Why is it important to get enough magnesium for bone health? Read on to learn how this key mineral plays an essential role in building strong bones and preventing osteoporosis.
Bone Density: the Neglected Health Crisis?
Most of us never think about our bone health until late middle age, when it sometimes becomes an issue. Bone health is also often overshadowed by other health issues, such as heart health, so your healthcare practitioner may have little time to discuss it with you.
Often, a diagnosis of osteoporosis comes as a surprise, and suddenly you can be faced with risks you’d never considered.
Hip fractures, for example, are a significant risk for Canadians. It takes just one fall to fracture a hip if your bones are not strong.
A hip fracture can be devastating. It almost invariably requires surgery and extensive rehab.
22% of women and 33% of men die within the year following a hip fracture, and many who had previously lived independently have no choice but to enter nursing home care.
Bone density is a “major public health concern” in Canada — but “despite interventions that have been shown to substantially reduce the risk of osteoporotic fractures, most individuals at high risk of fracture do not undergo appropriate screening or treatment.” — Canada.ca
That’s why it’s so important to build healthy, strong bones before your bone density becomes an issue.
But first, what are the factors that contribute to low bone density?
Are You At Risk for Low Bone Density? Know the Causes.
There are a number of dietary, lifestyle and health factors that can weaken your bones:
- Poor nutrition/lack of nutrients
- Diets high in animal proteins, dairy and processed foods
- High caffeine and/or alcohol intake
- Lack of sunlight exposure, resulting in low Vitamin D
- Lack of exercise
- Chronic stress
- Some prescription medications
Without the right preventative measures, these risks can lead to osteoporosis.
Why Calcium Needs Magnesium to Build Healthy Bones
The conventional wisdom on bone health would have you believe that we need to consume more dairy, choose calcium-fortified foods, and take calcium supplements. You may also be advised to take vitamin D.
But is the conventional wisdom sound?
Consider this: North Americans have some of the highest rates of calcium intake in the world…and yet, we also top the global charts when it comes to osteoporosis.
In fact, all of the countries that consume the most calcium, including the USA, Canada, Sweden, and Finland, also have the highest rates of osteoporosis and poorer bone health, despite a major focus on osteoporosis prevention and treatment. Clearly, calcium alone is not enough to build healthy bones.
Yet elderly Japanese women (who have low calcium intake levels) experience hip fractures at less than half the rate of elderly women in high calcium-consuming western countries. So, it’s unlikely that a calcium deficiency causes low bone density.
Further, in a Norwegian study, researchers found lower rates of hip fracture in areas with a higher concentration of magnesium in the water supply. Yet no protective effect was found for calcium in the water.
It’s true that our bones are, in fact, largely composed of calcium.
However, our bodies can’t use dietary calcium to build bones without other nutrients. In particular, calcium needs to work in tandem with its twin mineral, magnesium.
That’s why magnesium is just as important as calcium for building and maintaining healthy bones.
How Magnesium, Vitamin D & Calcium Work Together for Bone Health
Like calcium, magnesium is an essential macromineral, meaning it is needed in large quantities by the body. In fact, every cell and every system of your body needs magnesium.
In its role as a bone-builder, magnesium activates vitamin D, which in turn metabolizes calcium.
At the cellular level, magnesium is a complement to calcium; without magnesium, calcium can’t be fully assimilated into the bones.
That’s why it’s possible to take more calcium and still not see an improvement in your Bone Mineral Density (BMD) tests.
So, the ideal nutritional formula for optimal bone health is magnesium + vitamin D + calcium.
Why You Need to Balance Nutrients for Bone Health
Without magnesium, unused calcium can build up in the tissues, blood, and organs, causing health issues related to calcification.
This is important for Canadians to know because we tend to consume a significant amount of calcium in dairy and fortified (enriched) foods. Yet, most Canadians don’t get enough magnesium through diet. Magnesium is simply harder to obtain magnesium with a standard Canadian diet, as we’ll discuss.
That’s why it’s so easy to throw off the balance of calcium and magnesium.
The same is true of vitamin D. Without adequate magnesium, vitamin D supplementation can be harmful. Excess vitamin D can deplete magnesium from the muscles, causing cramps, restless legs, and other symptoms of deficiency.
Canadians should take note of this risk associated with vitamin D. We’re often advised to supplement with vitamin D to make up for the lack of sunlight during the long winter months, but too much without enough magnesium can be harmful. (Note that milk in Canada is often fortified with vitamin D as well, so you may be taking vitamin D without realizing it.)
If you have symptoms of magnesium deficiency, be sure to increase your levels — for your bone health and more.
How Magnesium Activates Bone-Building Hormones
Magnesium also activates calcitonin, a hormone that helps to preserve bone structure and draws calcium out of the blood and soft tissues back into the bones, preventing some forms of arthritis and kidney stones.
Calcitonin needs to be activated by magnesium to deposit correctly into the bone for continued bone growth. It is a popular but untrue belief that bones can’t grow after a certain age. They can certainly continue to replenish themselves as long as the right nutrient balance is present.
Magnesium suppresses another bone hormone called PHT (parathyroid), preventing it from breaking down bone.
When we are magnesium deficient, the balance between PTH and calcitonin tilts too far toward PTH, which results in net bone loss.
High-Fat & High-Sugar Diets Deplete Magnesium & Wreck Your Bone Health
There is overwhelming evidence that eating a diet high in fat and sugar (an “HFS diet”) is directly linked to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. But consuming an HFS diet can also damage your bone health.
HFS diets lead to weight gain, adding pressure on the skeleton.
At the same time, the typical HFS diet deprives the body of the nutrients it needs to build strong bones. Magnesium, in particular, is often absent from an HFS diet.
What’s more, metabolizing an HFS diet uses up more magnesium, so you have less of this mineral for your bone health.
“Acid Diets”, Low Magnesium & Low Bone Density
The Standard American Diet (SAD) diet is mostly an “acidic diet”, in terms of pH balance.
That doesn’t mean the SAD is high in what you may think of as “acidic” foods, like tomatoes and citrus. Instead, it is high in foods that create an acidic pH balance in our bodies.
Animal protein, dairy (even though it is high in calcium) bread, soda, sugar, and pasta are examples of acidic foods. When we consume acidic foods, our bodies become acidic, versus alkaline.
The body needs to maintain a pH of 7 in the bloodstream in the same way it needs to maintain 98°F body temperature.
Acidic foods and drinks throw the pH out of balance, and alkaline foods restore the pH. Magnesium and calcium are alkaline minerals that help to balance an acidic diet.
However, most SAD acidic diets are low in magnesium, providing little magnesium in the bloodstream to balance the acidity.
To compensate for the acidic diet, the body will draw minerals from the bones to neutralize the acid in the bloodstream. An acidic diet thus depletes the bones of precious minerals.
The supreme irony is that dairy –- an animal protein — and calcium-fortified or calcium-enriched foods that are highly processed can actually undermine your bone health because they are so acidic.
According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, “The most healthful calcium sources are green leafy vegetables and legumes.” These also happen to be excellent sources of magnesium for bone health.
Alcohol & Caffeine Deplete Magnesium & Weaken Your Bones
While calcium builds up in the body, we eliminate magnesium through urine daily, and it must be replaced daily. Diuretics like alcohol and caffeine accelerate how quickly we eliminate magnesium.
When we have more coffee, tea, caffeinated sodas, and alcohol, we use up our magnesium stores fast. There’s less available to build strong bones.
So, if you use caffeine and alcohol and are worried about your bone health, you can cut back on these diuretics, increase your magnesium, or do both!
Chronic Stress Burns Through Magnesium Needed for Bone Health
Magnesium is known as the anti-stress mineral because our bodies use magnesium to calm the fight or flight response. Magnesium soothes the nervous system.
If you are under constant stress you will deplete magnesium rapidly. Your body will continuously draw on your magnesium stores to calm the stress response. That means there will be less magnesium available for your body to use to build strong, healthy bones. (Not to mention the hundreds of other uses your body has for magnesium.)
Stress also depletes calcium. Under stress, the body produces a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol pulls calcium from your bones. Magnesium helps regulate the cortisol response to stress.
If you experience chronic stress, you may need more magnesium to protect your bones and much more.
Menopause & Increased Risk of Low Magnesium & Osteoporosis
Low hormone levels, in general, can lead to loss of bones. This is why many women lose bone density after menopause.
Menopausal women may also simply have lower magnesium levels than the rest of the population. As we age, our bodies become less efficient at absorbing magnesium.
If you’re experiencing low bone density with menopause, you should certainly consider increasing your magnesium intake. Hormone replacement therapy may also be beneficial, of course, under the advice of your doctor.
Why Magnesium is Safer than Prescriptions for Bone Density
While magnesium is highly safe for almost everyone, prescription drugs for bone density may not be.
Fosamax or Alendronic acid is part of a class of osteoporosis medications known as anti-resorptive drugs. These bisphosphonate medications dramatically reduce bone loss, but in a disturbing way. Fosamax leads to premature death to osteoclasts, the cells that break down and recycle old, worn-out segments of bone.
Bone breakdown and bone build-up, however, are tightly coupled, so that just as bone breakdown is dramatically reduced by Fosamax, so too is new bone formation. In fact, studies show that the bone-forming surface is suppressed by 60–90% with the usual dose of bisphosphonates.
It is far more accurate to call these prescription medicines ‘bone hardeners’, not bone builders. The results show up in bone density tests as “improved”, when they have so altered the fundamental composition of the bone that it eventually leads to a higher risk of fracture.
The side effects of these drugs are also extensive.
Of course, you should consult your doctor on the risks and benefits of any medication, and if you have pre-existing health conditions, discuss supplementing with magnesium.
“The most common side effects of Fosamax during clinical trials included abdominal pain, nausea, acid regurgitation, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, and musculoskeletal pain. Since the drug became available in the United States, the FDA has required Merck to add warnings to the drug’s label about osteonecrosis of the jaw and thighbone fractures.
The label also warns of esophagus problems, low calcium levels in your blood, and bone, joint, or muscle pain. Some people who suffered these side effects filed lawsuits against Merck.” — Drugwatch.com
In an ideal world, we’d all get enough magnesium for bone health before the question of medication even arises.
Linda’s Story of Using Magnesium to Treat Low Bone Density
Linda Bolton, Natural Calm Canada’s CEO, originally discovered Natural Calm when she was struggling with low bone density. Read on to find out how magnesium brought her bone density levels back up.
“In the early 2000s, in my 40s, I was diagnosed with low bone density. Following my doctor’s advice, I increased my calcium and started doing weight-bearing exercises. I did everything I could to bring my bone density levels up.
Yet, every year when I went for my annual physical my bone density showed a decrease. My doctor wanted me to take Actonel, which is a bone-building bisphosphonate medication like Fosamax. When I read about the side effects I told him that I didn’t want to take it and to write on my chart that I refused the medication.
In 2005, after watching my younger sister’s health dramatically improve after taking Natural Calm magnesium, I started taking it for insomnia and fibromyalgia. I slept better the first night and got rid of 70% of the muscle pain in the first week, but at first, I didn’t realize how significant magnesium would be for my bone health.
When I started reading about the importance of magnesium and how it helps the body to metabolize calcium I came to understand that my health issues, including low bone density, fibromyalgia, and insomnia, were likely caused by an imbalance of calcium and magnesium.
I was taking too much calcium, in addition to eating dairy, and before Natural Calm I wasn’t getting enough magnesium. My body was unable to use the calcium, and so instead, it calcified in my muscles, causing pain. I also didn’t have enough magnesium to build strong bones or relax my nervous system at night, to sleep soundly.
Once I stopped taking calcium supplements and started using Natural Calm magnesium my bone density tests improved and have continued to improve over five years.
I also added Bolton’s Naturals topical magnesium chloride to my daily regimen by spraying it on my arms and legs morning and night. It has not only improved the health of my bones but has also reduced muscle pain and helped me to get the sleep that I need.”
How Much Magnesium Should You Take for Bone Health?
Dr. Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D., and author of The Magnesium Miracle, recommends 3 – 4 mg of magnesium for every pound of your body weight. This recommendation applies to adults, not including pregnant and lactating women, who need more.
If you are …
- 100 pound (lbs), that’s 300 – 400 mg of magnesium
- 125 lbs, you need 375 – 500 mg
- 150 lbs, aim for 450 – 600 mg
- 175 lbs, look for 525 – 700 mg
- 200 lbs, you’ll need 600 – 800 mg
Dean’s intake guidelines are higher than those set out by Health Canada. See this post for more information on magnesium RDA.
Should you worry about too much magnesium? Unlike calcium, magnesium does not build up in the body. Your body uses up all necessary magnesium and eliminates the rest, so getting too much of this mineral is rarely a risk. (There are always exceptions, such as in cases of extreme intake or a contraindicated condition.)
What about calcium intake? According to Dean, your calcium and magnesium intake should be balanced. So, if you are aiming for 500 mg of magnesium per day, aim for 500 mg of calcium, too, for optimal bone health.
A balanced diet rich in nutrients is important for bone health. You should be obtaining a full range of minerals and vitamins.
How to Get Enough Magnesium for Bone Health
With a magnesium-rich diet and smart supplementation, you can strengthen your bones and prevent hip fractures.
Legumes, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds are the best dietary sources of magnesium. To get enough, you’ll need to choose these foods in substantial quantities, every day.
What about magnesium from water? In Canada, levels of magnesium in the water are too low to significantly contribute to your daily requirements.
If you find you cannot get enough magnesium through diet, you’re not alone. Most Canadians aren’t meeting even the conservative requirements set out by Health Canada.
If you choose to supplement, look for a highly absorbable mineral formula.
Natural Calm magnesium has been demonstrated more absorbable than tablets and other leading magnesium supplements in Canada. Natural Calm becomes ionic magnesium citrate when mixed with liquid and in that form, it is rapidly taken up by the cells.
Natural Calm Plus Calcium balances a highly soluble and bioavailable form of calcium with our award-winning magnesium, plus key vitamins and minerals for bone health.
It is one of the few cal-mag supplements formulated with more magnesium than calcium, to help balance out your levels. (Remember, most people get more calcium than magnesium through diet.)
If you are already getting enough calcium, simply choose Natural Calm magnesium — our original, award-winning magnesium citrate formula.