Nearly half of Americans are at risk for a magnesium deficiency – here’s how to tell if you’re deficient

Spinach
If you have a magnesium deficiency, you should eat more leafy greens like spinach. Nevena Zdravic / EyeEm/ Getty Images
  • The major signs and symptoms of a magnesium deficiency include weakness, nausea, and fatigue.
  • About 48% of Americans don’t get enough magnesium and are at risk for a deficiency.
  • To treat magnesium deficiency, eat more magnesium-rich foods like spinach, nuts, and tofu.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

Every organ in the body requires magnesium, making it a critical mineral. But if you don’t consume enough, you may develop a magnesium deficiency, which can cause minor symptoms like weakness and fatigue, as well as dangerous ones like seizures and muscle spasms.

Here’s what you need to know about the signs and symptoms of magnesium deficiency, and how to get more in your diet.

What does magnesium do?

Magnesium is required for over 300 chemical reactions in the body. According to Nicole DeMasi, MS, a registered dietitian with her own virtual private practice, it’s essential for maintaining:

Maintaining a proper magnesium intake has also been linked to a reduced risk of diabetes, says Kelly Jones, MS, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at Kelly Jones Nutrition.

Signs and symptoms of magnesium deficiency

Symptoms of magnesium deficiency vary based on how deficient you are. According to Bansari Acharya, RDN, a registered dietitian-nutritionist in Detroit, the initial symptoms of magnesium deficiency can include:

If a person’s magnesium deficiency continues for a long period of time or gets worse, the seriousness of symptoms increases. According to Acharya, the long term risks of a magnesium deficiency include:

  • Change in personality
  • Seizures
  • Numbness
  • Tingling sensations
  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Muscle spasms
  • Hypokalemia, which is low levels of potassium in the blood
  • Hypocalcemia, which is low levels of calcium in the blood

Causes of magnesium deficiency

A magnesium deficiency occurs when the amount of magnesium in the blood drops below the average range of 1.7 to 2.2 mg/dL. This can happen if you consume less than your recommended dietary allowance of magnesium:

Age Male Female Pregnancy Lactation
Birth to 6 months 30 mg 30 mg
7-12 months 75 mg 75 mg
1-3 years 80 mg 80 mg
4-8 years 130 mg 130 mg
9-13 years 240 mg 240 mg
14-18 years 410 mg 360 mg 400 mg 360 mg
19-30 years 400 mg 310 mg 350 mg 310 mg
31-50 years 420 mg 320 mg 360 mg 320 mg
51+ years 420 mg 320 mg

Across all ages, 48% of Americans consume less than their estimated requirement for magnesium. “The standard American diet typically consists of mainly processed foods like boxed, canned, and frozen meals, red meat, low fiber carbs, and very little fruits and vegetables. This way of eating makes it much harder to get enough magnesium,” says DeMasi.

While an improper diet can be to blame for a magnesium deficiency, certain diseases also make a person more susceptible. “Most true magnesium deficiencies are due to inadequate absorption and excess loss in the urine and feces,” says Jones.

Jones says this is most likely to occur if you have:

Diagnosis of magnesium deficiency

As soon as you notice initial symptoms such as fatigue or gastrointestinal discomfort, it is recommended you visit a doctor immediately.

Once at the doctor’s office, they can perform a blood test to determine if you are experiencing a magnesium deficiency, another nutrient deficiency, or if something else is to blame. Your doctor will then determine the best treatment option for you.

Treatment for a magnesium deficiency

Depending on what other medical conditions you have and the severity of the deficiency, your doctor may recommend a supplement, along with dietary changes, says Acharya. The highest tolerable amount of a magnesium supplement is 350 mg per day for adults.

The most common supplemental forms of magnesium, such as magnesium citrate and oxide, may cause cramping and diarrhea. If you decide to take a supplement, opt for magnesium glycinate as it is less likely to cause gastrointestinal issues.

Increasing your daily intake of magnesium-rich foods is another great way to get your levels back on track. DeMasi says foods high in magnesium include:

  • Green leafy vegetables such as spinach
  • Nuts
  • Tofu
  • Bananas
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Dark chocolate
  • Avocados

In the early stages of magnesium deficiency, you can recover by increasing your dietary intake through foods. But, if you’ve developed more serious conditions as a result of your deficiency, the length and intensity of treatment will increase.

Insider’s takeaway

A magnesium deficiency occurs when a person does not consume enough magnesium in their diet or has a disease that limits their ability to absorb it. Symptoms of a magnesium deficiency include weakness, nausea, and even seizures. Through changes in diet and supplements, magnesium levels can normalize.

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