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Magnesium is a chemical element with symbol Mg and atomic number 12. It is a shiny gray solid which bears a close physical resemblance to the other five elements in the second column (group 2, or alkaline earth metals) of the periodic table: all group 2 elements have the same electron configuration in the outer electron shell and a similar crystal structure.
Magnesium is the ninth most abundant element in the universe. It is produced in large, aging stars from the sequential addition of three helium nuclei to a carbon nucleus. When such stars explode as supernovas, much of the magnesium is expelled into the interstellar medium where it may recycle into new star systems. Magnesium is the eighth most abundant element in the Earth's crust and the fourth most common element in the Earth (after iron, oxygen and silicon), making up 13% of the planet's mass and a large fraction of the planet's mantle. It is the third most abundant element dissolved in seawater, after sodium and chlorine.
The important interaction between phosphate and magnesium ions makes magnesium essential to the basic nucleic acid chemistry of all cells of all known living organisms. More than 300 enzymes require magnesium ions for their catalytic action, including all enzymes using or synthesizing ATP and those that use other nucleotides to synthesize DNA and RNA. The ATP molecule is normally found in a chelate with a magnesium ion.
Examples of food sources of magnesium: Spices, nuts, cereals, cocoa and vegetables are rich sources of magnesium. Green leafy vegetables such as spinach are also rich in magnesium. Image used with permission (Public domain; Peggy Greb - This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service).
Numerous pharmaceutical preparations of magnesium and dietary supplements are available. In two human trials magnesium oxide, one of the most common forms in magnesium dietary supplements because of its high magnesium content per weight, was less bioavailable than magnesium citrate, chloride, lactate or aspartate.
An adult has 22–26 grams of magnesium, with 60% in the skeleton, 39% intracellular (20% in skeletal muscle), and 1% extracellular. Serum levels are typically 0.7–1.0 mmol/L or 1.8–2.4 mEq/L. Serum magnesium levels may be normal even when intracellular magnesium is deficient. The mechanisms for maintaining the magnesium level in the serum are varying gastrointestinal absorption and renal excretion. Intracellular magnesium is correlated with intracellular potassium. Increased magnesium lowers calcium] and can either prevent hypercalcemia or cause hypocalcemia depending on the initial level. Both low and high protein intake conditions inhibit magnesium absorption, as does the amount of phosphate, phytate, and fat in the gut. Unabsorbed dietary magnesium is excreted in feces; absorbed magnesium is excreted in urine and sweat.
Deficiency and Overdose
Low plasma magnesium (hypomagnesemia) is common: it is found in 2.5–15% of the general population. The primary cause of deficiency is low dietary intake: fewer than 10% of people in the United States meet the recommended dietary allowance. Other causes are increased renal or gastrointestinal loss, an increased intracellular shift, and proton-pump inhibitor antacid therapy. Most are asymptomatic, but symptoms referable to neuromuscular, cardiovascular, and metabolic dysfunction may occur. Alcoholism is often associated with magnesium deficiency. Chronically low serum magnesium levels are associated with metabolic syndrome, diabetes mellitus type 2, fasciculation, and hypertension.
Overdose from dietary sources alone is unlikely because excess magnesium in the blood is promptly filtered by the kidneys, and overdose is more likely in the presence of impaired renal function. In spite of this, megadose therapy has caused death in a young child, and severe hypermagnesemia in a woman and a young girl who had healthy kidneys. The most common symptoms of overdose are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea; other symptoms include hypotension, confusion, slowed heart and respiratory rate, deficiencies of other minerals, coma, cardiac arrhythmia, and death from cardiac arrest.