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Magnesium:
A Key to Calcium Absorption

By Nan Kathryn Fuchs, Ph.D.


Dr. Fuchs is a nutritional consultant in private practice in Santa Monica, CA, and is author of "The Nutrition Detective."



One of the most popular minerals in the news today is calcium, needed for strong bones and teeth. We are told to take increased amounts in our diet as a supplement to prevent osteoporosis and eliminate muscle cramping during menstruation or from over-exercising. Yet, calcium alone is often not enough. Without magnesium, calcium may be not fully utilized, and underabsorption problems may occur leading to arthritis, osteoporosis, menstrual cramps, and some premenstrual symptoms.

Perhaps the single most significant reason calcium malabsorption is so common today is due to a discrepancy between what we eat and how we digest and absorb the nutrients in our food. Our diets today are very different from those of our ancestors though our bodies remain similar.

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors ate foods high in magnesium and low in calcium. Because calcium supplies were scarce and the need for this vital mineral was great, it was effectively stored by the body. Magnesium, on the other hand, was abundant and readily available, in the form of nuts, seeds, grains, and vegetables, and did not need to be stored internally.

Our bodies still retain calcium and not magnesium although we tend to eat much more dairy than our ancestors. In addition, our sugar and alcohol consumption is higher than theirs, and both sugar and alcohol increase magnesium excretion through the urine. Our grains, originally high in magnesium, have been refined, which means that the nutrient is lost in the refining process. The quality of our soil has deteriorated as well, due to the use of fertilizers that contain large amounts of potassium a magnesium antagonist. This results in foods lower in magnesium than ever before.


ARTHRITIS AND OSTEOPOROSIS

Two major health problems, arthritis and osteoporosis, may be caused in part by a magnesium deficiency. When you look at how calcium is absorbed these problems become easier to understand, and often can be controlled through diet.

Magnesium is needed for calcium absorption. Without enough magnesium, calcium can collect in the soft tissues and cause one type of arthritis. Not only does calcium collect in the soft tissues of arthritics, it is poorly, if at all, absorbed into their blood and bones. But taking more calcium is not the answer; it only amplifies the problem. In fact, excessive calcium intake and insufficient magnesium can contribute to both of these diseases. Magnesium taken in proper dosages can solve the problem of calcium deficiency.

When calcium is elevated in the blood it stimulates the secretion of a hormone called calcitonin and suppresses the secretion of the parathyroid hormone (PTH). These hormones regulate the levels of calcium in our bones and soft tissues and are, therefore, directly related to both osteoporosis and arthritis. PTH draws calcium out of the bones and deposits it in the soft tissues, while calcitonin increases calcium in our bones and keeps it from being absorbed in our soft tissues. Sufficient amounts of magnesium determine this delicate and important balance.

Because magnesium suppresses PTH and stimulates calcitonin it helps put calcium into our bones, preventing osteoporosis, and helps remove it from our soft tissues eliminating some forms of arthritis. A magnesium deficiency will prevent this chemical action from taking place in our bodies, and no amount of calcium can correct it. While magnesium helps our body absorb and retain calcium, too much calcium prevents magnesium from being absorbed. So taking large amounts of calcium without adequate magnesium may either create malabsorption or a magnesium deficiency. Whichever occurs, only magnesium can break the cycle.

In experiments reported in "International Clinical Nutrition Review," a number of volunteers on a low-magnesium diet were given both calcium and vitamin D supplements. AU the subjects were magnesium-depleted and although they had been given adequate supplements, all but one became deficient in calcium. When they were given calcium intravenously, the level of calcium in their blood rose, but only for the duration of the intravenous feeding. As soon as the intravenous calcium was stopped, the levels calcium in the blood dropped. However, when magnesium was given, their magnesium levels rose and stabilized rapidly, and calcium levels also rose within a few days - although no additional calcium had been taken.

Dr. Guy Abraham, M.D., a research gynecologist and endocrinologist in premenstrual syndrome and osteoporosis has found strong evidence to suggest that women with osteoporosis have a deficiency of a chemical that is made when they take twice as much magnesium as calcium. In fact, he has found that when calcium intake is decreased, it is utilized better than when it is high. Dr. Abraham is one of many doctors and biochemists who advocate taking more magnesium to correct calcium-deficiency diseases.

A magnesium-rich diet can be helpful both for arthritis and to help prevent osteoporosis. This consists of nuts, whole grains such as brown rice, millet, buckwheat (kasha), whole wheat, triticate, and rye, and legumes including lentils, split peas, and a varieties of beans. A whole grain cereal or bread in the morning, a cup of bean soup at lunch, a snack of a few nuts, and serving of brown rice, millet, or buckwheat with dinner should help increase magnesium when a deficiency is suspected.

At the same time, refined sugar and alcohol should be reduced, and eliminated when possible to prevent magnesium from being excreted in large quantities in the urine. You may also want to re-evaluate the amount of dairy in your diet. If it has been disproportionately high, reduce or temporarily eliminate it until some of your symptoms are alleviated, or until you feel more of a balance has been achieved through the inclusion of whole grains and legumes. Oriental and Indian diets contain little or no dairy, yet arthritis and osteoporosis are not major health problems in these cultures. Their foods consist primarily of green vegetables, grains, tofu, and seafood, and are twice as high in magnesium as our average diets.

Calcium causes muscles to contract, while magnesium helps them relax. When calcium is taken for menstrual cramps it knocks magnesium out of the cells and makes it more available for immediate use. However, it depletes the body of magnesium and ensures that the problem will recur the following month unless sufficient magnesium is added to the diet. Taking calcium gives temporary relief of menstrual cramps.

A diet high in dairy and low in whole grains can lead to excess calcium in the tissues and a magnesium deficiency. The source of menstrual cramps may be coming from eating too much cheese, yogurt, ice cream or milk, combined with insufficient whole grains and beans. Or it could come from taking too much calcium without enough magnesium. Modifying your diet and increasing your magnesium supplementation may allow your menstrual cramps to disappear.

Premenstrual chocolate craving is a phenomenon that has puzzled a great many women who are not controlled by this overwhelming urge at other times of the month. Yet chocolate, which is highest in magnesium of all foods, is often a sign of magnesium deficiency. If your diet is high in calcium you may have poor calcium absorption as well. The answer is not to eat more chocolate, but to increase your magnesium by eating more whole grains, nuts, seafood, and green vegetables, and by increasing your magnesium supplements. Your chocolate cravings will vanish when you have enough magnesium in your diet.

According to Dr. Mildred Seelig, executive president of the American College of Nutrition, we need an average of 200 mg. more than we get from the average diet.

Foods highest in magnesium are nuts (especially almonds and cashews), whole grains, seafood, and legumes (including tofu). Eat more of these, while reducing sugar and alcohol, which increase magnesium excretion. Don't overlook one vitamin or mineral for another since all work together to supply you with the nutrients you need. And consult your nutritionally- oriented physician about all nutrients before trying them.

A balanced diet of fresh, whole foods is your best maintenance diet. But if you have been taking large amounts of calcium and ignoring magnesium you may want to reverse the proportions until you achieve a better balance. Sufficient magnesium may be your missing link.


This page was first uploaded to The Magnesium Web Site on November 22, 2002



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