You’re probably wondering why I used an image of kelp to talk about calcium and magnesium. Kelp actually contains one of the highest concentrations of both calcium and magnesium with 1,009 mg of calcium (more than 9 times the amount of found in milk!) and 780 mg of magnesium (the highest amount delivered in any food) in a 3.5 ounce serving. See? There is a method to my madness. Moving on, let’s talk about two important minerals we absolutely cannot live without and how they need to be balanced in order to function correctly. Let’s examine the yin and yang of calcium and magnesium.
What are their respective roles?
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in our bodies and makes up 2% of our body weight. We use 99% of our body calcium towards our bones, teeth, and maintaining our skeletal structure and function. The other 1% is utilized for:
- cell signaling
- blood clotting
- nerve function
- muscle contraction
- enzyme activation
- ion transport across cell membranes
- sending and receiving neurotransmitters for cell communication
- conducting electricity in our bodies crucial in maintaining a regular heartbeat, since it contains an electric charge
Magnesium, is the fourth most abundant mineral in our bodies that regulates over 300 biochemical reactions. As one of the most common enzyme cofactors, it is necessary for:
- protein synthesis (a building block for RNA and DNA)
- muscle and nerve function
- blood glucose control
- regulating blood pressure
- energy production (generating ATP)
- oxidative phosphorylation
- aiding in digestion of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats
- a precursor to neurotransmitters like serotonin
- calcium and potassium transport across cell membranes vital in nerve conduction, a normal heart rhythm, and muscle contraction.
Magnesium is the yin to calcium’s yang
Since magnesium is the mineral that moves calcium across cell membranes, it is considered the gate keeper and controls when calcium should be moved out of the cell.
This is best summarized in Magnificent Magnesium, an article published in Weston A. Price Foundation’s quarterly magazine:
“Magnesium works in concert with calcium to regulate electrical impulses in the cell—magnesium concentration inside healthy cells is ten thousand times greater than calcium, and there are crucial reasons for this safeguard. Cellular calcium channels allow that mineral to enter the cell only as long as needed to conduct an impulse; it is ushered out immediately by magnesium once its task is fulfilled. This vigilance is necessary to prevent calcium accumulation in the cell, which could cause dangerous hyper-excitability, calcification, cell dysfunction and even cell death. When excess calcium enters the cells because of insufficient magnesium, muscle contraction is sustained for too long, and we suffer, for example, twitches and tics in mild cases. When magnesium deficiency becomes chronic, we suffer the symptoms of heart disease such as angina pectoris, hypertension and arrhythmia, or the spasms and contractions characteristic of asthma, migraine headache or painful menstrual cramping.”
So if we are experiencing any type of cramping, whether it is muscle cramps or leg cramps, the mineral we should be looking to for a deficiency is not calcium, but in fact, magnesium. Magnesium is what is needed in order to move calcium out of the cell to relax our muscles. Calcium causes contraction while magnesium elicits relaxation. The article goes on to state that:
“Magnesium operates as a natural calcium channel blocker and is responsible for relaxation—counter to calcium’s contraction. Thus magnesium is pivotally important to the healthy functioning of our parasympathetic nervous system. It may be hard to believe, but our bodies were actually designed to operate for the most part in a calm, relaxed parasympathetic state, rather than in the heart-pounding, stress-and adrenaline-driven mode of sympathetic nervous system dominance that is nearly constant for many of us today, and which uses up great quantities of magnesium.”
Magnesium is a very important mineral in managing and dealing with stress as it is the calming mineral which opposes the excitable actions of calcium. The more stressed we are, the more our muscles tense up and contract. Hence, when we are stressed, we need more magnesium to relax our muscles. It counteracts calcium and acts as a necessary antagonist in order to maintain balance in a body function as basic as muscle contraction and as vital as our heartbeats.
What should our calcium magnesium ratios ideally be?
Calcium and magnesium need to be in balanced amounts in our body in order to carry out their roles. Researchers previously suggested that 2:1 is a healthy ratio. However, according to Dr Carolyn Dean, MD, one of the leading researchers in magnesium, this 2:1 ratio has led her to see statistics with a “700 times increase in osteoporosis in a 10-year period, even while taking calcium”! In fact, many supplements reflect this ratio where there is 1200-1500 mg of calcium versus a few hundred milligrams of magnesium. The frightening reality is that our ratios are probably closer to 4-5:1 with our high calcium and low magnesium diets along with extra calcium supplementation! A more appropriate ratio should be 1:1 and some have even postulated that a 1:2 ratio is warranted. This is because we have tipped the scales so heavily towards calcium with over-supplementing and calcium fortification of our foods.
More concerning, there have now been studies in the past several years showing that calcium supplementation may not only increase your risk of heart attack by up to 30%, but also does not slow the process of bone loss and may even increase your risk of prostate cancer! Bone is made up of at least a dozen minerals and supplementing with only calcium may actually increase your risk of osteoporosis. Other studies have shown that higher bone density in women may actually increase your risk for breast cancer by 2 fold, because bone density is a marker for life-time exposure to estrogen. (I also do not recommend taking osteoporosis drugs such as bisphophonates, as there is enough evidence to prove that they do not decrease fracture risk nor strengthen bones, but cause other deleterious side effects including bone death, liver, kidney, and digestive problems. More on this later.)
How does calcium over-supplementation cause this? When we have too much calcium in our bodies, it gets deposited into areas where they shouldn’t be. Calcium deposits can cause kidney stones, gallstones, bone spurs, stiff joints, osteoarthritis, coronary artery disease, artherosclerosis, hypothyroidism, and obesity. It is the calcium deposits in blood vessels that actually cause hardening of your arteries (not cholesterol, which is a soft, malleable waxy substance), and may increase the risk of heart attack.
What’s worse, magnesium deficiency is widespread. It is one of the most depleted minerals in our soil. Now, more and more new plant hybrids are made to survive mineral depleted soil, so our foods are already grown with less minerals. Magnesium is further depleted and even lost during harvest, refrigeration, transport and storage. For some reason, calcium is much more resilient during these processes. Maybe because it is a more yang and robust mineral? (To review the basics of yin and yang, read here.)
In addition, processing foods continues to deplete magnesium. Magnesium in grain is lost in milling. Magnesium in nuts is lost in roasting. Magnesium is leached out into water when we cook greens. Then, eating processed foods with high sugar content, drinking alcohol, and soda also deplete the magnesium in our bodies since it is needed to metabolize and detoxify these foods. According to Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, “the body requires at least twenty-eight molecules of magnesium to metabolize a single molecule of glucose. Phosphates in carbonated drinks and processed meats (so-called “luncheon meats” and hot dogs) bind with magnesium to create the insoluble magnesium phosphate, which is unusable by the body.”
What is the solution to this huge calcium/magnesium imbalance?
The best way to get your calcium is through your diet. In fact, studies show that calcium from food sources are more effective than calcium from supplementation as our bodies absorb calcium from food sources more completely. Food sources highest in calcium include seaweed (hijiki, wakame, kelp, and kombu, which are available in most whole-food or Japanese markets), dark leafy greens (such as kale, spinach, and collard greens), nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, and brazil nuts), wild salmon, sardines and parsley. The calcium content in milk does not even come close to these foods. While calcium is necessary at all ages, certain stages require more calcium than others. Calcium requirements ramp up during increased periods of growth and should be supplemented during pregnancy and lactation. I supplemented 500mg calcium daily in addition to my pre-natal when I was pregnant and nursing, then decreased to 200mg daily, once my son started solids. (My multi-vitamin, has a 1:2 (10mg:20mg) ratio of calcium to magnesium.)
How do we know if we are magnesium deficient? Early signs and symptoms of magnesium deficiency include fatigue, nausea, headaches, loss of appetite and weakness. Signs of chronic magnesium deficiency may lead to more serious symptoms of numbness and tingling, muscle contractions and cramps (as I stated above), seizures, coronary spasms, abnormal heart rhythms, and even personality changes. An easy way to find out if you are deficient is to get a magnesium RBC test. The “normal values” are between 4.2-6.8mg/dl, but you really want your levels to be 6mg/dl or higher. Once you find out your baseline, check every 3 months to make sure you are taking enough to maintain your levels. According to Dr Dean, unlike most medications, “as your body becomes saturated with magnesium, your body will need less, not more, to maintain these levels.”
What form of magnesium supplement is the best and how much of it should I take?
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of magnesium for young adults is 400mg for men and 310mg for women. In adults over 30, the RDA is 420mg for men and 320mg for women. If you don’t get enough in your food, which probably applies to most people, then we need to supplement. There are many forms of magnesium in the supplement market because magnesium must be bound to another substance in order to be absorbed. One of the cheapest and most common forms, magnesium oxide, is not absorbed very well by our bodies (4% absorbed, with the remaining 96% going through your intestines). This is what is usually used as a stool softener and laxative, which is helpful if you have constipation.
Magnesium glycinate probably provides the highest level of magnesium absorption. Metagenics comes in 100mg tablets (take 2 twice a day for a total of 400mg/day) and OrthoMolecular Products offers 235mg in 2 tablets (also taken twice daily for a total of 470mg). It is probably best to start with the recommended dosage and adjust according to your levels. Other forms, which provide less absorption include magnesium chloride and magnesium lactate (12% absorption) and magnesium taurate, which is used for its calming effects. I will talk more about the additional health benefits of magnesium in later posts!
Here’s what you need to know:
- calcium and magnesium have a yin and yang relationship — calcium is the active yang mineral, while magnesium is the calming yin mineral.
- we need calcium and magnesium to be in constant balance in order to carry out our body functions.
- most people over-supplement with calcium and tend to be deficient in magnesium.
- you can get your magnesium levels checked with a magnesium RBC test to see if you are deficient.
- the most highly absorbable magnesium supplement is magnesium glycinate.
Do you think you are magnesium deficient?
In health and wellness,
Healing with Whole Foods by Paul PitchfordContact Dr. Elain
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