Mildred S. Seelig, MD, MPH
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
When treating heart disease, the leading killer in the US, most doctors fail to identify the importance of one single nutrient -- magnesium.
Magnesium deficiency accompanies the major heart disease risk factors, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and diabetes.
Good news: By replenishing your stores of this vital mineral, you may be able to reduce -- or even eliminate -- your need for expensive medications that are typically used to treat these and other chronic conditions.*
All muscles -- including heart and blood vessel muscles -- require magnesium to function properly. If magnesium levels are deficient, you may experience irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and/or calcification of heart muscle cells, which triggers the development of scar tissue. Magnesium deficiency also damages the arterial lining, allowing fat to accumulate and clots to form within blood vessels. This can lead to heart attack, stroke and circulation disturbances in the legs.
To curb these adverse effects, cardiac patients often are prescribed calcium channel-blocking drugs, such as diltiazem (Cardizem) or verapamil (Verelan), to prevent calcification of heart tissue and blood vessels. Magnesium not only acts as a natural calcium channel blocker, but also provides additional benefits by assisting in the body's energy production and protein synthesis.
Caution: Taking calcium supplements may increase heart disease risk in people with magnesium deficiency. In Finland, where the dietary intake ratio of calcium to magnesium has long been 4:1, deaths from stroke and heart attack have been the highest in the world among middle-aged men. More recently, since magnesium has been substituted for some of the sodium in salt and added to breads and prepared meats, cardiovascular health has improved substantially in Finland.
If you take a calcium supplement: Balance your intake with sufficient magnesium. The optimal calcium- to-magnesium ratio is 2:1. Example: 1,200 mg of calcium and 600 mg of magnesium.
ARE YOU DEFICIENT?
Because most of the magnesium in your body is contained in bone, muscle and soft tissue, the usual test for magnesium levels -- total magnesium in blood serum -- does not adequately reflect a person's magnesium status. The best way to determine if you have a magnesium deficiency is to look at your overall health profile. You may be deficient in magnesium if you have one or more of the following conditions...
High cholesterol -- LDL (bad) cholesterol levels above 135 and HDL (good) cholesterol levels below 30.
High blood pressure -- levels persistently above 120/80.
Arteriosclerosis -- hardening of the arteries.
Abdominal obesity -- characterized by an "apple" figure caused by fat deposits in the lower abdomen.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
The recommended daily magnesium intake is 320 mg for women and 420 mg for men. To ensure adequate magnesium levels, I recommend 400 mg for women and 500 mg for men. Anyone taking calcium supplements -- as well as expectant or nursing mothers -- should aim for 600 mg to 700 mg of magnesium daily.
It's possible to reach these levels through diet. Foods that are high in magnesium include nuts, such as Brazil nuts (107 mg per ounce)... legumes, leafy greens, such as turnip greens (43 mg per cup)... and fish, such as halibut (91 mg per three ounces). If magnesium-rich foods are staples of your diet, you are well on your way to getting enough of the mineral. But most of us don't eat enough of these foods regularly.
Magnesium supplements are available in a variety of forms (tablet, capsule, powder and liquid).
If you are healthy and regularly consume magnesium-rich foods, you probably don't need magnesium supplements, unless you participate in strenuous sports and/or drink alcohol excessively. In this case, 100 mg to 150 mg daily of supplemental magnesium is recommended.
If your goal is heart disease prevention (because you are at risk for the disease due to high blood pressure or high cholesterol or you have a first-degree relative who has suffered angina, hypertension, heart attack or stroke), a 100-mg to 200-mg magnesium supplement taken twice daily with food will generally suffice, provided you don't exceed 1,200 mg of calcium daily from all sources.
If your goal is to treat or reverse heart disease, diabetes or high cholesterol, 400 mg to 700 mg of supplemental magnesium daily may be required.
Caution: Magnesium can act as a laxative. To avoid stomach upset and diarrhea, begin with a low dose and gradually build up. If you develop diarrhea, reduce the dose until your stools are comfortably soft. Divide your daily intake into two or three doses to minimize gastrointestinal discomfort.
*Never reduce or discontinue a prescription medication without consulting your doctor.
(Article adapted to be SCD foods compliant.)