Magnesium: The underrated disease-fighting nutrient

A seldom-mentioned nutrient that plays a role in maintaining healthy blood pressure readings, reduces risk of diabetes and stroke and increases overall health

When it comes to minerals, sodium and calcium are among the top headline-grabbing nutrients. Just ask anyone about them and chances are they’ll know a fact or two about these particular minerals. But then there’s magnesium. It’s not given much status by the average person but a new study adds to the evidence that it’s definitely time to give it more respect. Not only is magnesium linked to better blood pressure readings and a reduced risk of diabetes, research shows it’s a mighty strong defender against having a stroke.

In research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Swedish scientists examined studies looking at the connection between magnesium intakes and the risk of strokes between 1966 and 2011 and found that those subjects with the highest intake of magnesium were the least likely to have an ischemic stroke. This is the type which is caused by a blockage of blood flow in an artery in the brain.

The scientists speculate that there are a number of ways that magnesium can defend against having a stroke. For one, it plays a significant role in maintaining healthy blood pressure readings. Study after study also touts its role in protecting against the development of type 2 diabetes and in those who already have diabetes, better blood sugar regulation. Reports also show that too little magnesium can increase the likelihood of cholesterol being oxidized. As oxidized cholesterol is more likely to be deposited in arteries, you can see how shortfalls of this mineral may be costly to artery health.

Now consider that not only do we know little about magnesium, it also appears to we consume much too little of it as well. According to a report published in 2009, magnesium shortfalls seem to increase as we age. The report showed that all Canadian adults failed to meet recommended intakes but as we age, we consume even less.

Not exactly a recipe for good health.

In an editorial entitled Magnesium for cardiovascular health: time for intervention which accompanied the magnesium-stroke research, the authors called for clinical studies where higher magnesium intakes could be put to the test. After all, it’s critical to also determine any particular adverse effects and safe supplement levels. We’ve seen all too often that simply loading up on very high amounts of supplements may have drawbacks for some people. The authors state that, in the meantime, they’ll be placing their bets on consuming magnesium-rich foods for cardiovascular health.

When you look at which foods are rich in magnesium, it’s easy to see why the editorial recommends looking to smart food choices. The selections that are packed with this mineral are also pretty impressive picks in terms of other nutrients as well. Get your fill of dark leafy greens, nuts, dried peas and beans and whole grains and your magnesium intake will soar along with a host of other disease-fighting nutrients.

For example, go for kale or spinach and you will also boost your folate, potassium and carotenoid totals, just to name a few nutrients. Have a bean chili or some hummus and you’ll also increase your cholesterol-lowering soluble fibre intake. Munch on some nuts and, besides getting a magnesium hit, you’ll get heart-healthy fats, fibre and anti-cancer and heart-healthy phytosterols.

Meeting magnesium requirements is yet another reason to opt for whole grains over refined ones. And keep in mind that when you’re selecting whole wheat in particular, if the label doesn’t state whole grain whole wheat, you may not be getting a whole grain. As a result, you could be shortchanging your magnesium counts.

Magnesium needs may also vary for different people depending on their health status, medications and age. For instance, some individuals may have problems absorbing the mineral. Gastrointestinal conditions such as Crohn’s or celiac disease or even being elderly can decrease magnesium absorption. Being elderly can also boost magnesium losses from the body as can the use of diuretics (water pills) or if you have high blood sugar readings. And these would all be situations where magnesium is even more important than for the average person.

If you think that you’re covered because you’re taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement, think again. Most contain between 50 and 100 milligrams of magnesium, far short of the recommended daily intake of 420 milligrams a day for men above 31 years of age and 320 for women.

One last magnesium tidbit to keep in mind, especially at this time of year when you’re trying to build a good defense against seasonal ailments such as colds and the flu: magnesium is a key player in maintaining a healthy immune system.

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Categories: Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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