How Calcium and Magnesium Can Slow Down Aging

If you’re like most women and take 1,500 mg of calcium and half as much magnesium, you’ve got it all backwards. You’re getting too much calcium and not enough magnesium. I’ve been telling women since 1985, when my first book, The Nutrition Detective, was published that if you want to slow down your aging process, look at the amount of calcium and magnesium in your food and supplements, and begin making some changes today.

Nothing can make you feel old faster than slipping and breaking your arm or hip and having your movements limited. Or having a heart attack. That’s why two common minerals come first in any anti-aging program I give my patients. Although they’re not usually thought of in this manner, calcium and magnesium truly influence many conditions associated with aging. The correct balance of calcium and magnesium can affect osteoporosis, heart disease, blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. In my opinion, some of the worst effects of aging are those that limit the quality of our lives and reduce our vitality.

Build flexible bones that won’t break
Osteoporosis is associated with aging because it accelerates in women after menopause when estrogen levels drop. To many, it means having fragile bones that break easily and limit their activities. But you’re not doomed to have brittle bones even if you begin making changes in your 60s or 70s.

Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of bad information being dispensed by well-meaning doctors based on old studies. Most tell women to take 1,000 mg of calcium a day before menopause and 1,500 mg a day afterward to prevent osteoporosis. They suggest you drink more milk and eat plenty of yogurt and cheese. They suggest a high-calcium supplement like calcium carbonate, which is poorly absorbed, or antacids with more unabsorbable calcium to further boost your levels. In my opinion, these doctors are leading you down a path toward health problems and aging. Let me explain why:

Brittle bones vs flexible bones
Osteoporosis means that your bones are thin and brittle, not just thin. Even thinner bones are less likely to break when they’re flexible. But usually they’re both thinner and brittle as a result of a high calcium intake. Bones that contain a lot of calcium have larger bone mineral crystals with rounded shapes, while bones with more magnesium have smaller, more irregularly shaped crystals. Small, irregular crystals grab onto one another better and form stronger, less brittle bones than large, rounded crystals.

If you want your bones to be more flexible, possibly even adding to their density, your body needs more magnesium to form strong bones, and to assist your parathyroid gland.

Studies show that you may need as little as 500 mg of calcium and 500-600 mg of magnesium in your supplement to prevent and even reverse osteoporosis. Remember, there’s a difference between total calcium and magnesium intake, and what you get from supplements! Your diet and supplements are likely to be weighted too heavily with calcium, and lacking in sufficient magnesium.
Perhaps the first doctor to link osteoporosis to a magnesium deficiency is a friend of mine, Guy E. Abraham, MD, a research gynecologist and endocrinologist in Torrance, CA. Based on the results of a small, one-year long, double-blind study published in 1990, along with other follow-up studies, he advises women to supplement their low-calcium diets with 500 mg of calcium and 600 mg of magnesium for strong bones. This balance increased bone density by an average of 11 percent in the participants of his first study.

Dr Abraham’s not alone. Alan R. Gaby, MD, author of Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis, recommends his patients take 600-1,200 mg of calcium with 250-600 mg of magnesium. He uses the higher amount of calcium only when he finds evidence of a calcium deficiency. Like other savvy doctors, Dr. Gaby takes into account the minerals we get from a healthy diet. Many foods, like green vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds are high in both calcium and magnesium. Include them in your diet daily for younger, healthier bones.

In 1997, a study on bone density and nutrition was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researcher Susan A. New and her colleagues found magnesium intake to be low in the diets and supplements of many postmenopausal women. She also found that those women with spongy, rather than strong, bones who had osteoporosis were low in magnesium.

Bottom line: If you’re taking the wrong balance of calcium and magnesium, you may be creating a vicious cycle. High calcium intake blocks magnesium absorption. Magnesium is needed to carry calcium into your bones. Too much calcium can cause bones to be more fragile, while high magnesium creates stronger bones. Consider taking 500 mg each of calcium and magnesium. Then gradually increase your magnesium (up to a total of 1,000 mg/day) until you have comfortably loose stools.

Calcium, magnesium, and your heart
A healthy heart is a supple muscle with unclogged arteries that allows good blood flow and has a regular heartbeat. Calcium causes all muscles —— including the heart —— to contract, while magnesium helps them relax. The correct mineral balance is particularly important in healthy heart function. You want your heart muscle to both contract and relax. Too many contractions can result in irregular heartbeats, cause a stroke, or heart attack. In fact, increasing magnesium often eliminates or reduces arrhythmias.

Magnesium helps blood pressure become and stay regulated, reduces the formation of plaque in arteries, and reduces spasms. Thomas Steinmetz is a nutritionist and researcher with a German organic minerals company. He looked at the cause of death from sudden heart attacks in the U.S. between 1940 and 1994. What he found was startling: A magnesium deficiency was the cause of death in eight million people! This was totally preventable with proper supplementation and diet.

If you are taking procardia, cardizem, or another calcium channel blocker to help keep calcium from building up in your arteries and getting into your heart, causing a spasm, or heart attack, I want you to know that magnesium does the exact same thing! In addition, magnesium prevents excessive amounts of calcium from damaging heart cells. It also dilates your arteries, allowing better blood flow.

I’m not suggesting that you stop taking calcium channel blocker medications, but you may want to discuss increasing your magnesium intake in your diet and supplements with your physician. Eventually, with enough magnesium, the two of you may decide that pharmaceuticals are not necessary. Always check with your doctor before making any changes in your medications.

To prevent clogged arteries, look to calcium and magnesium. When calcium can’t get into your bones or other tissues because there isn’t enough magnesium to help move it there, it can collect in your arteries, which leads to atherosclerosis. If it causes a blockage, you may have a heart attack – increasingly common in postmenopausal women. If it narrows enough to allow small pieces of plaque to get caught, then dilates so the plaque can be released, you could have a stroke. Low magnesium has been seen in people with irregular or rapid heartbeat, mitral valve prolapse, congestive heart failure, and high blood pressure.

So how does magnesium help your heart?
1. It prevents muscle spasms.
2. It keeps your blood flowing smoothly.
3. It helps raise good (HDL) cholesterol.
4. It helps maintain normal blood pressure.
5. It keeps a regular heartbeat.

Bottom line: The same ratio of calcium to magnesium you take to keep your bones strong and flexible will also keep you young at heart. In addition to supplements, get more magnesium into your diet by emphasizing whole grains and beans, and limit dairy to one portion a day at most.

Calcium, magnesium, and aging emotionally
How young can you feel if you’re constantly depressed or feeling anxious? Even if you have aches and pains, a positive attitude will keep you vital, and vitality equals youthfulness. Few people realize that both depression and anxiety can begin with an imbalance of calcium and magnesium. Before reaching for St. John’s wort, kava kava, prescription drugs, or other mood elevators, I suggest you take a closer look at these minerals:

Too much calcium can contribute to depression and irritability, whereas magnesium helps your brain make the calming chemical called dopamine. Magnesium, not calcium, is the mineral that calms your emotions as well as your muscles.

A number of studies have found an association between depression in psychiatric patients and high-calcium levels. If you’re clinically depressed, talk with your doctor about having your calcium level checked through a simple blood test.

Serotonin is a brain chemical considered to be a natural antidepressant, but your brain needs magnesium in order to make serotonin. If you’re depressed, and if your depression is caused by a lack of serotonin, you probably need more magnesium. Low serotonin production can cause a number of symptoms including depression, obsessive thinking, and anxiety.

When you’re under stress your body loses more magnesium than usual. Stress causes your adrenal glands to produce more adrenaline and other hormones, like cortisol, causing more magnesium excretion. When your magnesium is low, your adrenal glands produce still more cortisol, which in turn decreases your levels of DHEA. DHEA is a hormone considered to be an anti-aging nutrient. Stress causes fatty acids to be released in your body and attach themselves to magnesium, which makes it more difficult for magnesium to be absorbed.

Psychiatrist Priscilla Slagle, MD, suggests that too much dairy can lower magnesium levels. She believes that the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for magnesium should be raised from 320 mg a day for women over 31 to 500-800 mg a day. I would raise the upper limits to 1,000 mg.

Bottom line: When you’re under stress, increase your magnesium and keep calcium levels reasonable, not high. This may help you reduce depression and anxiety. Temporarily reduce your supplemental calcium to 500 mg a day, eat less dairy, and increase your magnesium to bowel tolerance. If you’re concerned with the physical and emotional aspects of aging, examine your calcium and magnesium levels, and adjust them if necessary. They’re two of your most important anti-aging nutrients.

Abraham, Guy E., MD, and Grewal Harinder, MD. “A total dietary program emphasizing magnesium instead of calcium,” Journal of Reproductive Medicine, May 1990.

Arasteh, K. “A beneficial effect of calcium intake on mood,” J Orthomol Psychiatry, 9(4):199-204, 1994.

Cass, Hyla, MD. St John’s Wort, Avery Publishing, 1998.

Gaby, Alan R., MD. Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis, Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA, 1994. Mindell, Earl L., RPh, PhD. Prescription Alternatives, Second Edition, Keats Publishing, 1999.

New, Susan A., et al. “Nutritional influences on bone mineral density: a cross-sectional study in premenopausal women,” Amer Jour Clin Nutr, 1997; 65:1831-1839.

Riis, B., et al. “Does calcium supplementation prevent postmenopausal bone loss? A double-blind, controlled clinical study,” N Engl J Med 1987, 316.

Seelig, M.S. “Adverse stress reactions and magnesium deficiency: preventive and therapeutic implications,” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 11:609/Abstract 40, 1992.

Slagle, Priscilla, MD. The Way Up From Down, Random House, 1987.
Werbach, Melvyn R. MD. Textbook of Nutritional Medicine, Third Line, 1999.

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Written by Nan Kathryn Fuchs PhD

Explore Wellness in 2021