Magnesium for Muscle Cramps: Myth or Reality?

Research has not definitively proven the efficacy of magnesium in treating muscle cramps. However, ensuring sufficient magnesium intake through both dietary sources and supplements can help lower the risk of experiencing cramps attributed to magnesium deficiency.

What's the role of magnesium in muscle health?

Magnesium is an important electrolyte and mineral for a variety of key roles in the body, including energy production, nerve function, and muscle contraction. When magnesium levels are insufficient, it can affect these areas, leading to symptoms like fatigue, weakness, tremors, and muscle cramps.

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Do I need magnesium if I have cramps?

If you have cramps, you may need magnesium. However, it's important to mention that low magnesium is not the only potential contributing factor for muscle cramps. Other causes can include:

  • A lack of stretching before and after activity
  • Muscle overuse (from being on your feet all day or doing high-intensity exercise)
  • Dehydration
  • Imbalance of other electrolytes like potassium or calcium
  • A symptom of certain medical conditions (diabetes, thyroid, liver, and nerve disorders; pregnancy, older age, and obesity can also increase the risk)
  • Stress

Additionally, clinical trials specifically studying the effect of magnesium on the treatment of muscle cramps have been inconclusive.

An updated Cochrane Review from 2020, analyzing randomized controlled trials, examined the efficacy of magnesium for cramps in older adults, pregnant individuals, and those experiencing cramps related to exercise or disease states.

  • Using magnesium supplements as a treatment for muscle cramps in older adults made little to no difference in reducing cramp frequency or intensity.
  • Magnesium for pregnancy-related cramps showed conflicting results and needs more study to determine effectiveness and safety.
  • No randomized controlled trials even exist for magnesium use in athletes or for degenerative nerve diseases. Therefore, no recommendations have been made related to magnesium for outcomes like performance or mobility.

Given this information, it’s unlikely magnesium will be effective in treating most of your cramps. Nonetheless, increasing your magnesium intake through dietary sources could help determine if magnesium deficiency is contributing to your discomfort. After all, studies estimate that up to 50% of Americans do not get enough magnesium in their diets.

Main sources of magnesium

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You can get magnesium through a wide variety of plant and animal foods, ranging from raisins and potatoes to yogurt and salmon. Some of the best sources of magnesium include but are not limited to:

  • Green leafy vegetables (spinach, swiss chard, collard greens)
  • Legumes (soy, edamame, beans, peanuts)
  • Nuts (almonds, cashews)
  • Seeds (pumpkin, chia, flax)
  • Whole grains (brown rice, oatmeal, bran, quinoa)

Other foods like breakfast cereals may also be fortified with magnesium.

Men should aim for 400–420 milligrams of magnesium per day. Women (not pregnant or breastfeeding) should aim for 310–320 milligrams each day. That’s the equivalent of about 4–6 servings of the magnesium-rich foods listed above. A practical approach is to aim for five servings of fruits and vegetables each day and incorporate whole grains into meals throughout the day.

What about magnesium supplements?

It’s always a good idea to try and get your mineral intake from food first. However, if your diet alone doesn't provide sufficient magnesium, a magnesium supplement can help bridge the gap to meet your daily requirements. Common magnesium supplements include magnesium citrate, magnesium glycinate, magnesium lactate, magnesium malate, and magnesium oxide, among others.

Remember, magnesium as an electrolyte and mineral has many different functions, so while some forms of magnesium may be more appropriate for promoting heart health, others are better suited for general health. It’s also important to note that magnesium has a laxative effect, so side effects of taking magnesium can include diarrhea, nausea, or abdominal cramps.

Other factors to consider would be:

  • How much magnesium you need based on your diet
  • How well the supplement is absorbed (or used) by the body
  • Interactions with certain medications

Overall, it is best to talk with your healthcare provider about which form and amount may be best for you. They can also help you determine the length of time for which magnesium supplements may be helpful.

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Testing for magnesium deficiency

If you are concerned about your magnesium intake and how it may be contributing to muscle cramps or other health issues, a blood test can determine if your levels fall outside of the normal range.

You can also talk to your healthcare provider about other conditions that may be contributing to low magnesium levels. Aside from a lack of dietary intake, low magnesium levels can also happen due to an excessive loss of magnesium through urine or stool (for example, in the case of uncontrolled diabetes, alcohol abuse, use of diuretics, or chronic diarrhea), or malabsorption related to conditions like celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease (IBS).

Verdict on magnesium vs. cramp relief

While magnesium may not be highly effective as a treatment for muscle cramps, adopting a preventive approach by meeting the daily recommendations for magnesium intake can lower the likelihood of experiencing cramps due to magnesium deficiency. Although increasing magnesium intake may not directly treat cramps, it can address a contributing factor, potentially reducing their occurrence.

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