5 Things Americans Don’t Know About Magnesium (That Traditional Chinese Medicine Can Teach Us)
Most of us in the west still don’t know a whole lot about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), though it has much to teach us. A system of health care that originated in ancient China, TCM involves herbal remedies, acupuncture and massage, among other things. It’s been used for centuries to both treat and prevent health issues. Let’s open up Mother Nature’s medicine cabinet and look at a POWERFUL mineral that Traditional Chinese Medicine has recognized for millenia:
Magnesium is vital for a healthy body. Western science has demonstrated that it’s responsible for over 700 biochemical reactions in every human body. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) associates magnesium with critical gallbladder and liver function. In the last 10 to 20 years that’s been convincingly supported by scientific research in the west too. Researchers have linked magnesium deficiency to more than 50 health problems, many of which stem from malfunctions or issues in the digestive system and organs, including the gallbladder and liver.
Nutrition experts acknowledge that Americans are chronically low in magnesium. Quoted on CNN.com, Dr. Danine Fruge, Associate Medical Director at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami reported that, “only 25% of U.S. adults are at or above the recommended magnesium levels”. She also noted that a “National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey… revealed at least half of the U.S. population had inadequate intakes of magnesium.”
TCM: Ahead of its Time
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the gallbladder and the liver are ‘partners’. All organs are identified as either “Yin” or “Yang”; every Yin organ has a corresponding Yang. In this case, the gallbladder is the Yang and the liver is its Yin.
Writing for Chinese Medicine Living, Doctor of Acupuncture Emma Suttie notes that “Yin organs are defined as organs that produce, transform, regulate and store fundamental substances, such as Qi, Blood and body fluids, and in general, the Yin organs are not empty cavities. They are function versus form. The Yang organs are organs that are mainly responsible for digestion and for transmitting nutrients to the rest of the body. Usually, they are organs with empty cavities, and have a connection to the outside of the body… The Gallbladder is unusual in the sense that it is the only Yang organ that does not have direct contact with food and drink, or a direct connection to the outside of the body. Because of this is also considered an extraordinary organ.”
Just as Western medicine recognizes the interconnectedness of these two organs, TCM sees the healthy function of the gallbladder as essential to the liver’s function and vice versa.
The main difference between Western medicine and TCM in this regard is that when an organ is unhealthy in the West, we often opt to have it surgically removed. In the Chinese tradition, diet, exercise, herbs and less-invasive practices (like acupuncture) are preferred (surgery is only ever a last resort). This approach makes sense when you consider the organs as functional pairs. Fortunately, it seems like things are beginning to shift in the West as science catches up with traditions such as TCM and more and more MDs are advocating for lifestyle changes before drastic medical interventions.
TCM practices reveal a belief in the relationship between physical well-being and emotional health as well. For instance, anger and irritability are often associated with poor liver health. Anxiety and nervousness are connected to the gallbladder. Recent research in the West has revealed that our emotional health is intricately linked with our digestive health and more and more studies are exploring the importance of gut health as it relates to mental health. Again, we’re catching up!
What’s really fascinating is that we know that magnesium deficiency can be the root cause of things like anxiety, irritability and poor digestion. In TCM, the foods that are recognized as beneficial for the gallbladder and the liver are often ones that are magnesium-rich (for example, leafy greens and avocados). Similarly, TCM recommends cutting out greasy foods, sugar and alcohol for the benefit of these organs — all things that can seriously impact your magnesium levels by causing your body to burn excess amounts of this mineral.
What Magnesium Can Do For You
1. Magnesium improves liver health
In his book Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition, author and TCM researcher Paul Pitchford says that “Magnesium foods usually help nurture one’s liver (and health) in numerous ways.” This TCM theory gained traction from studies in 1972 and 2006 which found that people suffering from liver problems usually also suffered from magnesium deficiency. Magnesium-rich diets do seem to have a healing effect on your liver.
2. Magnesium helps you sleep
TCM recognizes fatigue and insomnia as symptoms of an unhealthy liver, so this is really directly connected with #1. By increasing your magnesium stores you can often resolve these kinds of sleep issues quickly and easily.
3. Magnesium keeps your heart healthy
Magnesium plays an essential role in keeping your ticker ticking on time. Heart palpitations, arrhythmia and other heart disorders are all more common when you’re magnesium deficient. According to Dr. Hrkal writing for Dr.Nibber.com magnesium has “blood pressure reducing effects, stabilize[s] nerve cells, improve[s] the contraction of the heart muscle and [has] an anti-thrombotic effect.”
4. Magnesium promotes bone strength
Your teeth and bones don’t just need calcium to be strong. They need magnesium too. Too much calcium without enough magnesium can actually lead to weak, brittle bones in the long-term. Most Americans ingest way too much calcium on a daily basis and their bones are usually not as strong as people from Eastern countries like China. In general, Chinese culture doesn’t focus on calcium intake as much as American culture does. When it comes to bone health, the focus in traditional Chinese diets is on magnesium-rich foods like dark leafy greens in contrast to the focus on calcium-rich foods like dairy in the U.S.
5. Magnesium Keeps You Limber
A magnesium deficiency often leads to stiff, sore joints and muscle cramps. Again, this correlates with what TCM says about liver health and rigidity in the joints, as well as muscle pain. Emma Suttie notes, “The health of the sinews is under the control of the Liver, and specifically Liver blood. Liver blood nourishes and moistens the sinews, ensuring that we can move freely and easily. The sinews ability to relax and contract is also dependent on Liver blood. If Liver blood is deficient, sinews will become dry and brittle and we can experience symptoms like contractions, spasms, numbness, tremors and muscle cramps.”
Eating a plant-based diet increases your magnesium intake
To ensure that you get enough magnesium every day, Traditional Chinese Medicine recommends eating a mostly plant-based diet. Vegetables like dark leafy greens, kelp and avocados, as well as nuts and seeds all have high magnesium contents.
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to get your magnesium from food any more. Which brings us to another problem:
Food Is No Longer Enough.
Green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds do still have higher amounts of magnesium than other foods. Unfortunately, they do NOT have enough to keep you magnesium-replete. You see, thanks to things like industrial farming and environmental changes, the soil that your food grows in is depleted of nutrients, including magnesium. Our soil is devastated by chemical fertilizers, over-use and acid rain. Nutrients have simply been stripped away.
Even Scientific American notes that “fruits and vegetables grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today”.
The University of Texas (UT) at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition data from 1950 and 1999. For 43 different vegetables and fruits, they found “reliable declines” in the amounts of essential vitamins and minerals due to agricultural practices.
It’s a sad reality but it’s important to know that eating a ‘traditional diet’ will no longer cut it.
Realistically, unless you’re supplementing, you’re probably not getting enough magnesium every day.
How To Get Enough Magnesium
You can address this deficiency by consciously eating foods that are high in magnesium, cutting down on alcohol, sugar and fried or processed foods AND adding a magnesium supplement to your routine.
There are important things to consider when selecting a magnesium supplement.
Most magnesium supplements are oral products that come in pill or powder form. They’re not natural and they’re not as bioavailable as they should be.
When you take these lower quality magnesium supplements there’s a time delay. It can take over half an hour for the magnesium to work its way through your gut. Even then your stomach has a hard time absorbing the magnesium.
You end up never getting the full dose of magnesium your body needs because of the low bioavailability of most of these magnesium supplements.
Plus, when you digest so much of this mineral at once, it can be hard on your gut.
Magnesium can have a laxative effect when it’s processed in high quantities through the digestive tract, that’s why the best magnesium solution goes straight to your bloodstream, bypassing your gut altogether. This means more natural magnesium, reaching more cells with no digestive upset.