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What Does a Low Magnesium Level Mean?

by
author image Dr. Tina M. St. John
Tina M. St. John runs a health communications and consulting firm. She is also an author and editor, and was formerly a senior medical officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. St. John holds an M.D. from Emory University School of Medicine.
What Does a Low Magnesium Level Mean?
Close up of nuts Photo Credit Design Pics/Tomas del Amo/Design Pics/Getty Images

Your body contains approximately 24 g of the mineral magnesium. A low magnesium level, or hypomagnesemia, indicates inadequate dietary intake or poor retention of the mineral within your body. Your kidneys and intestines normally conserve magnesium to maintain an adequate level. Eating a well-rounded diet helps ensure a sufficient dietary supply of magnesium. You may develop a low magnesium level despite adequate intake if you have a medical condition that interferes with magnesium absorption or conservation.

Nutritional Deficiency

Magnesium is found in many foods, which makes a nutritional deficiency uncommon if you eat a healthful diet. A severely restricted diet program, eating disorder or generalized malnutrition, however, may lead to hypomagnesemia. Magnesium-rich foods to include in your nutrition plan to prevent a deficiency include whole-grain cereal, bread and flour; brown rice; spinach and greens; dry beans, tofu and soy products; artichokes; okra; potatoes; milk; nuts and pumpkin seeds; and fish.

Impaired Intestinal Absorption

Magnesium is released from the foods you eat during digestion in your small bowel; it is subsequently absorbed into your bloodstream. Chronic diarrhea, such as occurs with Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease and pancreatitis, may significantly reduce magnesium absorption because food is moving too quickly through your intestines. Weight-loss surgery that involves a bypass of most of your small bowel, such as a Roux-en-Y or duodenal switch procedure, also disrupts magnesium absorption, potentially leading to hypomagnesemia.

Genetic Disorders

Inherited abnormalities of the magnesium absorption system in your kidneys or intestines can lead to persistent, severe hypomagnesemia. These rare conditions are typically diagnosed in early childhood.

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol ingestion increases the amount of magnesium lost in your urine. If you drink too much alcohol on a regular basis, you may develop a low magnesium level and other mineral imbalances due to increased urinary losses. Your magnesium level typically returns to normal within a few weeks if you refrain from drinking alcohol and consume a magnesium-rich diet.

Medication Side Effect

Certain medications may interfere with magnesium absorption or provoke increased urinary loss of the mineral. Water pills, also known as diuretics, may lead to hypomagnesemia due to urinary magnesium losses. Increasing the amount of magnesium in your diet can compensate for the excess urinary loss. Prescription and over-the-counter proton pump inhibitor medications for acid reflux and ulcers can also cause hypomagnesemia if taken for an extended period, usually longer than one year. A persistently reduced level of stomach acid decreases magnesium absorption in your intestines, which may eventually lead to a deficiency. Platinum-containing cancer drugs and certain powerful antibiotics may also cause hypomagnesemia.

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