The Surprising Nutrient That Boosts Your Immune Response (Hint: It’s Not Vitamin D)

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March 7, 2022
avocado toast topped with pumpkin seeds

For years, vitamin D has been the supplement superhero we’ve been taught to lean on for improved immunity. And the truth is, vitamin D can boost general immunity, fight inflammation, and even combat mid-winter seasonal affective disorder. But new studies say that while vitamin D is still essential, there’s a new champion in town that might be even more important for keeping your immune system healthy and functioning: Magnesium. 

Read next: Do Those “Immunity Booster” Juice Shots Actually Do Anything or Are They Snake Oil?

Magnesium is a mineral that supports more than 300 enzymes and chemical processes in our bodies, and it’s vital for our cells. In a recent study, researchers explored how magnesium levels impact the immune system and what low magnesium levels could do to the body — and it’s not great.

In the study, titled Magnesium in Infectious Diseases in Older People, researchers observed mice with cancer with differing magnesium levels. Mice with very low magnesium levels experienced worsened symptoms, faster cancer spreading, and a lowered immunity response. They were left more susceptible to other illnesses, too, like the flu and serious bacterial infections – which could be deadly. The mice with appropriate or high magnesium levels didn’t experience the rapid cancer spread or increased risk for other illnesses. In fact, their immune systems seemed to be safeguarded. 

So what does this mean for magnesium and our immune systems? 

While mouse studies aren’t always indicative of what will happen in humans — we’re different species, after all — researchers use mice for a reason. These studies can be really helpful for studying complex diseases, and are also very useful for examining issues like vitamin deficiencies. So while we can’t necessarily extrapolate what will happen to humans based on this study, we have a pretty good idea: Essentially, when you have low magnesium levels, you could get sicker for longer — especially as your body ages. You also leave yourself at risk for serious conditions like cancer or age-related diseases that your body can’t fight off because you’re experiencing lowered immunity. 

The study also reported that magnesium lowers inflammation levels and helps our bodies remove oxidative stress, which contributes to the aging process by creating a low-level inflammatory state involving several tissues and organs, otherwise known as “inflammaging.” 

Chronic magnesium deficiency, which more than 50% of the population reportedly suffers from, can also cause generalized low-grade inflammation, which is linked with several serious health conditions, including neurological disease and cancer. 

Something else noteworthy about this study: Magnesium is actually required for the transportation and absorption of vitamin D. So without magnesium, you’re not getting all those great health benefits of vitamin D to boost immunity, get strong bones, and promote hormone health. So let’s recap: Magnesium helps our bodies fight disease, prevent inflammation, get rid of oxidative stress, and absorb our vitamin D. Sounds like the new supplement superhero in town — magnesium is truly doing the most for your body. But are you getting enough?

Many people are deficient in both vitamin D and magnesium. Is there a link? 

It’s possible that one causes the other. With low magnesium levels, you can’t absorb or metabolize vitamin D — even if you’re taking high doses. If you supplement your diet with magnesium, you’ll naturally start absorbing more vitamin D from the food you eat and any supplements you take. This will help your body recover from vitamin D deficiency and boost your immune system, all thanks to magnesium’s powers. 

If you’re not absorbing your vitamin D, you’re missing out: The vitamin is directly linked to providing protection from upper respiratory infections, sepsis, influenza, pneumonia, vaginosis, urinary tract infections, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and many more. Low vitamin D levels are commonly associated in studies with a variety of chronic illnesses, and people who take vitamin D regularly receive significantly better protection than those who don’t. 

Another (not-so-fun) fun fact: About 60% of critically ill patients in the ICU at any given time, especially during COVID, present with magnesium deficiency. 

Since magnesium boosts our body’s ability to fight disease and infection, low magnesium levels may cause worsened illness, more severe symptoms, or an inadequate immune system response. Magnesium has been proven to provide increased protection from infectious diseases

Could I be magnesium deficient? 

Studies show that more than half of people are magnesium deficient — and you could definitely be one of them. If you’re not getting enough magnesium, you may be putting your body at risk for chronic inflammation, higher risk of illness, and increasing the likelihood of age-related diseases, like Parkinson’s and some forms of cancer. 

The daily Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for magnesium are 400mg for men and 320mg for women. Most people aren’t getting enough magnesium in their diets, and since your body can’t produce magnesium itself, if you’re not getting it from food sources or supplements, you may be deficient. 

Here are the top signs of magnesium deficiency: 

  • Muscle cramps, twitches, and aches
  • Irregular heartbeat 
  • Headaches 
  • Constipation 
  • Pins and needles sensation 
  • Weakness
  • Nausea 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Stiffness 
  • Insomnia 

Because magnesium is so vital to so many of our body’s systems, many people who are magnesium deficient feel they can’t sleep well, ache all the time, and suffer from poor digestion. 

If you’re concerned you may be suffering from magnesium deficiency, the best thing to do is to enrich your diet with either magnesium-rich foods or a supplement. 

What are the best foods for magnesium deficiency? 

When it comes to treating magnesium deficiency, you can always opt for supplements, but the best place to start is your diet. Some of the best sources of magnesium include greens like kale and spinach, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, wheat, and oat bran. 

Here are some rich food sources of magnesium: 

  • Pumpkin seeds, 1 oz – 168mg 
  • Almonds, 1 oz- 80mg 
  • Spinach, ½ cup – 78mg 
  • Shredded wheat, two biscuits – 61mg 
  • Peanut butter, 2 tbsp- 50mg 
  • Avocado, 1 cup – 44mg 
  • Plain yogurt, 8 oz – 45mg 

And we saved the best for last. Yet another reason to love dark chocolate: One serving of a 60% cacao chocolate bar can provide up to 50mg of magnesium. 

Read next: 4 Foods That Are Lowering Your Immune System — and 7 Delicious Foods to Support It

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