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Why is magnesium so important for athletes?

9 Aug 2023
Why is magnesium so important for athletes?

In this interview, Prof. Wienecke explains why
magnesium is so important for athletes and the potential consequences of a
magnesium deficiency. The laboratory analysis process is also critically
examined -> find out more now!



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Why is magnesium so important for athletes?

Interviewee: Prof. Wienecke

Prof. Wienecke, as a sports scientist you are an expert in the field of micronutrients. Why do you think it is important for an athlete to address the issue of micronutrients?

 

It is particularly important for athletes to understand how micronutrients contribute to their health and performance. Micronutrients are highly important catalysts for the human body. Without these essential nutrients enzyme production cannot take place, and a natural protective mechanism then ensues: the body starts to protect itself from depletion, in an effort to preserve the basic requirements for maintaining bodily functionality. If your body is not provided with the nutrients it needs for long periods of time, it will then begin to rely on its own structural proteins – and this will invariably have an impact upon your performance. That’s why micronutrients are so essential – especially for athletes who are looking to optimise their performance!

And unfortunately, what so very few people understand is that a normal, balanced diet is far from enough; believing that is just fiction. There is an EU study (Global Burden of Disease, published in the Lancet) which demonstrates that only 25% of the population achieves the minimum levels of nutrients, as specified by nutritional associations, via their everyday diet.

And here, we're not even talking about athletes, just about normal people! This is not only because nutritional behaviour at population level is deemed suboptimal, but also because of losses attributable to the greenhouse effect: the plants we eat grow faster and thus absorb fewer minerals. Greenhouse tests show that doubling the CO2 content leads to a reduction of 15-30% in the zinc and selenium content, and the magnesium content of food can be reduced by as much as 20%!

 

Magnesium is one of the most important nutrients. So how much magnesium should amateur and professional athletes actually consume?

 

This cannot be specified across the board because each person has their own individual needs. But particularly for ambitious athletes, it very important to measure exactly what those requirements really are.

In my opinion, widely published recommended quantities are not a suitable benchmark. To put it simply, laboratories cannot be asked to compare apples and oranges, i.e. very different groups of people.

Instead, we work with our own specially developed micronutrient database, which uses algorithms to seek out similar age groups and profiles. This creates a median value which is then set as a zero line and used to compare values in order to to analyse which micronutrients are missing.

But not every deviation from the median is relevant: So -1 may not necessarily represent an individual deficit, while +1 might also not represent a sufficient supply for a professional athlete. The fatal flaw is these measurements generally only take place at serum level – and normal blood analyses often fail to detect deficits, even where deficits do exist.

I think this methodology is inadequate; a real paradigm shift is needed in laboratory medicine.

 

Can you tell us how your own approach differs from traditional laboratory testing? What methods can be used to precisely determine individual magnesium requirements or pinpoint a magnesium deficiency?

 

In medicine, classic blood analysis (of blood serum or whole blood) is still the standard method used to determine mineral supply. However, a blood serum analysis is always superficial, because it only represents a “snapshot”, and even a full blood analysis can be strongly influenced by the previous day’s diet.

With an intraerythrocytic determination, the whole blood sample is centrifuged and separated into serum and erythrocytes (red blood cells). In nutritional science, all the current data refers to serum values. But to obtain precise values, it’s actually important to measure the micronutrients in the erythrocytes instead. This is the only way to assess the real supply situation in the blood cells.

We started using this methodology in 2000 as part of a screening campaign for the Bertelsmann Foundation involving 350 athletes. Measurements taken at red blood cell level often revealed deficiencies not even visible in a normal full blood analysis. And we were also able to show that with good basic care, the improvement rate was 20% better than that observed in the control group without adequate care. We have now examined more than 60,000 people and built our own micronutrient database, which enables us to make real comparisons.

What are the potential consequences of a magnesium deficiency, especially for athletes?

Ambitious athletes, who are likely to have a higher magnesium requirement than the average population, will not be able to continue to sustain their sporting performance levels over the longer term without a targeted, personalised intake. That’s because an optimal magnesium supply is essential for the endurance aspects of their discipline!

On the other hand, a magnesium deficiency would precipitate a vegetative imbalance, resulting in an under-powered musculature with no opportunity to regenerate. Many people wrongly associate magnesium deficiency with cramps, but the decisive factor in this context is the loss of sodium. For athletes with a diabetic condition, magnesium is also involved in glucose metabolism. However, what is not true, despite the advertising claims of many nutritional supplement manufacturers is that: “Magnesium enhances your speed”.

What is definitely important, and most certainly for athletes, is that the use of any magnesium supplement should be specific to your own needs and personal resources. It’s not just a simple matter of taking “a lot” of magnesium!

 

Prof. Dr. Wienecke, would you recommend regular checking of magnesium levels?

Yes, I would recommend this to anyone who actively trains, both professional and amateur athletes – especially if their diet is not as balanced as it should be – because that might suggest there is already a need to check for symptoms of a possible deficiency.

Of course, as explained above, it's about more than just the right measurement methodology. There’s also the issue of the correct time window: A new analysis only makes sense, at the earliest, after 12 weeks, because the cells needs time to replenish their mineral reserves. Red blood cells in particular require longer to recover.

 

What action do you typically recommend for patients diagnosed with magnesium deficiency?

As I have said above, it is of course fundamental to look at each person individually. But if I had to suggest a guideline drawn from my many years of practice, I would say: At the outset, begin with a starting dose of 400 mg magnesium in the evening, then take 200 mg 3 times a day. According to our studies, this distributed intake is significantly more efficient than a single higher dose taken once a day, because the body can then absorb the magnesium better throughout the day.

When choosing a magnesium preparation, you should always pay careful attention to the specific compound: magnesium citrates, for example, can lead to diarrhoea. So it’s very important for ambitious athletes to remember not to take magnesium immediately before a competition, otherwise gastrointestinal problems may occur. However, with a supply taken in optimal dosages over a longer period of time, you can then easily afford to avoid taking your magnesium the day before the competition.

Likewise, it’s also important to keep an eye on the interaction of magnesium with other micronutrients: For example, if you were to take 400 mg calcium and 400 mg magnesium at the same time, the two doses would effectively cancel each other out!

Can you give our readers any final advice?

Unfortunately, most people only consult us when nothing works any more – but I believe that is the wrong approach. Let's stick with the example of magnesium:

A cellular magnesium deficiency can be detected in 90% of all people with a prior condition. And even afterwards, when the symptoms are already apparent, micronutrient therapy can still achieve a lot: My team and I have treated over 12,000 patients with micronutrients, who – with the help of the correct micronutrient intake – were then free of pain (without medication) for a short period of time.

I am also sure that in 20 years time this will all be much better researched, and we will have many more meaningful studies on prevention and micronutrient therapy.

My team and I have been working on this topic for 20 years now and we are increasingly coming to this conclusion: If you can recognise early where the biochemical disorders are, and supply the body with what it is lacking, the body will then be able to use its own regulatory system to establish harmony and balance and bring about health stability over the longer term. That is precisely how I see the future of medicine. And for this reason, in collaboration with FHM Bielefeld, we have also launched a new master's degree program in micronutrient therapy and regulatory medicine in order to train more doctors in this vital sector.

 

 


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