The Miracle That is Magnesium
Indispensable to both heart and general health, magnesium is a much over-looked mineral that plays an essential role in lowering cholesterol, ensuring good sleep and relaxation as well as ensuring correct use of important minerals like calcium and vital enzyme reactions.
Required by every cell in our body, used for many fundamental processes, regulating more than 325 enzymes and essential for muscle and nerve function, magnesium is one of the unsung heroes of the body, often sitting in the shadow of its antagonistic partner, calcium. It is one of the most depleted minerals, yet one of the most important. Factor in that it is one of the minerals almost completely lost during the processing of foods, and it becomes easy to see how chronic depletion is an issue. Dr Jerry Aikawa the University of Colorado reckons it is ‘the most important mineral for all living organisms, man included.[i]’
Soil depletion and food processing are only two of the ways in which we may become deficient in magnesium. Others include fluoridated water which binds to magnesium making it unavailable to the body[ii], and low stomach acid which impairs the breakdown and absorption of magnesium (a very common problem). Also certain foods can block the uptake of magnesium – a high protein diet for instance, tannins in tea, oxalic acid found in spinach and chard and phytic acid from soybeans. To top it all, certain common drugs such as diuretics, bronchodilators, birth control pills and tetracycline antibiotics can create magnesium deficiencies.[iii]
With all this it is a wonder that we are not all badly deficient! So where can you get magnesium from in your diet? Foods which are rich in magnesium (or as rich as the soil will allow!) include, wheat bran, green vegetables, Brazil nuts, peanut butter, molasses, buckwheat flour, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, almonds and oats. Shellfish and kelp are both extremely good marine sources. By ensuring a good mix of green vegetables, nuts, seeds and pulses as well as sticking to unprocessed grains will ensure you maximise your nutrient intake, but experts still reckon you need to supplement on top of this.[iv]
Impossible as it is to cover all that magnesium does for us in one short article, let’s look at some of the more important aspects of this nutrient to give you a flavour. Let’s start with gender differences. Pound for pound women have less circulating magnesium than men – but it has been found that they make more efficient use of what they do have! However, they are more susceptible to magnesium deficiency as it is used in hormone regulation and therefore pregnancy, PMT, breast feeding and heavy, painful periods, to name but a few of the so-called ‘female problems’ can require the need for additional magnesium.
Magnesium many activities in the body can be divided into five essential categories:
- Cofactor Assisting Enzymes – these catalyse, or assist, most chemical reactions within the body
- Energy Production – involved in both the production and transportation of energy
- Synthesis of Protein – along with enzymes and other nutrients helps build the body, including RNA and DNA.
- Transmission of nerve signals – controls calcium entry into cells for electrical transmissions
- Muscle Relaxation – causes relation of muscle tissue
It all sounds very complex and many different activities take place within each of these categories, but let’s break it down by looking at a few of the ways in which the body uses magnesium:
Energy – ATP, the fundamental energy storage molecule of the body, is activated by magnesium, so magnesium is required to both produce and store energy in the body. Every single cell requires ATP to function, so a lack of magnesium has long reaching effects for every one of our approximate 100 trillion cells – if our cells lack energy and perform poorly, so do we.
Use of Calcium – Magnesium has been shown to be essential to maintain the correct levels of calcium in the blood[v], and also regulates the amount of calcium allowed to enter the cells to create the necessary electrical transmissions which conduct electrical impulses along the nerves. As soon as it is done, magnesium then kicks the calcium out of the cells as accumulation of calcium leads to hyper-excitability, calcification and disrupted cell function, producing symptoms of heart disease, asthma and headaches. It is needed in concentrations 10,000 times greater than that of the calcium in the cells to prevent this.
Heart Health – Magnesium deficiency has been linked to sudden cardiac death[vi]. Indeed Type A personalities, who are more prone to heart disease, have also been shown to be more prone to magnesium deficiency[vii]. The highest concentrations of magnesium outside our bones and teeth are found in the heart and brain cells, so it is no wonder deficiency affects both our heart and brain function. Magnesium causes the heart muscles to dilate or relax as part of their pump action (calcium causes it to contract). Indeed palpitation and arrhythmia are benefitted by magnesium supplementation[viii]. Not only this, but magnesium deficiency has also been shown to increase platelet aggregation which contributes to blood clots, which are also implicated in heart attacks and strokes.
Muscle Tone & Relaxation – magnesium causes muscles to relax, calcium causes muscles to contract. Where there is too much calcium in ratio to magnesium muscle contraction takes place, and then the body struggles to relax. This has far reaching consequences for the bronchial tract (asthma), arteries (hypertension), uterus (painful periods), intestines (IBS, Chrons) and all other kinds of twitching, spasms and convulsions. In addition, intracellular calcium due to lack of magnesium has been linked to fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome[ix]
Blood Pressure & Headaches – not only is a lack of magnesium one of the potential causes of hypertension, but contraction in arterial walls can lead to headache and migraines. In one study a group of 3,000 patients given 200 mg of magnesium daily had an 80% improvement in their migraine symptoms[x]. Other circulatory problems may also be due to lack of magnesium – cold extremities and Raynaud’s Syndrome.
Magnesium and the Brain – as much of the body’s supply is based in the brain we know it is important for normal function. Magnesium deficiency will cause calcium-rich brain cells (remember too much calcium in cells is detrimental) to fire off excessively, which can lead to seizures. In addition, many chemicals are capable of passing through the blood-brain barrier, causing damage to the cells, resulting again in them firing off excessively. This same effect can be seen for trauma and severe stress also. Magnesium both raises the threshold for the development of seizures, and also has a protective effect from the chemicals[xi]. In addition, studies suggest high magnesium levels improve recovery from brain trauma[xii] and also stroke[xiii].
Heavy Metal Toxicity – these can be problematic, as the body has no efficient mechanisms for detoxing heavy metals fast. Often they can build up in the cells and organs causing damage. Heavy metals have been linked with conditions such as Parkinsons, Alzheimers, MS, ME, autism, dementia and ADHD and studies have shown that magnesium will in fact protect the body from heavy metals[xiv].
Osteoporosis and Kidney Stones – osteoporosis is about more than just good levels of calcium in the body, it is about the placement of calcium – or rather misplacement. Calcium placement is governed by magnesium. If magnesium levels are low there will be poor calcium absorption as magnesium aids this, calcium will build up in the cells and is therefore not available in the blood, and magnesium is also required to lay calcium down in the bones. Magnesium is therefore as vital, if not more so, than calcium in the prevention of this problem. The same is true for kidney or gall stones, which are primarily made up of calcium oxalate and calcium bilirubinate or carbonate combined with cholesterol. Again, this is a sign that calcium is inappropriately falling out of solution in the blood, and it is magnesium that stops this happening[xv].
Anxiety and Depression – anxiety, panic attacks, palpitations and depression have all been related to magnesium deficiency[xvi]. Magnesium supports our adrenal glands – it is a cofactor for the hormones, prostaglandins and enzymes required to keep them functioning well. In addition, release of adrenalin produces a decrease in magnesium levels, although this will right itself once adrenalin stops, but in chronic stress scenarios there often isn’t the time for this to happen as it can take up to 48 hrs to re-balance. Sufficient magnesium will also have the effect of limiting the stress response[xvii] as it naturally has the effect of reducing the excitability of the nervous system.
Blood Sugar Imbalances – Calcium is required to regulate blood sugar levels. We have already seen how magnesium is required to prevent calcium misplacement and for balancing and magnesium supplementation has been shown to improve insulin response and glucose tolerance[xviii]. In the long term blood sugar imbalances lead to insulin resistance and then diabetes. Magnesium is not only required for the production, function, and transport of insulin but is also required for insulin to help open up the cell membranes.[xix]
It would be easy to write a book to cover all the health benefits of ensuring high levels of magnesium in the body – indeed several have been written! – and research is constantly turning up new information. Before we finish it would be beneficial to look quickly at dosage levels. The current RDA for magnesium is 375 mg, but many would agree this falls far short of optimal requirements. Depending on the level of deficiency, many practitioners regularly recommend supplementing between 300 and anything up to 800 mg. Toxicity is rare, as excess magnesium is usually excreted. Vitamin B6 can help improve the uptake of magnesium by the cells. High doses should be introduced carefully and gradually as magnesium will increase the detoxification pathways in the body[xx] and all the routes of elimination in the body should be open and working efficiently to cope with this.
The most bioavailable form of supplement is a plant-based or food-based form of mineral . Expect to pay more for this, but your body’s uptake will be substantially higher than an inorganic form.
This is a powerful mineral, essential to every cell in our body and many studies have shown how a lack of magnesium contributes to a wide variety of ills, many of them extremely serious. It is found in almost every multivitamin and mineral supplement, but often in too small a quantity for optimal health. From a prevention point of view, and given its low toxicity, ensuring sufficiently high levels either through diet or supplementation makes good sense.
[i] Aikawa JK, Magnesium: Its Biologic Significance, CRC Press, Boca Raton, Fl 1981
[ii] Machoy-Mokrzynska A, Flouride-Magnesium Interaction, Fluoride, Vol 28 No 4, pp 175-177, 1995
[iii] Dean, Dr C, The Magnesium Miracle, Ballantine Books 2007
[iv] Dean, Dr C, The Magnesium Miracle, Ballantine Books 2007
[v] Levine BS, Coburn JW Magnesium, the Mimic/Antagonist of Calcium, N Eng J Med Vol 310 pp 1253-1255, 1984
[vi] Eisenberg MJ, Magnesium Deficiency and Sudden Death, Amer Heart J, Vol 124, No 2 pp 554 – 549, 1992 and Turlapaty Pd, Altura BM, Magnesium Deficiency Produces Spasms of Coronary Arteries: Relationship to etiology of sudden death ischemic heart disease, Science Vol 208, no 4440 pp 198-200, 1980
[vii] Henrotte JG Type A Behaviour and Magnesium Metabolism, Magnesium Vol 5 pp 201-210, 1986
[viii] Seelig MS, Magnesium Deficiency in the Pathogeneisis of Disease, Goldwater Memorial Hospital 1980
[ix] Dean, Dr C, The Magnesium Miracle, Ballantine Books 2007
[x] MauskioA et al, Deficiency in serum ionised magnesium but not total magnesium in patients with migraines, Possible role of Ica2.Img2 ration, Headache, Vol 33, no 3 pp 135-138, 1993
[xi] Dean, Dr C, The Magnesium Miracle, Ballantine Books 2007
[xii] Memon ZI et al, Predictive value of serum ionised but not total magnesium levels in head injuries, Scan J Clin Lab Invest Vol 55, no 8, pp671-677, 1995
[xiv] M Speich eta al, Correlations between magnesium and heavy metals in blood and sixteen tissues of rabbits’ Magnes Res, Sept 1989 and Dean, Dr C, The Magnesium Miracle, Ballantine Books 2007
[xv] Ettinger et al, Potassium-magnesium citrate is an effective prophylaxis agaist recurrent calcium oxalate nephrolithiasis, J Urology Dec 1997
[xvi] Werbach MR, Nutritional influences on aggressive behaviour, J Orthomolrcular Medicine, vol7, no 1 1995
[xvii] Cernak I et al, Alternations in magnesium and oxidative status during chronic emotional stress, Maganes Res, vol 13, pp 29-36, 2000
[xviii] Humphris S et al, Low dietary magnesium is associated with insulin resistance in a sample of young, non-diabetic Black Americans, Am J Hypertens, vol12, no 8, pt1, pp 747-756, 1999
[xix] Dean, Dr C, The Magnesium Miracle, Ballantine Books 2007
[xx] By increasing glutathione levels, aiding in ATP production and helping to drive electrolyte exchange at cell membrane level