Nan Kathryn Fuchs, PhD—The Nutrition Detective Speaks
01 Jul, 2008
Nan Kathryn Fuchs, PhD, is a noted author and veteran nutritionist. Her books include The Nutrition Detective, Overcoming the Legacy of Overeating, User’s Guide to Calcium & Magnesium, and The Health Detective’s 456 Most Powerful Healing Secrets.
She is also the author of the widely read monthly Women’s Health Letter.
From the time she could talk, Nan Kathryn Fuchs was always asking, “Why?” Even as a child, she would dig and persist until she found answers that made sense. This unrelenting curiosity followed her into life; when colleagues and others were simply accepting information because it “came from authority” or some such, Dr. Fuchs did not. Again, she would doggedly ask questions until she received satisfactory answers. This distinctive style is why she is now known as “The Nutrition Detective”—and why she was one of the very first to release the real facts about the calcium-magnesium balance.
Today, the true information on the crucial relationship between calcium and magnesium is finally starting to be circulated and noticed. The fact of the matter is that the body cannot absorb calcium without a proper balance of magnesium, and an overabundance of calcium in the body can lead to numerous health issues. But Dr. Nan Kathryn Fuchs happened upon this information back in the 1980s and took what at the time was a brave stand; when calcium deficiency was being touted as the “big concern” by doctors and nutritionists alike with no mention of magnesium, Dr. Fuchs, along with only a very few other voices in the storm, flew right into the teeth of that campaign.
“The first time anything that I wrote appeared in print was with my first book, The Nutrition Detective, which came out in 1985,” Dr. Fuchs told Organic Connections. “I struggled with the decision to write about the calcium controversy because it was such a big subject and it was so opposed to what everybody was saying. And here I was, this little thirty-something nutritionist in Southern California, saying all of these doctors and scientists were wrong. But Dr. Guy Abraham had good science to back up everything he said, and that of course was what I relied on. Turned out he was right.” Dr. Fuchs had been studying with research gynecologist and endocrinologist Guy Abraham, MD, and it was he who first imparted to her this then revolutionary set of facts. “Dr. Abraham was the person who defined the different subsets of PMS and the nutrient deficiencies that were responsible for them,” she said. “And two of these—PMS ending in depression and PMS with mood swings and anxiety—were both concerned with lower levels of magnesium as compared with calcium.”
Nan Kathryn Fuchs had already lived a life very much on her own terms. Just a short time earlier, from the late sixties to early seventies, she had had a business called The Herb Lady, in which she drove a Volkswagen Bus painted with leaves and big purple letters around Los Angeles. “I delivered incense from China and little packets of herb teas to various bookstores,” she recalled. In 1972 she founded Environmental Massage, a holistic approach to stress management; then in 1976 she co-founded one of the first holistic centers in the country: Baraka Holistic Center in Santa Monica, California. In the following years she obtained a degree in nutrition and settled down as a practicing nutritionist for the next two decades.
However, Dr. Fuchs has always considered herself to be first a writer and second a nutritionist, and at this point in her life writing has firmly taken over. She now imparts useful information and advice through her books and her monthly Women’s Health Letter. While the newsletter itself is by paid subscription, anyone can sign up on the website (www.womenshealthletter.com) and receive free weekly health alerts, which she describes as “my take on something current in the news.” Recent examples include the dangers of plastic water bottles and the way to read organic food labels.
In the books, newsletters and scientific papers she has authored and co-authored throughout the years, she has never stopped fighting against the misinformation about calcium—and for very good reason. Although the truth is now being circulated, calcium is still broadly promoted in ignorance of magnesium; so there continues to be an uphill battle.
“In balancing out calcium and magnesium, it comes down to what you’ve done in the past to know what you need to do in the future,” Dr. Fuchs explained. “But the majority of Americans eat a lot of dairy and don’t eat a lot of foods high in magnesium, like whole grains, nuts and seeds, and dark green leafy vegetables. I find it particularly disturbing to hear doctors and so-called health writers saying that we need 1,500 milligrams of calcium daily, and then allowing the consumer to believe that this means they should take 1,500 milligrams of supplemental calcium without regard to their diet. And that’s what’s happening— people have been taking huge amounts of calcium and getting themselves into trouble ever since calcium began being promoted.”
Muscle cramping, fibromyalgia (nonspecific muscle pain), heart palpitations and heart disease as well as premenstrual symptoms (PMS) can all result from excessive calcium, according to Dr. Fuchs. And what happens to calcium that can’t be absorbed? “Unabsorbed calcium gets into the arteries and becomes atherosclerosis [a form of arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)] or into the joints and becomes arthritis.”
An overbalance of calcium can also lead to osteoporosis, as a high intake of calcium causes bones to be brittle, whereas magnesium forms bones that are strong and flexible. “Let’s use chalk and ivory to illustrate this bone-building phenomenon,” said Dr. Fuchs. “Chalk is pure calcium carbonate, one of the forms of calcium added to many osteoporosis supplements. Ivory, on the other hand, contains calcium with magnesium. If you took a three-inch-long thin piece of chalk and dropped it, it would break. The same size piece of ivory would bounce. Do you want your bones to be more like chalk or ivory?”
In today’s dietary world, it is not at all difficult to overbalance calcium. Dr. Fuchs pointed out that there are 300 milligrams of calcium in just a small container of yogurt. There is also a good quantity of calcium in cheese, which many people snack on. “It’s hard not to get enough calcium even if you’re a vegan and eating a healthy diet. If you’re not eating a healthy diet, it’s very easy to get too much calcium and not enough magnesium.”
Of course, once a person understands this information they will want to strike a proper balance between these two minerals. Dr. Fuchs explained that when the equilibrium has been thrown off over time by the intake of high amounts of calcium through the diet and additionally through supplements, a person needs to “go overboard” in the other direction and take a lot more magnesium. Once the balance has been achieved, they can settle out.
The simplest way to find the right level of magnesium is the “bowel test” method described in Dr. Fuchs’ book User’s Guide to Calcium & Magnesium. A person can simply add supplemental magnesium to their diet, up to 1,000 milligrams per day (best broken down into two or three smaller doses during the day), till they have comfortably loose stools.
Regarding the correct level of calcium, in the same book Dr. Fuchs discusses the fact that calcium absorption is even more important than the amount of calcium taken. For this reason, a person should first evaluate his or her diet and discover what kind of calcium and how much calcium he or she is already ingesting, and then become somewhat educated on absorbable forms of calcium so that it does enter the body correctly. Dr. Fuchs recommends that calcium intake be limited to no more than 500 milligrams daily, which, she points out, is the amount found in many healthy meals.
As with others in her field, Dr. Fuchs’ research and treating of patients over the years has also led her to discover much information about the body’s need for magnesium and the proliferation of magnesium deficiencies. “I found when I was practicing that there were a lot of women—and men too, but mostly women—who were constipated,” she told OC. “And they were under stress, and stress causes the body to utilize more magnesium and become magnesium deficient. I don’t know very many women who are not stressed. Men may be also, but certainly women are. So I would just start them off with more magnesium for their constipation and their constipation would go away. But so did other things—so did arrhythmias, so did headaches—and they were able to get rid of the pain from exercising or overexercising more quickly. So if you can take one nutrient and have many, many different reactions clear up, then you know you’re onto something important.”
Dr. Fuchs further explains in User’s Guide to Calcium & Magnesium that all muscles contain, and need more magnesium than, calcium. Calcium causes muscles to contract while magnesium helps them to relax, and the heart is a muscle that relies on this combination of relaxing and contracting. Magnesium is vitally important in relieving all muscle-related conditions, including arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), headaches, muscle cramps, muscle pains and restless leg syndrome.
Magnesium is necessary for many bodily functions. “On its own, magnesium helps ‘turn on’ hundreds of enzymes,” Dr. Fuchs said. “These enzymes enable the carbohydrates (starches and sugars) and fats in your diet to be used as energy. Magnesium also helps regulate nerve cell function, allowing your nervous system to relax.” Magnesium plays a key role in mood and sleep, and even provides a boost against depression and fatigue.
Interestingly, a major symptom of magnesium deficiency, one which many women experience especially just prior to the menstrual cycle, is chocolate cravings. “Chocolate is higher in magnesium than any other food on the planet,” Dr. Fuchs explained. “Chapter 20 of my book Overcoming the Legacy of Overeating is about overcoming chocolate cravings and the magnesium solution. I can’t tell you how much that has helped people, because calcium overload and low magnesium frequently results in craving chocolate, which is high in magnesium.”
Dr. Nan Kathryn Fuchs, the Nutrition Detective, continues daily to dig for the facts about calcium, magnesium and endless other subjects affecting our nutrition and lifestyle. We thank her for sharing with us some of her hard-won findings.
To find out more about Dr. Nan Kathryn Fuchs, her books, her newsletter and her free weekly health alerts, please visit www.womenshealthletter.com.