnesium per 100 g
oat flakes in a bowl
Oat flakes contain approx. 140 mg of magnesium per 100 g
cocoa powder on a spoon
Cocoa powder contains approx. 150 mg of magnesium per 100 g
rice on a spoon
Rice contains approx. 160 mg of magnesium per 100 g
nuts in a bowl
Nuts contain approx. 160 mg of magnesium per 100 g
sesame on a spoon
Sesame (fresh) contains approx. 340 mg of magnesium per 100 g
sunflower seeds with sunflower
Sunflower seeds contain about 420 mg of magnesium per 100 g

 

 

Since our body is not able to produce magnesium itself, we must regularly and sufficiently ingest the essential mineral via food intake. Magnesium is actually contained in many foodstuffs. 

For example, we satisfy a majority of our magnesium requirement via cereal products or alcohol-free beverages. High-quality mineral waters can be a good source of magnesium. Some contain over 80 mg of magnesium per litre.