Magnesium: The Key to Heart Health

By Dennis Goodman, MD, FACC

Recently the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiologists issued a joint statement urging a wider use of cholesterol drugs called “statins” to help prevent America’s No. 1 killer: heart disease.

As a practicing cardiologist, I know that statins have their place and do save lives. I frequently prescribe them when tests demonstrate that my patients have already experienced heart disease, peripheral vascular disease, diabetes, heart attack, or stroke. That’s what I did with 64-year-old Trudy when she first came to me last June with a history of heart attack. She already had two stents and required statins to help manage her cholesterol levels.

However, when helping my healthy patients simply avoid heart disease, I rarely, if ever, turn to drugs as a first choice—especially those with potentially serious side effects. Rather, I prefer to prescribe lifestyle changes like good nutrition, exercise, an optimal weight plan, and, very often, magnesium supplements.

As unbelievable as it may sound, magnesium can help reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 25 percent or more. With 80 percent of all Americans magnesium-deficient, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it’s no coincidence that low magnesium levels are directly related to an increase in heart disease. Conversely, high magnesium levels are directly related to improved heart health. In fact, a 2010 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition analyzed data of more than 88,000 women and found that those with the highest magnesium intake had a 37 percent lower risk of dying from sudden cardiac death.

Magnesium is one of the most important minerals in our bodies. It’s required for 350 enzyme systems, including converting ADP to ATP, the body’s fuel supply (similar to the gas in your car). Simply put, we need ATP to create muscle action (including the beating of our hearts) and we need magnesium to create ATP.

Knowing the signs of deficiency and natural ways to increase your levels

Some of the more common symptoms of magnesium deficiency include fatigue, back or neck pain, muscle cramps, palpitations, weakness, loss of appetite, insomnia, loss of balance, headaches, anxiety, and depression. Although easy enough to treat, if magnesium deficiencies go on long enough, they can end up as diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Ultimately, you’ll want to talk to your doctor and ask to be tested. I do an RBC Mg (Red Blood Cell magnesium) test on all my patients. I like to see a level of 5.5 mg/dl—anything below that, I consider suboptimal. Alarmingly, but in accord with statistics from WHO, I find most of my patients to be deficient.

Magnesium is commonly found in leafy green vegetables. It’s also in avocado, pumpkin seeds, almond butter, and spices such as basil and coriander leaf. Ironically, you could eat all these foods and still be magnesium deficient. That’s because the magnesium level in food is dependent on the level of magnesium in the soil where that food was grown. Unfortunately, much of our soil has been depleted of magnesium due to commercial farming practices. That’s why I recommend organic foods or those grown in local gardens.

If you realize you need to supplement

There are a wide variety of supplements on the market because magnesium must be bound with another substance to be properly absorbed. Some common combinations include magnesium carbonate, magnesium hydroxide, and magnesium sulfate. Each combo has its own characteristics. For instance, magnesium carbonate has antacid properties, whereas magnesium hydroxide and sulfate have laxative properties, such as Milk of Magnesia. Unless my patient is dealing with constipation, my personal favorite is magnesium malate, by Jigsaw Health, which has slow release characteristics. So, instead of getting a bolus of magnesium in your gut, which could cause diarrhea, you’ll get a slow and steady release and absorption, with minimal, if any, GI side effects. Another good way to supplement is transdermally, using magnesium oils or taking an Epsom-salt bath. Try adding 1 cup of Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) and 1 cup of baking soda to your bath and soak for 15-20 minutes. You’ll give your muscles a healthy dose of magnesium while you relax.

Consult your doctor before supplementing

If you do decide to take magnesium supplements, you’ll need to consult with your doctor first. Magnesium can potentially interfere with certain medications and can even be dangerous to those with kidney problems. On the flipside, you may be able to get off other meds by supplementing. Many times I’ve reduced or completely discontinued my patient’s medications because of the benefits of magnesium.

Take Trudy, the woman on statins. She developed such terrible muscle aches and became so fatigued that she couldn’t even exercise any more. I tried a different statin and reduced her dose, but the symptoms persisted. I eventually took her off statins. Although her muscle aches improved, she was still severely fatigued. When I checked her red blood cell count, I found that her magnesium levels were at 4.1 mg/dl, which I consider extremely low. I put her on a daily dose of 500 mg of slow release magnesium. Four weeks later, she returned to see me and said that she now sleeps like a baby and feels great. She’s able to exercise and enjoy her life again. As a side note, I’m controlling her cholesterol levels through diet, exercise, and plant sterols.

It’s only within the last few years, when I became interested in integrative medicine, that I realized the importance of magnesium because, as a rule, nutrition is not emphasized in medical school. I feel bad that I didn’t know more about magnesium sooner; I would have been able to help so many more patients. However, my hope now is that both doctors and patients will learn more about this simple, inexpensive mineral that provides a solution to so many health problems and has minimal, if any, side effects.

 

Dennis Goodman, MD, is board certified in cardiology and integrative medicine and clinical associate professor at NYU. He just authored a new book from Square One Publishers, Magnificent Magnesium. Visit him at dennisgoodmanmd.com.