The last time you thought about magnesium may have been when you were forced to recognise it in the periodic table of elements but this mineral is back in the spotlight when it comes to optimal health.
Why Is Magnesium Important?
Magnesium, akin to calcium, sodium and potassium, is a vital macro-mineral, required not in trace, but in large amounts (>100 mg / day) for essential functions in the human body. It assists over 300 chemical reactions in our cells. It is required for fundamental molecular processes like synthesis of DNA, RNA and protein as well as production and stability of our energy currency, namely, a molecule called ATP or Adenosine Triphosphate. Needless to say, magnesium is not optional but necessary for our survival and, like all essential nutrients, can be obtained from our diet.
What's the problem?
It turns out that the modern western diet has left many of us magnesium-deficient, with potentially serious health repercussions. Kids are particularly vulnerable as their bodies are in a state of growth, busy laying the foundation for lifelong health. The good news is that, like with most nutrients, food can provide all the magnesium we need, if we know what to eat.
Some of magnesium's vital functions in the body, particularly relevant for children, are as follows:
1) MAGNESIUM MAKES BONES STRONG
Believe it or not, magnesium is as important as calcium and vitamin D for bone health and integrity. Magnesium allows optimal calcium absorption and retention via regulation of parathyroid and calcitonin hormones and also by regulating vitamin D metabolism, all involved in calcium balance. In one study on 63 healthy children between the ages of 4-8 years, the amounts of magnesium consumed and absorbed were key predictors of how much bone children had (1). The authors conclude, "We believe it is important for children to have a balanced, healthy diet with good sources of minerals, including both calcium and magnesium".
2) MAGNESIUM HELPS MUSCLES DO THEIR JOB
Magnesium helps muscles relax while calcium helps them contract. Chronic muscle cramps and spasms could suggest a magnesium deficiency (2). In the same vein, magnesium helps the digestive system relax, moving food through the digestive tract efficiently. Chronic constipation could also be indicative of low magnesium levels (3).
3) MAGNESIUM HELPS US SLEEP
A recent study demonstrated that magnesium levels within cells rise and fall in a daily rhythmic pattern. This regulated fluctuation is necessary to maintain the 24 hour cellular clock of night and day, also known as the circadian rhythm, including the timing of hormone release and energy production in cells (4). This likely explains why low magnesium has been linked to poor sleep and insomnia. Adequate magnesium levels may help us function in synch with the rhythms of night and day and sleep optimally and which parent doesn't want that for themselves and their kids!
4) MAGNESIUM KEEPS US HAPPY
Magnesium helps the body convert the amino acid tryptophan into the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is our body's happiness molecule. Serotonin affects mood, appetite, sleep, body-temperature, cognitive abilities and social behaviour. Depression, anxiety and panic attacks can occur when serotonin levels or function drop. Hence, magnesium, via its effects on serotonin function, is a critical mineral for mental health (5, 6).
5) MAGNESIUM MAKES US SMARTER
Magnesium promotes optimal communication between neurons, nerve cells in our brains. Increasing brain magnesium has been shown to improve memory and learning in old and young rats and may prevent age-associated cognitive decline in animal models for Alzheimer's disease (7, 8). Low magnesium levels have also been observed in children with ADHD suggesting the important of this mineral in attention span (9, 10). A simple emphasis on optimal magnesium intake through kids' diets could alleviate some of the distress associated with this debilitating disorder, the diagnosis of which is alarmingly on the rise.
6) MAGNESIUM HELPS WOUND HEALING
Platelets are cellular components of blood that promote coagulation and wound healing while preventing excessive bleeding. In a recent seminal study, magnesium was shown both in animals and human patients to be important for the production and function of platelets and proper coagulation and wound healing (11). As kids run around and get scrapes and cuts, pay attention to excessive bleeding, which may be sign of a magnesium deficiency. If so, talk to your doctor.
7) MAGNESIUM PREVENTS TYPE 2 DIABETES
Several studies in humans have demonstrated a link between low magnesium and elevated type II diabetes risk. Specifically, magnesium-rich foods can lower ones risk of developing type 2 diabetes, even if one is obese. Sadly, as type 2 diabetes becomes more common in children, paying attention to food-based magnesium intake could be a viable approach to minimise the risk of this debilitating disease (12).
As if the above functions weren't enough, magnesium also regulates blood pressure, heart health and may play a role in cancer prevention. Bottom line. Magnesium matters.
The recommended daily intake of magnesium for adults is in the 300 - 400 mg, with women requiring less than men. Up to 50% of Americans don't meet their daily magnesium requirements. Kids need less, 80 mg per day between ages 1-3 and 130 mg per day between ages 4-8.
Magnesium-rich, kid-friendly foods, from highest to lowest magnesium (in mg) per serving size are listed below. Make sure your kids get a few of these each day and you're good to go! As you can see, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables contain the highest amounts of magnesium.
1 cup = 60 mg
1 tablespoon = 44 mg
Whole wheat bread
2 slices = 46 mg
8 oz = 42 mg
1/4 cup cooked = 39 mg
9 nuts = 37 mg
1 medium = 32 mg
1/4 cup = 30 mg
1/2 cup = 27 mg
1/4 cup = 25 mg
1 cup = 25 mg
1 tablespoon = 25 mg
1 tablespoon = 25 mg
1/2 cup cubed = 22 mg
As with most nutrients, if you rely on whole food, you can't overdose on magnesium as your kidneys will excrete the excess. High levels of magnesium have been observed with supplementation which have their own set of problems. Stick with real food and you're sorted.
To help you and your family get your magnesium in the most delicious way, I created these Vroom Vroom Energy Bites. Take one bite and you'll wonder how something that tastes so good can be so good for you. Each ball contains 33 mg of magnesium! My 3 year old and the rest of the family, for that matter, are addicted, and in this case, we are glad that more is more.
Vroom Vroom Energy Balls
Toddler, Kid, Adult
Each bite contains 33 mg of Mg or 41% and 25% of the daily required intake of Mg for 1-3 and 4-8 year olds, respectively.
1/2 cup almond butter
3/4 cup oats
1 tablespoon raw cacao powder
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon flax seeds
1 teaspoon cinnamon (preferably Ceylon)
Place all ingredients in a food processor. Blend well until the oats are broken down into granules and the ingredients are well combined into a crumbly dough. Shape the mixture into 3/4 inch diameter balls between the palms of your hands. Chill in the fridge for 1 hour to set. These will keep in the fridge for 2 weeks in an airtight container but they will most definitely not last that long, if my tot's obsession with them is any indication. You can also freeze them for longer enjoyment.
* First two images courtesy of Shutterstock