Magnesium is one of those minerals you know is important to your health, but you’re probably also a little hazy on what, exactly, it does. Turns out it’s actually crucial—meaning that a deficiency in it can cause all sorts of problems.
First, some basics. Magnesium is a mineral that’s key for muscle and nerve function, says New York-based R.D. Jessica Cording. “You can think of magnesium as the additives in your fuel that keep your engine clean and running like a champ,” says Gina Keatley, a C.D.N. practicing in New York City. “Magnesium is a part of energy production, is used as structure for healthy bones, is a key element in glutathione, which is known as the master antioxidant, and even helps for normal heart rhythm and nerve impulses.”
The recommended daily intake for women is 310 to 360 milligrams a day (and 400 to 420 milligrams a day for men), Keatley says—and everyone needs at least a little magnesium in their diet.
Plenty of people don’t meet their daily needs of the mineral, Cording says, but it’s available in a variety of food sources like dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, beans, avocado, bananas, yogurt, and even dark chocolate. “Being mindful to work at least one good food source into each meal can help someone hit their goal,” she says.
Related: Why You’re Not Getting Enough Magnesium—And 4 Easy Ways To Fix It
But, while magnesium can do great things in your body, it can also harm your health if you’re deficient in it. If you’re not taking in enough magnesium, your body will release hormones that deconstruct bone to bring that magnesium into your blood stream, Keatley says. And just like with calcium deficiency, you might not know there is a problem until it’s too late.
Some of these symptoms require seeing a doctor, but if you’re just feeling sluggish and suspect magnesium may be to blame, Keatley recommends increasing your intake of magnesium-rich foods and seeing where that gets you. If it persists, see your doctor and get lab work done.
Here are some signs you might be deficient:
Some of the early signs of magnesium deficiency are generic, Keatley says, like loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and weakness (which obviously could be a sign of many other things, including the flu). See your doctor if the symptoms don’t go away within five days.
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Numbness and tingling
As a magnesium deficiency gets worse, someone can experience numbness and tingling, since the nerves need magnesium to function properly, Keatley says. If you feel this more often than not, check in with your doc about it.
Related: 7 Reasons Why You’ve Got A Pins-And-Needles Sensation In Your Hands And Feet
Muscle contractions and cramps
These are also a sign that a magnesium deficiency has gotten bad, Keatley says. If you’re getting these often, it’s a good idea to flag this as a possible cause to your doctor.
Related: 7 Reasons You Have Cramps That Have Nothing To Do With Your Period
Seizures happen when there’s abnormal electrical activity in your brain—and a lack of magnesium can cause this. If you have a seizure and are able to, call 911, then get to a hospital stat.
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If you suddenly feel confused, overwhelmed, and irritable out of nowhere, it could be a sign of a magnesium deficiency, Keatley says. Check in with your doc if this happens more than once.
Related: 5 Signs You Might Have A Scary Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Abnormal heart rhythm
Given that magnesium is used to help normalize the rhythm of your heart, a lack of the mineral can throw it out of whack. See your doc if this is happening to you.
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