Christiane Northrup, MD
March 31, 2010
Calcium has received an enormous amount of attention. It's likely that every woman reading this article has been told by her doctor to get enough calcium. If asked what role calcium plays in health, nearly every woman would answer that calcium is necessary for strong bones. But what about magnesium? Did you know that this mighty mineral may be even more essential for health?
Magnesium and calcium work together, but magnesium may actually play a more important role. It controls the entry of calcium into each and every cell--a physiological event that occurs every time a nerve cell fires! When it comes to building healthy bones, magnesium is as important as calcium and vitamin D are! Without adequate magnesium, too much calcium gets inside the cell. This causes cramping and constrictions in ways you might never consider.
A Pregnant Pause
I was first introduced to magnesium during my obstetrical training, where I saw how effective magnesium sulfate was in preventing seizures and restoring normal blood pressure in pregnant women suffering from toxemia. Magnesium is also frequently given to women having preterm labor to stop contractions. It works!
A good friend of mine, Alexa, had her third baby in 1994. About seven weeks before the baby was due, she started to have contractions that would only stop when she lay down. Because she was 2.5 centimeters dilated and almost fully effaced (conditions often present when a woman goes into labor with a full-term third child), she was put on bed rest. Luckily this helped, and she was able to avoid a lengthy stay at the hospital. After having her baby, Alexa was extremely run down, had frequent migraines, and severe muscle cramps. She decided to go to a Naturopath for help. He immediately diagnosed severe magnesium deficiency, and she was given weekly magnesium IVs to correct the imbalance.
Alexa's magnesium deficiency isn't all that unusual. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences found (in 1997) that most Americans were deficient in magnesium.  The following factors contribute to this:
* Food processing removes much of the magnesium that's naturally found in certain foods.
* Taking antacids (and some other medicines for indigestion) disrupts magnesium absorption.
* Magnesium and other minerals are depleted by modern farming practices.
* Medications including common diuretics, birth control pills, insulin, tetracycline and other antibiotics, and cortisone cause the body to waste magnesium.
Alexa's OB/GYN was insistent that she get 1500 mgs of calcium every day to protect her baby's and her bones. He told her to take a couple of Tums, an antacid, any day she didn't get enough calcium from the food she ate. Tums contains calcium, and it was the calcium "supplement" he recommended to all his patients. (This was his strategy for keeping her calories from dairy fat down, too.) He never recommended that she increase her magnesium, just her calcium. It's not surprising that she had a magnesium deficiency after following his advice during three pregnancies.
Magnesium Is Indispensable
Magnesium is essential for the functioning of more than 300 different enzymes in the body, particularly those that produce, transport, store, and utilize energy. This includes:
* Protein synthesis. DNA and RNA in our cells require magnesium for cell growth and development.
* Sparking of the electrical signals that must travel throughout the miles of nerves in our bodies, including our brain, heart, and other organs.
* Normal blood pressure, vascular tone, transmission of nerve cell signals, and blood flow.
* Functioning of all nerves and muscles.
* Release and binding of adequate amounts of serotonin in the brain.
In short, living without adequate levels of magnesium is like trying to operate a machine with the power off. And like a machine, it's likely to malfunction. Here are some health conditions associated with the cramping and constrictions that can be attributed to a magnesium deficiency:
Anxiety and panic attacks: Magnesium helps keep adrenal stress hormones under control and also helps maintain normal brain function. 
Asthma: Magnesium helps relax the muscles of the bronchioles in the lungs.
Constipation: Magnesium helps keep bowels regular by maintaining normal bowel muscle function. Milk of magnesia has been used for decades to help constipation.
Heart disease: Magnesium deficiency is common in those with heart disease. Magnesium, a natural calcium channel blocker, is an effective treatment for heart attacks and cardiac arrhythmias. An astounding number of studies have documented the effectiveness of IV magnesium in helping prevent cardiac damage and even death following a heart attack. The reason for this is that 40 to 60 percent of sudden deaths from heart attack are the result of spasm in the arteries, not blockage from clots or arrhythmias! 
Hypertension: Without adequate magnesium, blood vessels constrict and blood pressure increases.
Infertility: Magnesium can relax spasms in fallopian tubes that prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus.
Nerve problems and muscle spasms: Magnesium helps eliminate peripheral nerve disturbances that can lead to migraines, leg and foot cramps, gastrointestinal cramps, and other muscle aches and pains.
Obstetrical problems: Magnesium can prevent premature labor (because it calms contractions) as well as eclampsia.
Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D., author of The Magnesium Miracle (Ballantine Books, 2007), reports that these (and other) conditions are also associated with magnesium deficiency: blood clots, bowel disease, cystitis, depression, detoxification, diabetes, fatigue, hypoglycemia, insomnia, kidney disease, kidney stones, musculoskeletal conditions, osteoporosis, Raynaud's syndrome, and even tooth decay. Dr. Dean also reports that she's seen magnesium improve patients' PMS, painful periods, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia. She's also seen it increase their sexual pleasure!
Supplementing With Magnesium
For the majority of human history, the ratio of calcium to magnesium in the diet was 1:1, a ratio that's considered optimal. A ratio that's between 1:1 and 2:1 is adequate (for example, 800 mg of calcium to 400 mg of magnesium). Unfortunately, today's diets contain an average of 10 times more calcium than magnesium.
In addition to eating a nutritious diet, I recommend that you use supplements that contain magnesium. I do this myself, especially when traveling or dealing with the stress of deadlines. There's considerable variation among individuals as to the ideal amount of magnesium to take. Here's what I recommend: Keep your calcium intake between 800-1,400 mg per day, adding enough magnesium to balance it. For example, if you take 1,000 mg of calcium per day, you need at least 500-800 mg of magnesium.
Magnesium comes in many forms. Magnesium oxide or chloride is fine, as is chelated magnesium. Capsules usually contain 250-500 mg of magnesium. You can also use a calcium/magnesium supplement. Experiment with levels. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for magnesium is 350-400 mg per day, although for optimal levels, you may need as much as twice that amount.
It's best to take your magnesium in divided doses throughout the day. You can take it either on an empty stomach or with meals. You can also add Epsom salts to your baths--Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate. It's absorbed through the skin and will help replenish magnesium stores. This "treatment" can easily include a relaxing bath with a good book.
Testing for proper levels of the nutrient is difficult (as Dr. Dean puts it, magnesium is "its own worst enemy") because its serum concentration is so low that it's hard to get an accurate picture of how much is in the whole body just by testing what's in the blood. Only one percent of the body's magnesium is in the blood, and the body will take it from bones and tissues if that level drops. That means that a blood test could easily show a normal reading, even when the rest of the body is very deficient.
A True Miracle
Perhaps the most miraculous story I've ever heard about magnesium was one I heard from Dr. Dean. There was a man who suffered from esophageal spasms so severe that he often couldn't swallow anything, including his own saliva. During one horrible attack--something quite similar to choking--his wife gave him some water with magnesium citrate powder mixed in it. After holding the solution in his mouth for about a minute, the magnesium calmed the muscle spasms and he was able to function normally.
If you want to learn more (and I think that everyone should), I recommend that you read Dr. Dean's The Magnesium Miracle. Quite frankly, this book should be in everyone's home library. The information could surely save your--or a loved one's--life!
For more information about magnesium, visit the association's Web site at www.nutritionalmagnesium.org.
 Institute of Medicine, Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Vitamin D, and Fluoride (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1997).
 M. J. Eisenberg, "Magnesium Deficiency and Sudden Death," American Heart Journal, vol. 124, no. 2 (1992), pp. 544-49; P. D. Turlapaty and B. M. Altura, "Magnesium Deficiency Produces Spasms in Coronary Arteries: Relationship to Etiology of Sudden Death Ischemic Heart Disease," Science, vol. 208, no. 4440 (April 11, 1980), pp. 198-200; B. M. Altura, "Sudden Death Ischemic Heart Disease and Dietary Magnesium Intake: Is the Target Site Coronary Vascular Smooth Muscle?" Medical Hypotheses, vol. 5, no. 8 (Aug. 1979), pp. 843-48.
 B. S. Levine and J. W. Coburn, "Magnesium, the Mimic/Antagonist of Calcium," New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 310, no. 19 (May 10, 1984), pp. 1253-55.