Magnesium for mental health: is your child getting enough?

Magnesium is an important mineral for children’s overall health. It’s involved in over 300 types of reactions in the body  including energy production, regulating the functions of the muscles, nerves and heart, regulating blood pressure and blood sugar, and helping to maintain a healthy immune system. (Yes, it’s that important!)

Unfortunately, between two and fifteen percent of the general US population has a magnesium deficiency, and only about a third of Americans are consuming the recommended daily intake. With nine out of ten kids not eating enough vegetables, it’s not surprising that they may not be getting enough magnesium in their diets. Diets containing empty calories from processed foods, sugary drinks and sodas can contribute to not getting enough magnesium from the diet.

The most common symptoms of magnesium deficiency include:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Heart rhythm abnormalities
  • Insomnia and sleep disorders
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle spasms and weakness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Personality changes
  • Poor nail growth
  • Restless leg syndrome

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How much magnesium does your child need?

The Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine sets the recommended dietary allowances for magnesium, which is the level considered to be sufficient for most healthy individuals. Here’s what they recommend:

  • 0-6 months: 30 mg (this level is considered to be an adequate intake)
  • 7-12 months: 75 mg (this level is considered to be an adequate intake)
  • 1-3 years: 80 mg
  • 4-8 years 130 mg
  • 9-13 years: 240 mg
  • 14-18 years, female: 360 mg
  • 14-18 years, male: 410 mg

Children who are experiencing health concerns or taking medications, may have a higher need for magnesium.

Magnesium’s Role in Mental Health

Magnesium seems to play a few valuable roles in mental health by affecting various brain signaling chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Magnesium also plays a role in nerve functioning and supporting a healthy mood. A few of the ways that magnesium contributes to mental wellness are outlined below.

Stress and anxiety and mood

There is a link between magnesium deficiency and stress. People with less magnesium tend to have more negative stress symptoms. When stress increases – whether it’s physical or emotional stress – so does the body’s need for magnesium. In people living with chronic stress, low magnesium has been linked to an increased stress response.

Researchers think that magnesium reduces the activity of stress hormone related systems in the body, which might explain some of its calming effects. One study in particular looked into the effects of magnesium in students during exam periods. The students were found to have increased anxiety during exams, which was related to a reduction in magnesium by the body – this suggests that there is a greater need for magnesium during stressful situations. Clinically, I’ve found magnesium to be very helpful in treating children who are experiencing anxiety and elevated stress.

Early research is showing magnesium to be beneficial in the treatment of tension headaches in children, which isn’t surprising considering its ability to reduce stress hormones in addition to its role in muscle relaxation.

Magnesium has also been show to be helpful for depression. Inadequate magnesium seems to contribute to depression by reducing serotonin levels, the brain’s key natural antidepressant.

Attention, concentration and learning

Magnesium deficiency has been linked to anxious restlessness, fidgeting and learning disabilities in children. Deficiency was also found to be more frequent in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) than children without ADHD. The use of daily magnesium supplements resulted in a significant decrease in hyperactivity compared to kids who weren’t treated with magnesium. More studies have shown improvements in behaviors with vitamin B6 and magnesium supplementation. Magnesium also seems to enhance learning and memory in animal studies, but human studies are needed.


Magnesium seems to play a role in sleep quality in human and animal studies, and a magnesium deficient diet has been linked to reduced sleep quality. In newborn infants, magnesium increased the length of deep sleep; in young and older adults it is known to positively effect sleep, including restorative sleep. How many of us wouldn’t benefit from more restful sleep!?!

One of the safest ways to obtain magnesium is through the diet. Legumes, nuts, seeds and grains are some of the richest sources of magnesium.

Here are a few of the best food sources of magnesium:

Beans and Legumes (cooked)Serving SizeMagnesium in mg *
black beans½ cup60
edamame (steamed green soy beans)1/2 cup54
green peas1/2 cup28
kidney beans1/2 cup37
lentils1/2 cup35
lima beans (also known as butter beans)1/2 cup40
navy beans1/2 cup48
pinto beans1/2 cup42
Nuts and SeedsServing SizeMagnesium in mg *
almonds, dry roasted1/4 cup96
almond butter1 tbsp45
brazil nuts, whole1/4 cup125
cashews1 oz83
cashew butter1 tbsp41
chia seeds1 oz95
flax seeds whole/ground1 tbsp40
hemp seeds, shelled1 tbsp70
peanuts, dry roasted1/4 cup65
pistachios, roasted1/4 cup33
pumpkin seeds (shells removed)1/4 cup191
pumpkin seeds (shells removed), roasted1/4 cup162
sesame seeds, toasted1 oz101
sunflower Seeds1/4 cup113
walnuts, raw1 oz42
Grains (cooked)Serving SizeMagnesium in mg *
amaranth1/2 cup80
brown rice1/2 cup43
buckwheat1/3 cup29
millet1/2 cup38
oats1/2 cup32
quinoa1/2 cup59
Vegetables and FruitServing SizeMagnesium in mg *
banana, mashed1/2 cup30
collard greens, cooked1/2 cup20
spinach, steamed or boiled1/2 cup78
squash, butternut, cooked1 cup59
squash, acorn, cooked1 cup88
swiss chard1/2 cup75
Meats, fish and poultryServing SizeMagnesium in mg *
beef, extra lean ground, cooked3 oz20
tuna4 oz47
turkey breast, cooked1 oz27
OtherServing SizeMagnesium in mg *
molasses1 tbsp
1 tsp


* Levels are approximate and adapted from the USDA’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28.

Many cereals, whole grain products, milk alternatives (soy milk, almond milk, etc) and fortified yogurts are sources of magnesium. Refer to the product labels to find out how much magnesium they contain.

Dealing with a picky eater or little food connoisseur?  No worries – you can sneak magnesium rich foods into meals that they already love!

Here are a few tips:

  • Choose products made with whole grains over those made with refined white flour. When grains are overly processed, a lot of the key nutrients, including magnesium, are lost.
  • Thicken soups, sauces and stews with cooked and pureed beans, or red lentils (which dissolve when well cooked and lend a hearty texture).
  • Puree lima beans – known as butter beans for their buttery texture – with a bit of butter, salt and water to thin the puree if needed. They’re as yummy as mashed potatoes but packed with more protein, fibre and magnesium.
  • Sneak in steamed leafy greens like spinach and collard greens by them to soups and sauces. Chop, mince or puree them first – depending what type of texture connoisseur your child is. Pureed greens can be made ahead and frozen for future use.
  • Add mashed or pureed beans into homemade burgers and meatballs, or any beef based dishes.
  • Serve nuts and seeds as snacks. If your child’s school doesn’t allow nuts for safety reasons, most schools will allow seeds instead.  Click here for my recipe for homemade sesame snaps.
  • Use nut butter as a spread on crackers, toast or bread.
  • Use molasses as a sweetener for baked goods.
  • This tasty maple cinnamon pepita (pumpkin seed) recipe makes a quick and tasty treat – and it’s kid tested and approved.

Before making any changes:

This article is intended for educational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose or treat your child. If your child has any medical conditions or food allergies, please consult a naturopathic doctor prior to making any dietary changes – a customized approach to treatment is always best. Do NOT give your child any nutritional supplements without consulting a naturopathic doctor or other licensed healthcare professional first.

Further Reading:

If your child is dealing with stress or anxiety, check out this article to learn about 8 naturopathic approaches to addressing your child’s anxiety, and to learn more about when it’s time to seek professional help.

Looking for more dietary tips to address your child’s behavior? One of the most important things you can do is to help your child optimize their blood sugar control. Check out this great article on how to improve your child’s behavior with blood sugar control by Dr. Maggie Luther, ND.


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Sylvi Martin
Sylvi Martin
Dr. Martin graduated from Laurentian University in 2004 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. After relocating to Toronto, she worked in the acute care psychiatric unit at St. Michael’s Hospital, where she also completed a nursing fellowship. Dr. Martin went on to pursue her training as a naturopathic doctor at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, where she graduated in 2009. Dr. Martin began her naturopathic practice at Fusion Chiropractic & Integrative Health in Toronto, where she works alongside other integrative healthcare providers. She has pursued additional training in clinical nutrition, women’s health and perinatal care, pediatric care, and mindfulness based clinical skills. Dr. Martin devotes her practice to helping women and their families to improve their health and wellbeing. Dr. Martin is licensed to practice Naturopathic Medicine in Ontario, where she is a member of the College of Naturopaths of Ontario. She is also a member of the Ontario Association of Naturopathic Doctors, the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors, the Pediatric Association of Naturopathic Doctors, and the Association of Perinatal Naturopathic Doctors.

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