When it comes to building strong bones, most of the advice we hear focuses on getting enough calcium in our diet. What we don't hear, though, is how calcium requires a critical partner in order to be used effectively by the human body: magnesium.
Why is magnesium so important?
Magnesium is an essential mineral that is involved in more than 350 different important biochemical functions. Before pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers were in widespread, magnesium was naturally found in a number of food sources. Those substances have depleted the amount of magnesium and other nutrients found in soil in the last several decades. To make matters worse, mental stress, physical stress, caffeine, sugar, excess sodium, alcohol, sodas, tobacco, high perspiration, pharmaceutical drugs, and a high carbohydrate diet are shown to decrease magnesium levels. As a result, current research estimates that anywhere from 50-80% of American adults are deficient in magnesium.
One of the most important functions of magnesium is to regulate the absorption of calcium, as well as your cells' ability to use it. If your body isn't getting enough magnesium, unused calcium will build up in areas where it doesn't belong. These calcium deposits can end up in your joints and cause arthritis, can form gallstones and kidney stones, or (in the worst cases) lead to areas of calcification in the brain and other vital organs. Studies have even shown that a high intake of calcium in relation to magnesium can further reduce magnesium absorption and increase excretion of calcium. It's possible that magnesium deficiency may even cause calcium deficiency if it's severe enough and/or goes on for a long time.
Unlike calcium, though, extra magnesium doesn't stay in the body. Supplementing with magnesium not only helps your body use calcium more efficiently and "flush out" what it doesn't need, it can also improve the function of your nervous system, protect your heart and blood vessels, and regulate critical hormone levels. Studies show that people with adequate magnesium levels are less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, both of which are nearly at epidemic levels among the American population. In addition, individuals with hypertension can often lower their blood pressure significantly with magnesium supplementation.
So what does this have to do with calcium and bone health?
The relationship between calcium and magnesium is complex, and there's still a lot about it that we don't understand. What we do know, however, is that calcium levels in the blood drop low enough, the body will begin to rob calcium from the bones and teeth (which normally contain 99% of your stored calcium). We also know that if magnesium levels are low, then the body may fail to absorb the calcium you take in or may deposit it where it shouldn't be. What this means is that a person can have a calcium intake that looks perfect "on paper", but because they're not taking in enough magnesium at the same time, none of this calcium is really usable. Over time they may develop brittle bones and other problems associated with low calcium.
Naturally, it would seem like the simplest solution to treating conditions associated with low calcium is to supplement with more calcium. But as we already established, taking calcium without an appropriate level of magnesium will only accelerate the harmful processes that are occurring in the body. Studies have even shown that a high intake of calcium in relation to magnesium can further reduce magnesium absorption and increase excretion of calcium. It's possible that magnesium deficiency may even cause calcium deficiency if it's severe enough and/or goes on for a long time. This cascade of negative consequences creates a downward spiral that it can be difficult to understand, much less break out of.
Is there a good answer to the calcium/magnesium dilemma?
As complicated as the relationship between calcium and magnesium may be, the answer is actually fairly simple: Balance your calcium intake with your magnesium intake. The most commonly recommended ratio is 2 parts calcium to one part magnesium. Supplements such as Douglas Laboratories Cal 6 + Mg are relatively inexpensive and are already formulated to give you the appropriate amounts of calcium and magnesium, but it's possible to monitor your own diet and supplements to stick to that ratio--it will just take a bit more vigilance on your part.
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