The element of surprise
There's growing research to support claims that increasing magnesium intake can help a range of conditions. They include easing chronic pain, lowering blood pressure, relaxing muscles, boosting memory, reducing anxiety and alleviating constipation.
Magnesium is the eleventh most abundant element by mass in the human body and is essential to good health; it helps absorb calcium and plays a crucial role in forming bones and maintaining muscle function. It's also critical in cellular function and in ensuring electrolyte balance.
As the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states: 'Magnesium is an important part of the more than 300 enzymes found in your body. Enzymes are body chemicals that help regulate many bodily functions, including the production of energy, body protein and muscle contractions. It also plays a role in maintaining healthy bones and a healthy heart.'
Food sources for magnesium include green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains - such as brown rice - and wheat germ.
Natural medicine practitioners, including Hong Kong-based Dr Ardyce Yik, advocate magnesium supplements. Yik, a naturopathic physician with the Integrated Medicine Institute in Central and the OT&P medical clinic in Repulse Bay, sees many patients suffering from magnesium deficiency.
She says magnesium has been proven to be effective in alleviating and preventing migraines. She cites claims by the New York Headache Centre that 'magnesium deficiency may be present in up to half of migraine patients'. More than 200 published clinical studies are said to have documented the need for more magnesium in diets.
Japanese researchers in the late 1990s found that magnesium supplements have a small but significant effect on lowering blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels.
Professor Liu Guosong, director of the Centre for Learning and Memory at Tsinghua University in Beijing, examined whether increased levels of magnesium - a key nutrient for the functioning of memory - boosted brain power in rats. The results of the study were published in 2010.
'Our findings suggest that elevating brain magnesium content via increasing magnesium intake might be a useful new strategy to enhance cognitive abilities,' says Liu. 'Moreover, half the population of industrialised countries has a magnesium deficit, which increases with ageing. This may very well contribute to age-dependent memory decline; increasing magnesium intake might prevent or reduce such decline.'
This study is backed up by research from Tel Aviv University that suggests magnesium may be even more critical than previously thought for the neurons of children and healthy brain cells in adults. Dr Inna Slutsky, who led the research, says her team used a special magnesium compound, claiming that over-the-counter supplements 'don't really work [because] they do not get into the brain'.
Slutsky's advice is to get magnesium 'the old-fashioned way' - from food - and that a 'persistent change' in diet should help improve memory and delay the effects of dementia.
Although magnesium can be obtained from certain foods, there are concerns that environmental toxins, mineral depleted soil, preservatives and additives often prevent its proper absorption.
Yik says people could be deficient if they consume 'excessive' alcohol, salt, coffee, phosphoric acid (from soft drinks), have prolonged or high levels of stress, or suffer from chronic diarrhoea. In addition, pharmaceutical diuretics, oral contraceptives, antibiotics and certain antidepressants deplete the body of magnesium.
Recently, Yik says a woman in her early 30s came to her complaining of anxiety, intense tight muscles in her neck and shoulders and insomnia caused by stress at work.
She prescribed magnesium capsules and at a follow-up visit two weeks later, the woman said she felt less on edge and was able to sleep better.
Yik's prescribed dosage depends on individual needs and could be anything from 250 milligrams to 1,000mg daily.
Janelle Castle, a naturopath who works at the Absolute Sanctuary health retreat on Koh Samui, says magnesium supplements have had many benefits for her clients.
'The most common feedback I hear is an overall improvement in well-being and of feeling really relaxed and at ease. The sense of calm that people experience when taking magnesium supplementation is most noticeable. They also sleep much better, wake up less to go to the toilet and suffer less from the effects of stress and tension.'
Client Varanya Vanuspitaksakul says Castle advised her to try magnesium supplements to help with bowel movements and frequent urination, following the birth of her daughter a year ago. 'I've been taking 50mg twice a day for about three months and I noticed an effect within a few days,' she says. 'I stopped taking them once and the symptoms gradually returned after about three days.'
The recommended daily magnesium intake in the US is 300mg for women and 400mg for men. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations recommends 220mg for females and 260mg for males aged between 19 and 65.
Although toxicity from excess magnesium is rare, some people, such as those with a kidney disease, might be at risk. Others can experience side effects such as diarrhoea and stomach aches. If that's the case, some practitioners advise rubbing magnesium 'oil' on your skin or soaking in magnesium chloride bath salts.
In his book Transdermal Magnesium Therapy, Dr Mark Sircus, an American researcher in the field of natural medicine, claims that oral magnesium supplementation takes between six to 12 months to 'restore intracellular levels', whereas magnesium directly applied to the skin 'restores intracellular levels within four to six weeks'.
According to Dr Carolyn Dean, the author of The Miracle of Magnesium: 'Of the 325 magnesium-dependent enzymes, the most important enzyme reaction involves the creation of energy by activating adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the fundamental energy storage molecule of the body. ATP may be what the Chinese refer to as qi, or life force ... Without magnesium there is no energy, no movement, no life.'
Magnesium is an important part of this many enzymes found in your body (US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics)