Over the years, magnesium has gained popularity as a supplement that many people have incorporated into their diets. Among the 77% of Americans who are currently taking some sort of dietary supplement, magnesium is within the top 10 most popular ones. Since magnesium plays a major role in many bodily processes, it may be helpful to dive deeper into what this nutrient actually is, and how its ingestion can affect our brain health.
What is Magnesium?
Magnesium is a mineral that orchestrates more than 300 biochemical reactions found within the body. It helps cells of the nervous system communicate with one another, and it plays an important role in a variety of different bodily processes, with some listed here:
- regulating metabolism
- maintaining homeostasis of body tissues
- regulating blood sugar and pressure
- Synthesizing DNA, RNA, and proteins
- Regulating insulin metabolism
- Regulating muscle contraction
Essentially, it is a very vital nutrient that is absolutely necessary for all living things. Given its importance, however, according to 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, magnesium is underconsumed in the US. Data shows that about 36% of children and 61% of adults have lower intakes of magnesium than is recommended, even though it is one of the more popular supplements that people tend to purchase.
Magnesium and Anxiety/Depression
Anxiety and depressive disorders are some of the most common mental illnesses in the United States. With 15% of the general population suffering from anxiety, its detrimental effects for those individuals who suffer from it make it the most pervasive psychiatric affective disorder. This means that it severely impairs social, verbal, and nonverbal communication for those who have it. However, magnesium may be able to help these symptoms. In the brain, magnesium plays a role in modulating the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis. This axis runs from the brainstem to the top of the kidneys, and it connects the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland and adrenal glands. The HPA axis is a very intricate mechanism that allows these body structures to communicate with one another, and it is considered to be the body’s main stress response system. When the HPA axis is activated by stress hormones like cortisol, individuals tend to feel more psychological stress and mood disorder symptoms can exacerbate. When magnesium is present within the HPA axis, it interacts with it to block, suppress, and regulate feelings of anxiety and stress. Studies have shown evidence that consuming magnesium can treat mild to moderate cases of anxiety, and may work even better when consumed in conjunction with Vitamin B12.
Major depressive disorder (MDD) encompasses nearly 40% of neuropsychiatric disorders in the United States, and it causes severe emotional and psychological impairment for those suffering with it. Of course, the main course of action to combatting this disorder tends to be clinical and medical therapies, but magnesium may be able to relieve some stress and act as a booster supplement to other treatments. Magnesium has been shown to have antidepressant effects because when correctly balanced in the body, it protects brain structures associated with depression through the reduction of cell death caused by excitotoxicity. Excitotoxicity, or glutamate excitotoxicity, is linked with an increase in depression and it is a phenomenon that occurs when the prolonged release of glutamate in the brain becomes toxic and promotes the occurrence of cell death and neuronal dysfunction. Consumption of magnesium can prevent this cell death from occurring and lessen the symptoms of depression. In addition, low magnesium levels have been associated with the development of depression when compared with control levels.
Magnesium and Neuroinflammation
If you suffer from neuroinflammation, you may want to check your levels of magnesium in your body. Neuroinflammation is defined as inflammation in the brain or spinal cord, usually due to an increase in cytokines, nitric oxide, reactive oxygen species, and other inflammatory mediators. Magnesium deficiency has been associated with chronic-low grade neuroinflammation, since its typical function in the brain is to provide assistance in activating degradative enzymes that can break down inflammatory cells. As a result of magnesium deficiency, these proinflammatory cells are able to overproduce and have continued activation which can cause damage within the brain. Neuroinflammation has a number of negative effects on the body, some of which include headaches, blurry vision, brain fog, fatigue, and even depression and anxiety. All in all, consuming magnesium and making sure that you have healthy levels of this nutrient can help reduce inflammation in the brain that could lead to disease.
Magnesium and Migraines
Migraines are the most common neurological disorder, with over 16% of Americans currently suffering from their effects. Migraines are headaches that result in severe, throbbing, or pulsing pain that can be accompanied by vomiting, nausea, and increased/extreme sensitivity to light and sound. They last from about 4 to 27 hours, typically occur on one side of the head, and are thought to be caused by biological factors such as alterations in the central nervous system, abnormal mitochondrial functioning, and neuronal dysfunction. Magnesium, however, has been studied to relieve some symptoms associated with migraines due its ability to block NMDA receptors. NMDA receptors are receptors that are known to transmit pain and have been implicated in the development of a variety of neurological disorders and diseases like major depressive disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, anxiety, and many more. Magnesium, therefore, is able to help disable the effects of NMDAs on these disorders by blocking them from binding to their neurotransmitter, glutamate. In addition, magnesium is also known to be a metabolic factor in mitochondrial functioning and reduces neuronal depression, overall serving as a great treatment option for migraines.
Magnesium and Sleep
Recently, magnesium has become popular for its role in promoting better sleep, which ultimately leads to a healthier and clearer mind. While scientists have yet to prove this theory, it has been shown by some studies that magnesium can play a part in relaxing the central nervous system when taken at night time, and may promote feelings of sleepiness. A recent study done shows that adults who consumed a magnesium supplement of 500 mg daily for 8 weeks were able to experience a better night’s sleep because they fell asleep quicker, stayed asleep longer, and reduced how many times they woke up in the night. Magnesium may not have the same effect as taking melatonin, but it does have the potential to help settle the nervous system before sleeping and may make individuals feel less awake. In comparison, however, a doctor is more likely to recommend melatonin rather than magnesium for sleep-related issues.
Should I take magnesium supplements?
Even though many Americans do not have adequate levels of magnesium within their bodies, this does not necessarily mean that everyone needs to go out and buy magnesium supplements right away. Magnesium is naturally occurring in many foods, and simply being more mindful of incorporating magnesium-rich foods into the diet may be enough to raise your levels to a healthy amount. Much of the body’s magnesium can be found within body tissue and intracellularly, so it can be difficult to measure just how much magnesium is present in a person’s blood. Blood tests are able to tell providers if magnesium levels are way too low or way too high.
Having wildly abnormal magnesium levels is uncommon, so chances are you don’t have much to worry about when it comes to regulating your magnesium levels. Typically, low magnesium levels are characterized by individuals who have very low dietary intake of magnesium, high levels of alcohol abuse over a long period of time, and certain medications (various diuretics and antibiotics). It is also accompanied by weakness, seizures, poor appetite, abnormal heart rate, muscle spasms, nausea, and other symptoms. Those with higher magnesium levels might be individuals who are experiencing kidney failure (because their body cannot filter it out properly).
All in all, people should try incorporating magnesium into their diet before reaching for a supplement. Right now, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for magnesium for adults aged 19-51+ years old is 400-420 mg daily for men and 310-320 for women. Consuming higher amounts than recommended may not cause extreme damage to the body, but high-dose exposures to magnesium can lead to nausea, cramping, and diarrhea in some people. However, most excessive magnesium can be filtered out of the body from the kidneys into the urine. Doctors may encourage patients to use magnesium supplements if their bodies are unable to absorb the nutrient effectively from food, and need the extra boost to reach their daily recommended intake. Again, it is important to note that magnesium is present in a variety of foods, and it can even be found in other products like Epsom salts, antacids, and even laxatives. Being mindful of how much magnesium you are consuming (and from what sources) is a good practice to make sure that you are not putting yourself at risk for magnesium toxicity.
Sources of Magnesium
For adults over the age of 18, it is recommended that individuals ingest about 310-420 mg of magnesium a day. Magnesium rich foods to incorporate into the diet include:
- Leafy green vegetables
- Almonds, cashews, peanuts
- Peanut butter
- Soybeans and soymilk
- Dark chocolate
- Pumpkin seeds
- Chia seeds
- Black beans and kidney beans
- Brown rice
- Oatmeal (instant and whole)