Calcium vs. magnesium: The key is balance

by Bart Walton, M.Ac., L.Ac.

This article was originally published in March 2004

(March 2004) — People in the United States consume more calcium supplements than any other group on earth. And if that’s not enough, additional calcium is added to our cereals, our fruit juices, our crackers, our antacids and many other processed foods. Yet the United States ranks among nations with the highest incidence of osteoporosis — a painful and debilitating disease marked by calcium loss and bone deterioration. How is this possible? Are we missing something?

Bart Walton, M.Ac., L.Ac.

About 30 or 40 years ago, doctors began routinely prescribing calcium to many men and almost all women over the age of 40 to counter the effects of bone loss due to aging. The conventional wisdom was that bone loss is due to calcium deficiency. Yet after 40 years, it has become evident that taking calcium alone does not stop or even slow bone loss and does not prevent osteoporosis.

The new wisdom now emerging is that magnesium is actually the key to the body’s proper assimilation and use of calcium, as well as other important nutrients. If we consume too much calcium, and without sufficient magnesium, the excess calcium is not utilized correctly and may actually become toxic, causing painful conditions in the body.

Many researchers and nutritionists now believe magnesium is more important than calcium in order to maintain healthy bones. In addition, magnesium is responsible for more than 300 biochemical reactions, all necessary for optimum health. Magnesium plays a vital role in digestion, energy production, muscle contraction and relaxation, bone formation and cell division. In addition, magnesium is a key nutrient in the proper functioning of the heart, the kidneys, the adrenals and the entire nervous system.

Most calcium and magnesium supplements contain a ratio of two parts calcium to one part magnesium. The logic behind this ratio is based on the relative amounts of these nutrients used in the body. But in order to determine how much we might need to take as a supplement, we should consider how much of these nutrients we are getting in our food and how they are stored and recycled in the body.

For example, the body tends to hold calcium and either store it or recycle it again and again. Magnesium, however, is either used up or excreted and must be replenished on a daily basis. So, even though the daily need for calcium is greater, we are much more likely to become deficient in magnesium.

  • insomnia
  • muscle tension or spasms
  • muscle cramps
  • constipation
  • headaches
  • heart palpitations
  • PMS
  • calcification of tissues or joints
  • nervousness or irritability

If you are taking a mineral supplement, it’s also important to consider the form you are taking. In a typical calcium or magnesium tablet, the body can absorb and assimilate only about 10 to 15 percent. In the form of a mineral citrate, in which the mineral is combined with citric acid, the body can absorb a much greater amount. If you mix the mineral citrate in warm water and let stand for 10 minutes until it is fully dissolved, you’ll absorb the minerals very quickly and your body will feel the difference. And if you are taking calcium or magnesium in this form, you don’t have to take nearly as much as with other forms in order to get the same benefit.

I recommend magnesium and calcium citrate as the preferred form. If you believe you might be deficient in magnesium, I suggest taking magnesium citrate alone (without any calcium) for one to three months. Some manufacturers are now producing these minerals together in a reverse ratio of two or three parts magnesium to one part calcium. I suggest this ratio for the longer term. If your diet is reasonably balanced, a modest supplementation will help to maintain adequate levels and more important, the correct balance of these important minerals.

Bart Walton, M.Ac. is a Washington State licensed acupuncturist with a private practice in the Green Lake area of Seattle. Bart has a master of acupuncture degree from Northwest Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and specializes in Japanese style acupuncture and moxibustion. Over the last 20 years, Bart has traveled extensively in Asia, studying the use of herbs, diet and lifestyle in traditional medicine. Bart may be contacted at 206-527-9672 or

More on calcium and magnesium

(Sound Consumer, April 2004) — The relationship between calcium and magnesium in our bodies is complex. They work together in many functions, such as regulating heartbeat, muscle tone and contraction, and nerve conduction. At other times, calcium and magnesium seem to compete by binding competitively to the same sites in the body.

It is important to look at one’s diet to determine calcium and magnesium needs. Age, of course, is a factor, with young people still building bone mass, those pregnant or lactating, and the menopausal needing more calcium. Stress, bone disorders and high blood pressure also increase calcium needs.

Calcium absorption varies among individuals, but the average absorption is about 30 percent of intake. This is why you will often read that is advisable to take smaller amounts of calcium several times a day rather than a large dose all at once. Those with reduced stomach acid or other digestive complaints may experience lower than average absorption and digestibility of calcium and mineral supplements. Things that can inhibit calcium absorption are caffeine, soft drinks, diuretics, excess red meat, refined sugar, alcohol, excess salt, foods high in oxalic acid (spinach, rhubarb, chocolate), and certain medications. Calcium supplements, calcium carbonate in particular, are more readily absorbed when taken with food.

Research has shown that although calcium citrate is absorbed well on an empty stomach, the difference in absorption rates of calcium carbonate and calcium citrate are nearly the same when both are taken with food. This is reassuring to those who prefer calcium carbonate because it is less expensive.

The U.S. RDI (Reference Daily Intake) for calcium is 1000 mg for adults and children 4 years and older. The U.S. RDI for magnesium is 400 mg.

Keep in mind that the RDI value for a nutrient includes your entire intake for the day and does not account for those with special needs. So, if you eat calcium and/or magnesium rich foods, or have specific health concerns, consider revising your intake of calcium or magnesium tablets. Calcium is found in dairy products, sardines, soy products, green leafy vegetables and almonds. Magnesium is found in whole grains, nuts, seafood, legumes, peas, carrots and green leafy vegetables.

This article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare practitioner. PCC Natural Markets recommends consulting a professional to determine your individual needs.

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