What is Magnesium? How it Functions in the Body

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Without magnesium we could not produce energy, our muscles would be in a permanent state of contraction, and we could not adjust the levels of cholesterol produced and released into the blood stream.

magnesium in chlorophyll

Magnesium is the central element in chlorophyll and the basis of early life on the planet.

Magnesium ions regulate over 300 biochemical reactions in the body through their role as enzyme co-factors. They also play a vital role in the reactions that generate and use ATP, the fundamental unit of energy within the body’s cells.

A List of the Functions of Magnesium

Why does magnesium have such a far-reaching impact on the body? The secret is how it functions within the cells, even now a subject of intense study with entire journals dedicated to its research.

In this article, learn how magnesium regulates and maintains:

What Is Magnesium? Understanding Ionic Magnesium and the Body’s Chemistry

Magnesium is the second most abundant element inside human cells and the fourth most abundant positively charged ion in the human body.1 2 Within the body’s cells, it serves literally hundreds of functions.

In nature, magnesium can be found in many different forms, bonded with other atoms, such as:

  • Magnesium chloride, found naturally in the sea
  • Magnesite, the insoluble rock salt also known as magnesium carbonate
  • In plant matter, as the central element in chlorophyll

Magnesium is the second most abundant element inside human cells.

One readily accessible and easily absorbed form of magnesium is magnesium chloride. Because it is soluble in water, magnesium chloride readily dissociates, increasing rate of absorption.

All organic matter—plants, animals, and the human body—is made up of combinations of elements such as such as oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen.

These tiny building blocks join to create the compounds that make up our:

  • Tissues
  • Bodily fluids
  • Microscopic elements that regulate the body’s function.

Oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen form the basis of compounds found in all living matter. Beyond compounds built from these four most common elements, the rest of the body’s contents is made up of minerals.

Magnesium is a macro-mineral, which, unlike trace minerals, is needed by the body in large amounts.  Calcium, sodium, and potassium are also macro-minerals.  The average human body contains about 25 grams of magnesium, one of the six essential minerals that must be supplied in the diet.

Once magnesium enters the body through food, supplements, or topical applications, it is broken down and released to form independent magnesium atoms, or “ions”. In its ionic form, magnesium has a positive charge, commonly noted as Mg2+.

Magnesium cations function as a part of the structure of the body through their presence in bone. But arguably more important is their function as cell regulators in hundreds of chemical reactions throughout the body.

Magnesium powers our enzymes.

Magnesium is crucial to more than 300 enzyme-driven biochemical reactions occurring in the body on a near constant basis.

All nutrients used by the human body function as either:

  • Sources of energy
  • Building blocks for body structures
  • Elements needed to regulate and control the body’s many functions

Like most vitamins, magnesium’s role is primarily regulatory. It allows enzymes to function properly, which in turn enable a vast majority of the body’s chemical reactions.

Enzymes are the basis of the body’s ability to function while supporting life. Many of the necessary chemical reactions that the body carries out, such as the breakdown of sugars in the digestive system, can only normally be performed under extreme heat or acidity. Enzymes, however, allow these reactions to occur without damaging the body’s fragile tissues and organs.

Yet enzymes do not function alone. Substances known as enzyme co-factors must regulate the functions of enzymes in order to control the rate of reactions within the body. These co-factors act as “keys” to switches within each enzyme, instructing it to start or stop activity.

Magnesium is one of the most common co-factors in the body. Its presence is crucial to:

  • Glucose and fat breakdown
  • Production of proteins, enzymes and antioxidants such as glutathione
  • Creation of DNA and RNA
  • Regulation of cholesterol production

Without enzyme co-factors—including both hormones and vital minerals such as magnesium—reactions could easily spiral out of control. In fact even slight imbalances can chronically impact the body’s level of performance and health.

Thus, magnesium’s function as an enzyme cofactor can be seen as analogous to the important role that our body’s hormones play. The crucial difference, however, is that our body can manufacture most hormones itself using basic building blocks. Magnesium, on the other hand, cannot be manufactured by the body, it must be taken in.

In the same way that multiple bodily systems suffer in cases of thyroid malfunction or insulin resistance, magnesium deficiency has far-reaching implications for the body’s level of functioning.

Magnesium drives our fuel source.

Magnesium is a required ingredient of the energy-production process that occurs inside the tiny structures within cells.

The molecule ATP, or adenosine tri-phosphate, is the fundamental unit of energy used in human cells. Many of the functions carried out by cells require ATP to provide the energy for the action. These include:

  • Muscle fiber contraction
  • Protein synthesis
  • Cell reproduction
  • Transport of substances across the cell barrier

ATP can be thought of as fuel for the cell’s activities, much in the same way that gasoline fuels a car.

Mitochondria inside the cell function as the cell’s power plants and constantly produce ATP by converting simple units of glucose, fatty acids, or amino acids. Without the presence of sufficient magnesium, the nutrients we take in could not be metabolized into usable units of energy.

In addition, the form in which ATP exists and is utilized is typically MgATP, magnesium complexed with ATP. These MgATP units must be present to sustain movement, to perform cell maintenance, and to maintain a healthy balance of minerals inside and outside of the cells.

The interdependence of ATP and magnesium can have far-reaching effects on nerve transmission, calcification of tissues and blood vessels, and muscle excitation, underlining the importance of maintaining adequate magnesium levels.

Magnesium protects our DNA.

Studies have shown that DNA synthesis is slowed by insufficient magnesium.1 3 DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the body’s genetic code, used in the building of proteins and the reproduction of cells. The cells in our body are constantly being replaced by new cells. Different types of cells turnover at different rates, with the average age of a cell in the human body estimated at seven years.

Studies have shown that DNA synthesis is slowed by insufficient magnesium.

Thus, it is especially important that our DNA remain stable, avoiding mutations that can negatively impact cellular function.

DNA stability is dependent in part on magnesium. Magnesium not only stabilizes DNA structures, it also functions as a cofactor in the repair of DNA damage by environmental mutagens.4 Combined with ATP, magnesium also assists in the healthy production of RNA, responsible for “reading” DNA and manufacturing the proteins used in our body.

Magnesium regulates our electrolyte balance.

Within every cell in the body, a proper balance of mineral content must be maintained. Magnesium’s role in the healthy balance (“homeostasis”) of important minerals such as calcium, sodium and potassium affects the conduction of nerve impulses, muscle contraction, and heart rhythms.

The body allows mineral ions to flow into and out of the cell from the extra-cellular fluid, depending on concentrations inside or outside the cell. Minerals, in their ionic form, seek to equalize their concentrations by flowing through open membrane channels designed to allow movement of ions, water molecules, and small water-soluble compounds.

However, ideal levels for minerals inside and outside the cells is not equal, as minerals serve various purposes inside the body and the cells. To keep cells healthy, a distribution such as the following must be maintained.


Inside the Cells

Outside the Cells

Calcium Low High
Sodium Low High
Magnesium High Low
Potassium High Low


Because of the tendency of ions to equalize across membranes, like water flowing toward the sea, the cell must actively move ions into or out of the cell, expending energy to create a healthy balance using special “exchange pumps”.

These mineral exchange pumps perform one of the most vital functions of the cell membrane, regulating the electrical action potential inside and outside of the cell, and maintaining homeostasis of minerals in the body. Without constant efforts by exchange pumps, cells would be flooded with calcium and sodium moving in, and potassium and magnesium moving out as they strived to achieve an equilibrium.

One such exchange pump, known as the “sodium-potassium” pump, pumps sodium out of the cell in exchange for potassium. Embedded in the cell membrane, the sodium-potassium pump is activated by magnesium inside the cell.

Magnesium deficiency impairs the sodium-potassium pump, allowing potassium to escape from the cell, to be lost in the urine, potentially leading to potassium deficiency (hypokalemia). Those with a known potassium deficiency, therefore, often do not respond to treatment until magnesium deficiency is also corrected.

Similarly, magnesium’s role in calcium regulation is pivotal to its role in maintaining heart health. Magnesium is a known modulator of calcium, competing with calcium for entrance into cells and keeping many cellular processes in balance.

  • The effect of magnesium on blood vessels is one of dilation, whereas calcium promotes contraction.
  • Magnesium is also thought to antagonize calcium promotion of blood clotting.

Safeguarding the Function of Magnesium

What is magnesium? A vital regulator of basic health.

Magnesium has been re-discovered as an overlooked key to overall wellness, with numerous medical researchers recommending increases to the RDA—some suggesting amounts as high as double the current recommendations.5 6

With its role in regulating the thousands of biochemical reactions that occur on an ongoing basis, sufficient magnesium is essential to achieving the delicate balance necessary to the body’s function. Protecting this delicate balance should be considered a fundamental goal in achieving optimal health and wellbeing.

What’s Next?

How much magnesium do you need? Where can you get it? Read Sources of Magnesium for the answers to these questions and more.

4 ways to get magnesium without bulky pills or uncomfortable side effects — read about transdermal magnesium.

How do you choose a magnesium supplement? Learn how to sort out the good from the bad.



References:
  1. Dean C. The Magnesium Miracle. New York: Ballantine Books; 2007. [] []
  2. Fox C, Ramsoomair D, Carter C. Magnesium: Its Proven and Potential Clinical Significance. Southern Medical Journal. 2001;94(12). Available at: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/423568. Accessed August 30, 2009. []
  3. Rubin H. Central role for magnesium in coordinate control of metabolism and growth in animal cells. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. 1975 Sep;72(9):3551-5. []
  4. Hartwig A. Role of magnesium in genomic stability. Mutation Research [serial online]. April 18, 2001;475(1-2):113-121. Available from: MEDLINE with Full Text, Ipswich, MA. Accessed October 14, 2009. []
  5. Pressman A. Vitamins and Minerals. New York: Alpha Books; 2007. []
  6. Sultenfuss, SW, Sultenfuss TJ. A Woman’s Guide to Vitamins, Minerals and Alternative Healing. New York: MJF Books; 1999. []