For many, magnesium is a go-to mineral for helping with sleep. But it can also help with so much more.

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On Nutrition

In last week’s column I talked about the importance of sleep. If you struggle with low-level sleep impairment, you might wonder what nutritional tools are at your disposal to catch more quality zzzzzzzs. For many, magnesium is a go-to mineral for slipping more easily into slumber, although magnesium has multiple benefits for health, playing an essential role in hundreds of chemical reactions in your body.

Even though magnesium is readily available in many foods (unlike, say, choline), many Americans fall short of meeting the recommended daily amount. Men should aim for 420 milligrams (mg) per day and women who are not pregnant should aim for 320 mg, but on average, American adults only get two-thirds of the way there.

Why should you care? Because this is what magnesium does for your body:

Bone health. When we think of nutrients that are essential to healthy bones, we tend to immediately think of calcium and vitamin D. However, we also store a lot of magnesium in our bones, and chronic magnesium deficiency can contribute to bone loss, leading to osteoporosis.

Metabolism. Magnesium plays a key role in energy production in our cells (our cells contain “factories” that take glucose, or blood sugar, and convert it into a form of energy that the body can readily use). This means that a diet low in magnesium can contribute to fatigue.

Inflammation and immunity. Diets deficient in magnesium have been linked to chronic, low-grade inflammation, which can increase your risk of developing heart disease or type 2 diabetes. Magnesium may also help your immune system function well.

Cardiovascular health. Magnesium promotes normal blood pressure and a steady heart rhythm.

Muscle and nerve function. Research shows that being low in magnesium increases the risk of depression because magnesium affects how chemical messages enter and leave our cells, including our brain and nerve cells. It also helps your muscles contract and relax.

Stable blood sugar. Magnesium helps regulate blood-sugar levels. People who get enough magnesium appear to have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and correcting low levels may improve blood sugar control in people who have already developed issues. The magnesium-blood sugar equation works both ways — high blood sugar levels can contribute to magnesium deficiency.

Why are most Americans not getting enough magnesium? The culprit is our reliance on heavily processed foods and our shortfall of the whole foods that are good dietary sources: greens, beans, whole grains, and nuts and seeds. Foods are better than supplements, because other components in magnesium-rich foods also have health benefits. Here are some of the best sources of magnesium:

Green leafy vegetables. Spinach and Swiss chard are the best sources of magnesium, with a half cup, cooked, containing around 75 mg. If you prefer your spinach raw in a salad, two cups would give you close to 50 mg. Beet greens are another good source. Other sources are collard greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, bok choy, mustard greens and romaine lettuce.

Nuts and seeds. Pumpkin seeds are the winner here, with one ounce containing a whopping 151 mg of magnesium. The same amount of sesame seeds, cashews, sunflower seeds or almonds also qualify as excellent sources, containing between 80 and 100 mg of magnesium.

Pulses (beans and lentils). A half cup of cooked soybeans contains 74 mg of magnesium, 4 ounces of tempeh contains around 87 mg and 4 ounces of tofu has around 40 mg. A half cup of black beans give you 60 mg, with navy beans, pinto beans, lima beans and kidney beans trailing a bit behind.

Whole grains and pseudograins. A half cup of cooked quinoa has 59 mg, with fellow pseudograin buckwheat containing 43 mg. Of the true grains, brown rice is the winner with 42 mg per cooked half cup. Other good-to-excellent sources are amaranth, barley, millet, oats, rye, wheat, sorghum, cornmeal and wild rice.

Who needs to pay particular attention to magnesium intake? Anyone with diabetes, heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Certain prescription medications, including diuretics and drugs for acid reflux or peptic ulcers, can cause low blood levels of magnesium over time. Here are two recipes to give you a boost:

Spinach salad with quinoa, black beans and pumpkin seeds

This salad contains 335 mg of magnesium, giving women their daily recommendation (plus some) and getting men most of the way there. It also contains a solid 22 grams of plant-based protein.

2 cups baby spinach

½ cup cooked quinoa

½ cup black beans, canned or cooked

2 tablespoons pumpkin seed kernels (pepitas)

1 tablespoon olive oil (or less if desired)

2 teaspoons lemon or lime juice

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Whisk olive oil, lemon or lime juice, salt and pepper in bowl. Add spinach, quinoa, black beans and pumpkin seeds and toss to coat. Serves one.

Oatmeal with Almonds and Flaxseeds

This comforting bowl of hot cereal has more than 200 mg of magnesium, plus 13 grams of fiber and a respectable 20 grams of protein.

¼ cup milk

¼ cup water

¼ cup old-fashioned rolled oats

¼ cup oat bran

¼ teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

A pinch of salt (1/8 teaspoon)

1 tablespoon ground flaxseeds

1 ounce almonds (about 22), chopped

Optional: fresh or dried fruit to sweeten

1. In a small saucepan, combine the milk, water, oats, oat bran, salt and cinnamon and heat over medium-high heat. When the mixture starts bubbling, reduce heat to simmer and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.

2. Once the oats have absorbed the liquid and are at the consistency you like, remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the ground flaxseed, transfer the oats into a bowl and top with the chopped almonds. Serves one.