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Book Reviews: Holistic Health, Natural Remedies

The Magnesium Miracle
Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D.
2007: Ballantine Books/Random House, New York, NY
309 pages

          The Magnesium Miracle is an updated paperback that was originally published as The Miracle of Magnesium. The book is divided into four parts: magnesium history, magnesium-deficient conditions, continuing research, and testing and supplements. Dr. Dean educates the public on the basics of the important mineral magnesium, for example, that magnesium regulates more than 300 different enzymes in the body. Enzymes are most often proteins that basically run the cellular machinery inside the body. Several different minerals form complexes with many enzymes in our cells.  The minerals act to either increase or inhibit enzymatic actions in the cells or elsewhere, thus regulating them. A deficiency in a mineral that regulates many enzymes can result in illness with several different symptoms, as will be discussed later.

          The intake of magnesium for Americans has dropped over 50% in the last 100 years. Magnesium deficiency is associated with several illnesses, including: asthma, constipation, insulin resistance, fatigue, kidney problems, hypertension (high blood pressure), and heart disease, among others. Magnesium helps asthma by relaxing the bronchial muscles, and also may have an antihistamine effect (histamine release causes inflammation). Most people know that magnesium can act as a laxative, thus relieving constipation. Magnesium can help relieve fatigue because, although it relaxes muscles, it mildly stimulates the nervous system. Magnesium helps counterbalance calcium and keep it in solution, so it does not form kidney stones, for example.

           One of the most important medical discoveries of the last decade is that excess salt (sodium) alone is not necessarily a main factor in high blood pressure; adequate amounts of calcium, potassium, and magnesium may be as important or even more important in maintaining proper blood pressure as lowering sodium intake. In other words, intake of the above three minerals through diet and supplementation is one of the best ways to keep blood pressure normal. Magnesium may even be able to lower cholesterol levels as well. Another important medical discovery was the mechanisms of cardiovascular disease. During the progression of heart disease, the mineral calcium often builds up on the sides of damaged blood vessels, forming plaques that restrict blood flow. Magnesium inhibits calcium from sticking to the sides of blood vessel walls.

            Dr. Dean references the book Protein Power LifePlan to assert that prehistoric humans in the Paleolithic period (before 12,000 years ago) took in 1000-1500 mg/day of both magnesium and it’s mineral partner, calcium, from mainly fruits, vegetables, and meats. This would form a 1:1 ratio of calcium to magnesium. The amount of calcium intake today still remains roughly 1000-1500 mg/day, and the magnesium intake has dropped to about 175-225 mg/day. This creates new ratios of around 5:1 to 8:1 of calcium/magnesium intake. Are we taking in too much calcium and not enough magnesium? From the above information, it appears that the average person is not getting enough magnesium in their diet, and this is probably true. But what about the calcium/magnesium ratio---should it be 1:1 for everyone?

           Some researchers disagree with the 1:1 ratio that Dr. Dean appears to be promoting. Both calcium and magnesium are absolutely essential for life, however, the optimal amounts of both minerals for each person are more debatable. Magnesium is mostly found in green leafy vegetables and whole grains, while calcium is abundant in dairy products. This is not to say that intake of dairy products must be healthy because they contain calcium. Excess intake of dairy products can contribute to many different illness, including sinus problems, ear infections, allergies, and possibly juvenile (type 1) diabetes. The point is that magnesium is abundant in a vegetarian diet, while calcium is abundant in a higher protein and fat diet that involves intake of animal products. Also, it is not a stretch to say that some people do better on a vegetarian diet, and some do not. In other words, if someone is on a vegetarian diet, they are probably taking in as much magnesium (or more) as they are taking in calcium, and yet many people do not fare well on the vegetarian diet at all. This could simply be because a vegetarian diet does not supply much protein or fat, or it could also extend to a mineral requirement/ratio problem as well.

           The Paleolithic diet, before the end of the last ice age, consisted of fruits, vegetables, and meats. After the great ice shelves in the northern regions of the earth melted, there was room for humans to move into colder areas, where carbohydrate sources were only seasonal. There may have been a split in metabolism at this time, between the meat eaters in the colder northern climates, and the carbohydrate (fruit, vegetable, and grain) eaters in the warmer climates. Magnesium intake may have dropped for the humans residing in the northern climates, although it’s not known if a change in metabolism could have happened this quickly, within 12,000 years of our current species existence. It could be possible, since two different human species, Neanderthals in Europe, and a Homo Florensis species in Indonesia, became extinct less than 30,000 years ago; this underscores the point that substantial genetic gain and loss can happen in a time frame close to the end of the last ice age.

           Based on genetic and biochemical differences between individuals, researchers Wolcott and Kristal believe that different people need different ratios of calcium and magnesium, depending on whether they do better on a complex carbohydrate diet or a higher protein and fat diet. Wolcott and Kristal term people who feel better with a complex carbohydrate diet “carb types” and people who feel better with a diet higher in protein and fat “protein types”. There is some evidence that carbohydrate types are more prone to heart disease, while protein types are more prone to diabetes. As mentioned above, magnesium helps protect against heart disease, therefore, it may be more important for carb types. Calcium is lost after protein intake, so calcium may be more important for protein types. It may be that carb types need a calcium magnesium ratio of between 1:1 and 2:1, while protein types may need much more calcium to offset the acid-forming protein intake, resulting in an optimal ratio of anywhere from 2:1 to 5:1 or more. After excess calcium is excreted due to protein intake, the remaining calcium/magnesium ratio may approach the amount that the carb types have.

          The average blood calcium concentration in a healthy individual is 9.5 mg/dl, while the average blood magnesium concentration is 2.1 mg/dl---there is over four times as much calcium as magnesium in the blood. This clinical fact gives some credence to a protein type supplementing with more calcium, in order to preserve the remaining amount of calcium in the blood after some of it is excreted in response to protein intake. Interestingly, the same food groups (vegetables and grains) that contain magnesium can also lower its absorption in the body. Just as calcium is contained in animal products, and yet animal products lower calcium levels, a similar occurrence can be found with magnesium and carbohydrate foods. The above revelation is yet more evidence that there is not a one-size-fits-all optimal amount of mineral intake; different diets require different amounts of minerals.

          As far as true magnesium deficiency is concerned, Dr. Dean admits that studies are lacking as to the exact amount of deficiency. Much of the problem lies in the measurement of the body’s magnesium itself. The most common type of measurement is blood serum, but only 1% of magnesium is in the blood. Also, other parts of the body (ex. the bones) can be significantly drained of magnesium before the standard blood test begins to show any magnesium deficiency. Dr. Dean recommends that a red blood cell test be performed to more accurately measure the body’s magnesium levels. She states that magnesium glycinate as the preferred supplement to take, since it is absorbed better than other forms of magnesium. Besides green leafy vegetables, the best food sources of magnesium are bran, nuts, and seeds.

          How does this book rate? Magnesium is a very important mineral, and magnesium deficiency is probably widespread in almost all societies, developed or not. The question is not necessarily one of whether people need more magnesium in their diets, it’s how much magnesium should they be getting. The recommended daily allowance for magnesium is about 325 mg/day. If Dr. Dean’s data is correct, Americans are only getting roughly two-thirds of the RDA for this mineral. Would supplementing with 100 mg/day of magnesium help everyone? It would probably help many people. However, as the evolutionary aspects of metabolism changes discussed above suggest, different people may need different amounts of magnesium intake for optimal health. This may take some experimenting with the supplement dosage. Dr. Dean’s book is a very concise and is relatively readable for the layperson. It also makes a good reference book for the holistic practitioner or more open-minded clinician.


General Importance to Field of Nutrition: B
Importance to Bio-Medical Field: A
Importance to General Public: A
Quality of Information/Data/Research in Book: B
Quality of Scientific References in Book: B

Overall Rating: B

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