Magnesium is a mineral that’s integral to almost every metabolic function in the body. As one of the electrolyte minerals (along with potassium, sodium, chloride, calcium, and phosphorus), it’s responsible for carrying electrical charges between cells to regulate fluid levels, muscle contraction, and heartbeat. Magnesium benefits also include better bone health.
Magnesium is present in trace amounts in many foods that we eat. The scary thing is that deficiency in this very important mineral has become common and is on the rise. Dr. Norman Shealy is a world-renown neuroscientist, the first physician to specialize in chronic pain management, and founder of the Shealy Institute, the first pain and stress management facility in the United States. (1)
Dr. Shealy says:
“Every known illness is associated with a magnesium deficiency…magnesium is the most critical mineral required for electrical stability of every cell in the body. A magnesium deficiency may be responsible for more diseases than any other nutrient.” (2)
According to a 2005 analysis of American adults’ consumption of magnesium, 68% didn’t get enough each day. Furthermore, 19% had less than half of the recommended daily intake (350-400mg). (3)
Calcium and magnesium work together in the body: if there is too much of one and not enough of the other, metabolic systems fail. The typical North American diet includes too much calcium in relation to the amount of magnesium. The optimal ratio is 1:1 but our diets are more like 6:1.
In addition to all the critical jobs magnesium performs for muscles and fluids, did you know it is a mineral critical for brain health and function?
7 Magnesium Benefits for Brain Function
Magnesium deficiency can cause brain fog, headaches, anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. It is a very important mineral for your brain and magnesium benefits your whole body.
1. Cognition and Memory
Cognition and memory are housed (primarily) in the hippocampus area of the brain. Magnesium enhanced learning and memory in young and elderly rats by improving signaling between neurons in the hippocampus. It improves both short- and long-term memory. (5)
One of the characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease is the formation of plaque in the brain. In mice models, increasing the level of magnesium in the brain reduced existing plaque accumulation, arrested synaptic deterioration, and reversed cognitive loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease. (6)
In the context of anxiety disorders, cognitive improvement and increased learning capability afforded by increased magnesium in the brain makes cognitive therapy more effective, as patients’ neuroplasticity is enhanced. (7)
2. Mood and Stress
Without enough magnesium, cells can’t effectively regulate calcium, damaging nerves over time. Additionally, when cells don’t communicate properly, fear, anxiety, and depression can result. Different parts of the brain are responsible for these emotions, so when neurons aren’t signaling normally, they can become uncontrollable. (8)
A 2006 study found that supplementing with magnesium drastically improved symptoms of depression in less than a week, even in people for whom antidepressant drugs were ineffective.
According to the study:
“Dietary deficiencies of magnesium, coupled with excess calcium and stress may cause many cases of other related symptoms including agitation, anxiety, irritability, confusion, asthenia, sleeplessness, headache, delirium, hallucinations and hyperexcitability.”
When treated with magnesium, “Related and accompanying mental illnesses in these case histories including traumatic brain injury, headache, suicidal ideation, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, postpartum depression, cocaine, alcohol and tobacco abuse, hypersensitivity to calcium, short-term memory loss and IQ loss were also benefited.” (9)
The American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society published a paper of evidence-based recommendations for the prevention of migraines and included magnesium as effective in treating and preventing headaches and migraines, especially those associated with stress. (10)
Magnesium plays a large role in the regulation of sleep. Insomnia is a term used for persistent trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking for the day before a full sleep cycle is completed.
Modern medicine doesn’t fully understand magnesium-activated neural function and its effect on sleep.
What we do know is that insomnia and magnesium deficiency go hand-in-hand, presumably due to lack of conductivity between ions. Increasing magnesium intake improves all measures of insomnia. (11)
Many factors regulate sleep function, one of which is the complex interaction of various hormones.
4. Blood Sugar
Chronic magnesium deficiency comes into play in type 2 diabetes. With insulin resistance and/or diabetes, the body loses additional magnesium through urine due to high glucose in the kidneys. (14) Magnesium is instrumental in regulating blood glucose by improving insulin secretion and response. (15)
Researchers aren’t entirely sure about the mechanism by which magnesium affects blood glucose, however, studies show an inverse relationship between adequate magnesium and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. (16, 17)
A significant link exists between high blood sugar and cerebral dysfunction: common consequences of diabetes include Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. (18) Moreover, type 2 diabetes can lead to global brain atrophy. (19) Adequate magnesium can ameliorate the very cause of these types of brain dysfunction.
5. Bones and Joints
Magnesium, along with calcium and vitamin D, is essential for bone development and health. (20) Most magnesium in the body is in the bones; the rest occurs in blood and soft tissue. If there’s a general lack of magnesium, cells will pull it out of bones and tissues in order to continue functioning. When this happens, bone density decreases and the risks of osteoarthritis and osteoporosis increase. As mentioned, calcification of joints and tissues can occur without the balance of adequate magnesium.
If cells have to pull magnesium from bones and soft tissue, you can bet your brain isn’t getting enough.
6. Heart Health
The heart and brain are sometimes at odds on an emotional level but physically speaking, their respective conditions affect one another.
Magnesium and other electrolytes regulate heart muscle contraction and rhythm. Potassium works on a cellular level to move into cells and thereby pump out sodium from inside the cell.
The way it does this is via its interaction with magnesium. If there’s inadequate magnesium, sodium builds up, leading to high blood pressure and contributing to potential arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). This is why diuretics are prescribed for people with hypertension: they help flush the sodium out of the body.
“Diuretic drugs are recognized as primary agents in the treatment of essential hypertension. In patients on antihypertensive treatment, evidence has recently been reported that there is a link between the administration of diuretics and sudden death. In addition to their action on the renal tubular handling of sodium and water, diuretic drugs affect the renal tubular handling of other ions. A well-established complication of therapy with diuretic drugs is an increased urinary excretion of potassium resulting in hypokalaemia [too little potassium].” (21)
Magnesium, therefore, contributes to regulating blood pressure, preventing heart disease and reducing the risk of heart attack.
Dr. Albert Hofman of the Harvard School of Public Health succinctly describes the physiological link between heart and brain health:
“An estimated one-third of all cases of dementia, including those identified as Alzheimer’s, can be attributed to vascular factors.” (22)
The reason for this is simple: in the same way that clogged and stiff arteries damage the cardiovascular system, those arteries also deliver blood to the brain. The brain becomes damaged if the blood can’t deliver necessary oxygen. People with a history of heart disease have a much greater risk for cognitive and memory problems as they get older. (23)
Toxins surround us all the time—more so now than at any time in human history. Our immune systems work every second of every day to maintain health and fight off invaders of all sorts, natural and otherwise.
Magnesium boosts immune function and is necessary for DNA and RNA production. Additionally, magnesium is a detoxifying agent, effectively binding to heavy metals and facilitating their excretion from the body. (24) By regulating enzyme activity, magnesium protects organs from damage and disease, even including alcoholic liver. (25)
We know that magnesium is involved in the contraction of muscles and is found in soft tissues—these include the lining of the intestines and the rest of the gastrointestinal tract. Proper digestion is crucial for removing toxins from the body; magnesium relaxes the intestines so waste will be expediently expelled. Milk of magnesia is a common laxative.
Not only is magnesium conducive to relieving stress but it is involved in the synthesis of glutathione, “the master antioxidant”. Antioxidants are necessary for the body to prevent inflammation and oxidative stress. Oxidative stress in the brain accelerates aging and can cause cardiac failure, stroke, and neurodegenerative disease. (26, 27)
Who’s at Risk?
Depending on your perspective and the chicken-and-egg argument, those particularly at risk for illness and disease due to inadequate magnesium are those whose conditions contribute to magnesium deficiency:
- diabetics – increased urination and reduced kidney function expedite the elimination of magnesium from the body
- alcoholics – suboptimal gastrointestinal and liver function pass magnesium from the body
- the elderly – various bodily functions slow, inhibiting absorption of nutrients
- people with compromised immune systems
- people with gastrointestinal illness (Crohn’s, celiac, irritable bowel, etc.) – inability to absorb nutrients through the digestive system
- many medications interfere with nutrient absorption and facilitate their loss
How to Get Enough Magnesium
Remember: while it’s virtually impossible to get too much magnesium from food, it is possible to get too much of a good thing if you take supplements. Proper nutrition is about balance and getting enough, not overdoing it.
Here are some options for increasing your magnesium intake:
The best place to get nutrition is from whole food—that’s what it’s there for. Organic, non-GMO produce will give you better nutrition than conventionally-grown food and provide the full spectrum of magnesium benefits.
The following foods are good sources of magnesium:
- Leafy green vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
- Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
- Yogurt (plain)
- Raw cocoa
Transdermal (Through the Skin)
Your skin is permeable—most of the toxins in your body exit through the skin and anything you put on it goes directly into the bloodstream. Applying a magnesium solution to the skin increases serum (blood) magnesium levels by almost 60% in only 4 months. (28)
Try these recipes:
Supplements are sometimes easier and indicated if you are extremely short on magnesium. Click here for a guide on magnesium supplements. Remember that balance among magnesium, calcium, and potassium is extremely important when shopping for a supplement. Minerals derived naturally from whole food are more bioavailable and therefore more potent.
Too Much Magnesium
Magnesium benefits are many, but 5000mg of magnesium a day can cause negative results. If you take a supplement, you know you’re getting too much if you experience arrhythmia, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and/or heart attack.
Certain medications negatively interact with magnesium supplementation, including diuretics, diabetes medication, antibiotics, and blood pressure medication.
The University of Maryland Medical Center has published a list of medications that may be contraindicated if supplementing with magnesium—you can find it here. Consult your healthcare provider before adding any kind of supplement if you regularly take medication.
If there’s something wrong, your body will tell you—you only have to listen.
If you feel chronically tired, anxious, depressed, or if anything else doesn’t feel quite right, you are feeling the struggles going on inside. Ignoring a problem, whether physical or emotional, doesn’t make it go away. Recognizing signs will help you to determine the cause. Asking for help when you need it isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a trait of intelligence. Many times, it’s just a sign that your body is craving the benefits of magnesium and other nutrients.
Eat well, get the rest you need, exercise regularly, have fun with others, and you’ll avoid many of the pitfalls of being human.