Is Magnesium Deficiency Contributing to Your Muscle Tension, Pain, or Fatigue?

Sometimes, despite all your efforts to release tension and relieve pain with pandiculation, you may get to a point where you feel like something else is going on. There may be some other factor besides learned muscular patterns that’s causing your tension and pain. And in some cases, this could be magnesium deficiency.

Magnesium deficiency is very common; approximately half the US population consumes less than the recommended amount of magnesium. Magnesium deficiency can lead to a wide range of health issues, which I describe below. Especially relevant to the readers of this blog is the fact that magnesium deficiency can contribute to muscle tension, chronic pain, migraines, fibromyalgia, fatigue, and sleep problems.

What is magnesium?

Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the human body, and takes part in over 300 enzymatic reactions. It is essential for maintaining healthy muscles, nerves, and bones; cardiac and metabolic function; immune system health; and even regulating mood. Unfortunately, it’s estimated that about half of the US population is deficient in magnesium.

Magnesium is an electrolyte. Electrolytes have a natural positive or negative charge when dissolved in water. Since they naturally have a positive or negative charge, once they are dissolved in a liquid, they can conduct electricity.

The cells of our body use electrolytes to conduct electrical charges; this is how our muscles contract. Electrolytes also take part in chemical reactions by transporting chemical compounds in and out of our cells.

Why do we need magnesium, and what are the dangers of deficiency?

Below are some of the most important functions of magnesium, and the associated risks of deficiency:

Nervous system health: If you suffer from chronic muscle tension, pain, or other nervous system issues, magnesium deficiency may be a factor. Magnesium is essential for nerve transmission, neuromuscular conduction, muscular contraction, and regulation of neurotransmitters. It also protects against neuronal cell death, so deficiency is associated with neurological disorders.

Research shows that magnesium deficiency is a factor for at least half of migraine headache sufferers. Migraine often occurs along with low levels of magnesium in the serum and cerebrospinal fluid. Since there is a strong link between magnesium deficiency and migraines, and routine blood tests do not accurately measure magnesium levels, it is argued that all migraine sufferers should be treated with oral magnesium supplements.

Magnesium deficiency is also linked to fibromyalgia. Magnesium prevents sensitization of the central nervous system, which is a defining aspect of fibromyalgia. Some of the most common symptoms of fibromyalgia—sleep difficulties, memory impairment, mood disturbance, and fatigue—can be caused by low levels of magnesium. Research has shown that fibromyalgia sufferers have lower magnesium levels than control subjects.

In addition to migraines and fibromyalgia, other nervous system symptoms that can result from magnesium deficiency include:

  • Muscle tension, stiffness, or weakness
  • Chronic pain
  • Muscle spasms, cramps, or twitches
  • Tingling or numbness
  • Worsening premenstrual cramps
  • Seizures

Bone health: Magnesium plays an important role in bone cell formation. It also helps to regulate levels of vitamin D and calcium, both of which are essential for healthy bones. Approximately 63% of our bodies’ magnesium is stored in our bones. When magnesium intake is low, our bodies pull magnesium from the bones to keep serum levels in the normal range. As a result, chronic magnesium deficiency is associated with osteopenia, osteoporosis, and fracture.

Cardiovascular health: Magnesium is essential for heart muscle contraction, allowing the heart to beat rhythmically. It also helps to regulate vasomotor tone (contraction of the blood vessels), thereby helping to regulate blood pressure. Magnesium deficiency is common in patients with heart failure, hypertension, and arrhythmia. Low magnesium levels are a predictor for cardiovascular and all-cause mortality.

Metabolic health: Magnesium helps to prevent weight gain, diabetes, and other metabolic disorders by limiting fat tissue accumulation, improving glucose and insulin metabolism, and reducing inflammation. Chronic low levels of magnesium are associated with obesity, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension.

Immune system health: Magnesium takes part in the synthesis and functioning of immune system cells, allowing them to do their job to protect our bodies from infections and toxins. Regulation and stimulation of T cells depend on adequate magnesium levels, and low magnesium levels are associated with worse outcomes in cancer immunotherapy. Magnesium is essential for healthy immune system function and regulating inflammation, and deficiency contributes to a range of health problems including autoimmune disease, cancer, and chronic inflammatory conditions.

Mood regulation: Magnesium helps to regulate neurotransmitters, including serotonin, glutamate, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). It also regulates the stress response, preventing chronic psychological stress. Low magnesium levels are associated with anxiety, depression, panic or anxiety attacks, ADHD, and personality changes.

Energy production: Magnesium plays a central role in the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the main energy source of our cells. Magnesium also protects mitochondria (organelles that generate cellular energy) from damage. Due to its critical role in energy production, low magnesium levels can contribute to chronic fatigue, aging, and a wide range of chronic diseases including heart disease, neurodegenerative disease, and cancer.

Sleep regulation: Magnesium helps to regulate melatonin, the sleep hormone, as well as GABA, a neurotransmitter that slows down brain activity and makes it easier to fall asleep. Magnesium deficiency can contribute to insomnia and restless sleep, and may contribute to restless legs syndrome.

How can I test for magnesium deficiency?

Less than 1% of the body’s total magnesium is found in the serum (the fluid component of blood), while 63% is stored in the bones and another 27% in the muscles.

When serum levels are low, the body pulls magnesium from the bones, muscles, and other cells of the body to the serum in order to maintain normal serum levels. Thus, serum tests for magnesium are not a reliable way to test for total-body magnesium levels. Unfortunately, serum tests are by far the most widely used clinical testing method for magnesium deficiency.

Other testing methods that are typically more accurate include:

  • Oral magnesium loading test
  • Intravenous magnesium loading test
  • Red Blood Cell magnesium content
  • Hair magnesium content
  • Muscle magnesium content (biopsy)
  • Bone magnesium content
  • 24-h urinary magnesium
  • The ratio of ionized to total magnesium
  • EXA Test (Energy Dispersive X-Ray Analysis)

What is the best way to get enough magnesium?

The Recommended Daily Allowance for magnesium is 310-420 mg, depending on age and gender. A more detailed chart including the RDA for infants, children, teens, and pregnant and breastfeeding women can be found here.

Unfortunately, about half of Americans consume less than the recommended amount of magnesium from food each day, putting them at risk for a wide range of health problems. There are two main factors causing this epidemic in magnesium deficiency.

First, there has been a trend over the past hundred years or so toward consuming more processed food and less whole food. Magnesium (and many other nutrients) are removed during food processing, so this trend alone contributes significantly to the problem of nutrient deficiencies and related health conditions.

In order to maximize nutrient consumption, our diet should consist of whole, unprocessed foods. Whole foods that are high in magnesium include: almonds, avocados, bananas, black beans, broccoli, brown rice, cashews, dark chocolate, edamame, flaxseed, dark leafy green vegetables, lima beans, peanuts, potatoes, oatmeal, salmon, seeds (chia, pumpkin, sesame, sunflowers) soybeans, sweet corn, and whole grains like buckwheat and quinoa.

The second factor contributing to widespread magnesium deficiency is that the soil we grow our food in is depleted of nutrients. Modern farming techniques prevent the soil’s ability to naturally restore minerals, including magnesium. The use of phosphate-based fertilizers decreases the levels of magnesium even further. It’s estimated that the mineral content of vegetables has declined by as much as 80-90% over the past century.

So, sadly, even people who eat an ideal human diet of whole, unprocessed foods may not be able to get enough magnesium from their food alone.

If you choose to supplement your diet with magnesium, you’ll find a variety of types of magnesium supplements on the market. Most of them are taken orally, but there is a new trend toward taking magnesium transdermally (through the skin), which I’ll discuss in the next section.

One of the most common types of magnesium supplements is magnesium citrate. This is a combination of magnesium and citric acid. It is an “osmotic laxative,” which means that it pulls water into the intestines in order to make them softer and easier to pass. Magnesium citrate is an effective way to increase magnesium levels because it is highly bioavailable, meaning that we absorb and use it easily. But if you experience negative gastrointestinal effects, you may want to choose a different type of supplement.

Magnesium glycinate is magnesium bound with glycine, an amino acid that promotes sleep. This type of magnesium is also highly bioavailable, very effective at increasing our magnesium levels, and much less likely to have laxative effects. You’ll see magnesium glycinate in supplements designed for relaxing muscles, reducing stress, and improving sleep.

Other types of magnesium that tend to be easily absorbed and used by our bodies are:

  • Magnesium carbonate: This neutralizes the pH of stomach acid, and is found in antacids.
  • Magnesium chloride: This functions mainly as an electrolyte, as it is only about 12% elemental magnesium.
  • Magnesium malate: Some research shows that this form of magnesium may be particularly helpful for relieving symptoms of fibromyalgia, but studies are not showing consistent enough results yet to be definitive.
  • Magnesium taurate: Research shows that this form of magnesium can support cardiovascular health. It may help to regulate blood pressure, prevent arrhythmia, and stimulate cells that repair heart blood vessels.
  • Magnesium L-threonate: This form of magnesium can cross the blood-brain barrier and increase levels of magnesium in the brain. It may improve cognitive function, protect against brain cell death, and help to prevent neurodegenerative diseases.

One form of magnesium that you may want to avoid is magnesium oxide. Research shows that of all of the commonly used supplements, it is the least well absorbed. So, it is not nearly as effective as some other forms at raising our magnesium levels. Magnesium oxide does have laxative effects, so it is used to treat constipation.

Are transdermal magnesium supplements as effective as oral supplements?

The short answer to this question is: Most experts agree that not enough quality research has been done yet on transdermal (through the skin) magnesium supplements to be able to say whether they are more, less, or equally effective as oral supplements.

There is a trend toward taking magnesium transdermally through lotions, oils, sprays, patches, and salt baths. One benefit of supplementing in this way is that you can avoid any negative gastrointestinal effects of taking oral magnesium supplements.

But, do we absorb magnesium as well through the skin as we do through the gut? Scientists argue that our skin is designed to be a barrier, while our digestive system is designed to absorb nutrients. In order for a substance to pass through our skin effectively, it must be fat-soluble and very small. Many transdermal supplements on the market may not meet that criteria.

Small studies do show that transdermal magnesium supplementation is effective. In a study of nine people, daily application of magnesium oil for 12 weeks resulted in 89% of subjects raising their magnesium levels, with an average increase of 59.7%. Another study with 25 participants found that applying a low-dose magnesium cream daily for two weeks resulted in a small but clinically relevant increase in serum magnesium levels.

A study of 19 people tested the efficacy of soaking in a bath with magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts), but this study has only been published on the Epsom Salt Council website, not in a peer-reviewed journal. In the study, a 12-minute soak in an Epsom salt bath daily for seven days resulted in 17 out of the 19 participants experiencing a rise in serum and/or urine magnesium levels.

On the flip side, other studies of transdermal magnesium supplements do not show any increase in magnesium levels. Sources on this topic overwhelmingly agree that simply not enough research has been done yet. Larger, long-term, higher quality studies must be done before we’ll know for sure whether transdermal magnesium supplementation is an effective alternative to taking oral supplements.

In the meantime, your best bet is to:

  • Eat a whole-food diet that includes magnesium-rich foods, so as to increase your magnesium intake in the way our bodies are designed to absorb it: through food!
  • If you have any of the health issues listed in this article, consider getting your magnesium levels tested—but avoid getting a serum test, which researchers agree does not accurately show your true cellular levels of magnesium.
  • If you decide to supplement, consider taking a variety of forms of magnesium (alternating daily—don’t overdo it!) in order to increase potential benefits and avoid any unpleasant side effects.