Every now and then, thanks to a combination of things like science and, uh, capitalism, certain foods or supplements will trend as potential solutions to many ailments. A few years ago, it was kale. Over the course of the pandemic, things like vitamins C and D and anything that improved the immune system emerged supreme. More recently, collagen has risen in popularity. There was some buzz over magnesium a few years ago, and it seems the mineral is back in the spotlight today.
According to people raving about it on the internet, magnesium can assist in everything from coping with anxiety and inducing deep sleep to getting better workouts. All of those are timeless human concerns, but anesthesiologist Zain Hasan told VICE that part of the reason magnesium supplements have become so popular nowadays is that COVID-19 made people more aware of their health.
Vitamin D is said to reduce the severity of COVID-19, but low magnesium levels makes vitamin D ineffective. The pandemic also highlighted the need to reduce stress and anxiety, which magnesium is known to help do. Magnesium supplements are nothing new, but Hasan said the recent focus on taking control of one’s own health has made the mineral more popular.
Another factor contributing to magnesium’s recent popularity is social media. On TikTok, videos with the hashtag #magnesium have over 690 million views, while those with the hashtag #magnesiumdeficiency have over 277 million views.
“TikTok’s influence in swiftly disseminating information has played a significant role in raising awareness about the benefits of magnesium supplementation,” pharmacist and functional nutritionist Ariana Medizade told VICE.
But Joseph Salhab, a physician with specializations in gastroenterology and internal medicine, said that the popularity of magnesium is not just a passing trend.
“Magnesium is an essential mineral and its importance is well-established,” said Salhab. “Its appeal is that it’s natural and needed by the body. However, like any health trend, it is essential to approach magnesium supplementation with a balanced perspective.”
What is magnesium?
According to the experts VICE spoke to, magnesium is a mineral that plays a crucial role in a slew of processes in the human body, including nerve transmission, muscle contractions, the formation of proteins, and blood sugar regulation. It also helps with mental health by regulating mood and stress.
How much magnesium a person needs varies depending on things like sex, age, and specific health conditions, but Salhab said the average is somewhere around 320 and 420 milligrams of the mineral per day for women and men respectively.
What does magnesium do?
According to the experts VICE spoke to, magnesium can help with a whole bunch of things—muscle function, migraines, sugar control in diabetics, blood pressure and heart health, constipation, nerve function, bone health, energy production, and insomnia and sleep quality. But experts warned that plenty of these effects are modest, and people shouldn’t rely too heavily on the mineral to cure severe conditions nor replace proper diets and stress management.
“[Magnesium is] certainly not a magic pill and you should be cautious if you see [it] advertised for dramatic energy boosting, weight loss, anti-aging, and miracle cure-all effects,” said Salhab.
There are also risks to taking magnesium supplements. Salhab said these can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. The mineral can have negative effects when it interacts with certain medications, like antibiotics and medications for heart conditions, too. People with impaired kidney functions should be especially cautious with magnesium supplements, because accumulating high doses of the mineral in the body can lead to several complications, like an irregular heartbeat and severe muscle weakness.
Do you have to take supplements to get magnesium?
Much if not all of the recommended intake of magnesium can be obtained from a diet with leafy vegetables, nuts, fish, or milk. But experts say magnesium deficiency is still a relatively common problem.
“It is ascertained that magnesium content in fruits and vegetables dropped in the last fifty years, and about 80 percent of this metal is lost during food processing. As a consequence, a large percentage of people all over the world does not meet the minimum daily magnesium requirement,” wrote researchers in a 2020 study.
Magnesium deficiency over long periods of time may have negative effects on brain function, bone density, muscle and nerve function, and the digestive system. In younger people, it may prevent bone growth. In older people, it may increase the risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures.
What type of magnesium should you take?
There are several types of magnesium, each used for different purposes, and some more readily absorbed by the body than others. Of course, it’s best to avoid magnesium types that aren’t easily absorbed by the body or don’t do what you want them to do.
For example, magnesium glycinate helps calm the nervous system, promotes relaxation and sleep, and promotes a sense of calm. Medizade, the pharmacist and functional nutritionist, said that this is best for people with anxiety or trouble sleeping, but can be used for most of the issues people take magnesium for, including headaches, constipation, muscle spasms, and fatigue. Magnesium L-threonate is commonly used for brain health and cognitive support because it crosses the blood-brain barrier the best, said Medizade, adding that it’s good to take this type of magnesium during the day because it doesn’t necessarily make you feel relaxed or sleepy. Magnesium oxide is commonly used for migraines, but its bioavailability is low, so your body can’t absorb as much of it. Magnesium sulfate is absorbed through the skin and is used in bath salts or foot soaks. Medizade said it’s ideal for people who want to relieve soreness or muscle tension, but shouldn’t be used if you’re fresh from a shave—it will burn your skin.
Knowing the type of magnesium you want is one thing, choosing the actual supplement is another.
“Ensure you choose supplements that are crafted by reputable companies and follow rigorous quality control protocols. Carefully inspect the list of additional ingredients to ensure the absence of any unnecessary fillers, additives, or potential allergens,” Salhab said.
How do you take magnesium?
How often and at what time of day it’s best to take a magnesium supplement also depends on a person’s needs and the type of magnesium.
Medizade advised taking a supplement the way it’s indicated on the bottle. If you were to take a magnesium supplement daily, Salhab said taking it at the same time every day helps maintain steady levels of the mineral in the body. Many people take their magnesium supplements in the evening due to their calming properties. Magnesium can also be taken with or without food, though some types (like glycinate) are better absorbed alongside a meal. People with sensitive stomachs can also choose to take their magnesium with food to reduce the risk of stomach upset.
A final word of advice
Magnesium supplements are pretty well-tolerated, but all supplements come with caveats. Salhab had a final bit of advice for anyone taking or looking to take magnesium.
“Research the best formulation for what you’re trying to achieve. Choose a quality product. Follow the recommended dosages. Monitor your body’s response. Be patient and consistent. Prioritize other lifestyle factors that contribute to overall health, such as a balanced diet, regular exercise, stress management, and adequate sleep. Temper expectations. And always consult with a healthcare professional.”
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