Magnesium (Mg) deficiency in man may result in hypocalcemia, impaired PTH secretion, and low serum concentrations of 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D [1,25-(OH)2D]. To determine whether these changes are due to selective Mg depletion, we studied 26 normal subjects before and after a 3-week low Mg (less than 1 meq/day) diet. This diet induced Mg deficiency, as demonstrated by a fall in pre- to postdiet serum Mg levels from 0.80 +/- 0.01 to 0.61 +/- 0.02 mmol/L (P less than 0.001), an increase in Mg retention from 11 +/- 4% to 62 +/- 4% (P less than 0.001), and a fall in red blood cell free Mg2+ from 205 +/- 10 to 162 +/- 7 microM (P less than 0.001). Serum calcium (Ca) fell significantly from 2.36 +/- 0.02 to 2.31 +/- 0.03 mmol/L (P less than 0.05), and serum 1,25-(OH)2D fell from 55 +/- 4 to 43 +/- 3 pmol/L (P less than 0.05). PTH secretion was impaired, as demonstrated by a fall or no change in serum PTH in 20 of 26 subjects despite a fall in the serum Ca and Mg. In addition, an iv injection of Mg in eight subjects after the diet resulted in a significant rise in PTH from 15 +/- 2 to 19 +/- 2 ng/L (P less than 0.01), whereas a similar injection given to six of the subjects before the diet resulted in a significant fall from 28 +/- 5 to 13 +/- 3 ng/L (P less than 0.001). The fall in serum 1,25-(OH)2D may be due to both the decrease in PTH secretion and a renal resistance to PTH. PTH resistance was suggested, as no increase in serum 1,25-(OH)2D was observed in the six subjects in which the PTH concentration rose by mean of 68% after the diet. Also, the rise in serum 1,25-(OH)2D after a 6-h human PTH-(1-34) infusion was significantly less after Mg deprivation. The results demonstrate that mild Mg depletion can impair mineral homeostasis and may be implicated as risk factor for osteoporosis in disorders such as chronic alcoholism and diabetes mellitus, in which Mg deficiency and osteoporosis are both common.