Most of the athletes I work with can easily rattle off top sources of vitamin C, calcium, and iron, But magnesium…not so much. Yet this vital mineral, the fourth must abundant in the body, is involved in over 300 metabolic reactions, and is crucial for athletic performance and optimal health.
Magnesium helps maintain muscle and nerve function, heart rhythm, blood pressure, blood sugar regulation, and immunity. It also contributes to the structural development of bones and is needed to make DNA. Adequate magnesium has been shown to help fight depression and to boost learning and memory. Even a marginal shortage can interfere with sleep by preventing the brain from settling down.
Specific to athletes, a higher magnesium intake has been shown to significantly improve strength, oxygen uptake, energy production, and electrolyte balance. And in the general population, low magnesium intakes have been linked to higher levels of inflammatory makers, and a greater risk of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, migraines, asthma, colon cancer, heart disease, and sudden death. In short, magnesium is a health and performance powerhouse.
Unfortunately, nutrition data indicates that about 75% of Americans consume less than the recommended intake of magnesium, so there’s a good chance you’re falling short. Testing for magnesium status isn’t easy, since less than 1% of total body magnesium is found in the blood (50-60% is in bones, and the remainder in soft tissues). And while symptoms of a full-on deficiency are noticeable, including poor appetite, nausea, numbness, tingling, and abnormal heart rhythm, signs of simply not getting enough, like fatigue, may be attributed to training or a lack of sleep. For these reasons, magnesium shortfalls are often deemed “invisible.”
To reap the benefits of this unique mineral, and maximize your magnesium standing, put these three strategic steps into action.
Reduce foods that interfere with magnesium balance
The primary cause of a magnesium imbalance may be what you’re getting too much of, rather than what you’re lacking. That’s because an excess of certain foods and drinks can reduce magnesium absorption, or cause it to be excreted from your body. The three top culprits: caffeine, alcohol, and sugar (candy, baked goods, desserts, sweetened beverages like lemonade). While you don’t have to eliminate them altogether, aim for moderation – switch to water after your morning cup of joe, limit yourself to two drinks with dinner, and make sweets occasional splurges.
Vary your diet
Many of my athlete clients are routine eaters, who frequently repeat a narrow set of meals. But even when their meals are made with healthful foods, not changing things up can leave them prone to missing the magnesium mark. That’s because unlike vitamin C, there aren’t any foods that supply your daily magnesium requirement in just one typical portion. So without a wide enough variety it’s easy to take in too little magnesium day after day. Incorporate more of the following foods to up your intake: almonds, avocado, beets and beet greens, brown rice, buckwheat, cashews, dark chocolate, dried figs and plums, millet, papaya, pulses (beans, peas, and lentils), pumpkin seeds, quinoa, sesame seeds, spinach, and sunflower seeds.
Be careful with supplements
You may be tempted to simply pop a magnesium pill, but it’s generally better to primarily focus on food sources. Your body has a built-in mechanism to prevent overdosing with food, whereas supplements can lead to an excess and trigger unwanted side effects, including diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramps, or even toxicity when taken in very high doses, which can be fatal. If you do decide to supplement, don’t take more than about 300 mg daily, unless your physician has prescribed a different dose. And keep in mind that the goal for magnesium is to achieve a “just right” intake, meaning more isn’t better.
Cynthia Sass is a sports nutritionist, and Board Certified as a Specialist in Sports Dietetics. She is currently the nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, and previously consulted for three other professional teams. Sass also works with professional and competitive athletes in numerous sports through her private practice, in New York City, Los Angeles, and long-distance. She can be reached via CynthiaSass.com.