A registered nutritional therapist on why magnesium is such a crucial mineral for all round wellbeing, why you may find yourself lacking it pre, during and post menopause, and how you can max your magnesium uptake. Cashew milk latte anyone?

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Magnesium  is one of the most abundant minerals in the body and is required for hundreds of enzymes to work properly. It plays a vital role in muscle relaxation (it maintains a steady heartbeat) and supports the production of brain chemicals that control mood, alongside healthy blood pressure, glucose control, energy metabolism, bone health as well as maintaining a healthy nervous system (it helps to control the flow of electrolytes in and out of cells making it easier for nerve cells to pass messages and muscles fibres to contract and relax).

It can be particularly effective during the menopause , when oestrogen levels fluctuate . Long-term this increases the risk of heart disease and bone weakness. Magnesium has been shown to support both both heart and bone health. It can also help with menopausal insomnia  and other symptoms such as low mood. It could even add years to your life. According to large scale studies, those with the highest dietary intakes of magnesium appear to live longer that those with the lowest.

Yet, surprisingly, eleven per cent of adult women do not get enough magnesium from their diet, according to The National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Daily recommended intake for magnesium is 375mg, with quinoa, mackerel and cashews containing the highest amount per serving (118mg, 108mg and 80mg respectively). Lack of magnesium in the diet could be down to several causes. Not eating enough food is the most obvious as women are more likely to embark on restrictive diets to help with weight loss- weight gain is one of the effects of menopause. Another reason is that the foods richest in magnesium are those that the average woman eats the least of in their diet, such as pulses, nuts, seeds and green vegetables. Lifestyle can play a part in low magnesium levels too. Too much caffeine , alcohol and sugar can deplete the body of magnesium and the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol put extra demand on the body, upping your need for the mineral. So if you are menopausal and stressed, reaching for sugary snacks, caffeine and alcohol to see you through, chances are you that are low on this vital mineral, just when you need it most.

How does magnesium help during the menopause?

It can reduce blood pressure

The risk of heart disease increases for women during mid-life. High blood pressure can be a silent killer and symptoms are not recognizable until things become critical. Magnesium has many positive effects on the circulation, including relaxing blood vessels to lower high blood pressure. Studies have shown that people with the highest magnesium levels are 48 per cent less likely to develop high blood pressure after taking other known risk factors into account.

It lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke

The risk of heart disease for women increases after the menopause and falls in line with that of men. Low magnesium levels are associated with artery health issues and may cause spasms, calcification and unwanted blood clots, which are more pronounced with stress. A large study involving more than 300,000 people, found that an increase in circulating blood levels of magnesium was associated with a 30 per cent lower risk of heart attack or stroke. This same study also found that an increase in magnesium from food by 200mg per day reduced the risk of heart disease by 22 per cent.

It keeps bones strong

During the menopause women can lose up to 10 per cent of bone density. Magnesium is needed to regulate the flow of calcium in and out of bones, which is important for the prevention of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. Women with osteoporosis have significantly lower levels of magnesium than those without the condition, and those with the lowest intakes were at greater risk of hip fractures.

It can combat menopausal insomnia and low mood

As many women have experienced, the menopause can impact on sleep patterns. Studies have shown that people who have difficulty sleeping generally often have lower levels of magnesium and that increasing their intake by way of supplements can not only help them to nod off but improve the quality of their sleep. Magnesium is also known as ‘nature’s tranquilliser’, and has been shown to help with other menopausal symptoms such as bloating, anxiety, irritability and other mood changes.

It can help to relieve constipation

Dr Sarah Brewer, GP and Healthspan Medical Director, explains why the menopause can cause ‘blockages’, so to speak…

“The female bowels are sensitive to hormonal fluctuations, and may trigger constipation or other digestive issues in some women. Other factors include changes in bowel bacterial balance ( try taking a probiotic to address this) and lower intakes of nutrients such as magnesium, plus vitamin D deficiency, all of which can be contributors to constipation. There may be reduced exercise levels and changes in medication, too, which can also aggravate constipation.”

Epsom salts were often prescribed as a laxative in Victorian times given the laxative effect of magnesium sulphate. Doctors prescribe magnesium in high doses to clear the bowel before surgery in this area of the body. The laxative effect of magnesium may be beneficial for people suffering with constipation and IBS  as this mineral has a muscle relaxing effect that may help to soothe bowel spasms. Try taking a magnesium supplement in the evening before bed.

How to max your magnesium intake

  • Eating more green vegetables and oily fish is one way to boost your intake, as is snacking on nuts and seeds, but these ideas below may give you a few more novel ways to add a little more magnesium to your diet.
  • Keep nuts and seeds to hand. Decant into plastic tubs and keep on your kitchen worktop ready to sprinkle over salads, yoghurt, porridge, stir-frys and pretty much anything else. You can also add nuts and seeds to smoothies if you have a powerful blender.
  • Eat one or two servings of oily fish every week. Aside from fillets you can use fish to make pies, curries and pasta sauces. Smoked fish counts too so try salmon with scrambled egg or smoked mackerel to make kedgeree.
  • Make your own cashew nut milk by adding one handful of nuts to 300ml water. You can play with the consistency by adding more water. Add 1 tbsp of cocoa powder for an extra dose of magnesium. Serve cold or warmed up before bed to help relax you. This hot chocolate provides 40 per cent of your recommended intake.
  • Try making your own protein balls. Use cashew nuts, pumpkin seeds, dates and cocoa powder to up the magnesium content. Serve them as snacks to boost energy and ramp up your magnesium intake. Each ball can provide as much as 15 per cent of your recommended intake.
  • Chuck some greens into your morning smoothie. A handful of spinach goes unnoticed on the taste front and can add at least five per cent of magnesium to your recommended intake.  Add in a tablespoon of oats to increase this to 10 per cent.
  • Switch from rice to quinoa for an extra 10 per cent of your recommended intake of magnesium.

Aside from increasing your intake of magnesium rich foods you can also try taking a supplement for a couple of months to see if this helps. Choose a supplement that contains magnesium citrate, which is better absorbed in the body, such as Heathspan Opti-Magnesium  (£10.95 for 90 tablets). Try taking your supplement at night as this may help with muscle relaxation and has been shown by some studies to help promote good sleep.

Rob Hobson  is a registered nutritionist and Head of  Healthspan Nutrition . He is also author of  The Detox Kitchen Bible , £15.41

Follow Rob on Twitter  @RHNutrition