Why Have We Ignored This Vital Mineral?
Magnesium lost the celebrity status in medicine that it rightfully deserves when it lost the “Battle of High Blood Pressure” back in the middle of the 20th century. Medical history was written by calcium, the victor, and it’s not pretty. We are all paying for that loss and the cost has been enormous.
Modern diets are continuing to trend towards magnesium depletion and calcium overload. Calcium is marketed as the good guy that we can’t get enough of, (“Got milk!”) while magnesium is looked at with suspicion and fear. One day, if a definitive clinical study that investigates the effects of this doctrine gets done, it will show how badly we got it wrong. In the mean time, there are many clinical studies and books that all point to a calcium/magnesium imbalance having widespread negative health effects.
Magnesium deficiency is increasingly being recognized as one of the major cornerstones of our worsening global health crisis, albeit agonizingly slowly. Perhaps this reluctance on the part of the medical establishment stems from the wide variety of ailments attributed to magnesium deficiency. This goes against one of the major medical constructs that still lingers in the allopathic understanding of medicine –one defect causes one disease.
Replace insulin and diabetes is treated. Replace thyroid hormone (T4) and thyroid failure is treated. Replace a knee and osteoarthritic knee pain is cured. Ingest enough calcium and it will get into your bones.
We all love those linear scientific approaches – they are clean, simple and satisfying. The doctor’s day is spoiled when our patients don’t do as well as we expect of them – the diabetic patient goes blind. The thyroid patient remains cold, listless and mentally foggy. That knee pain is worse after surgery. Yet another ‘calcium granny’ shatters her hip when she trips and falls.
Malnutrition is more subtle, nuanced and complicated than one deficiency causing one disease, because co-existing deficiencies, along with toxic loads and poor caloric sources, create a unique set of problems in each individual as they interact with the genome (genes) and lifestyle of that individual. Perhaps we should look at nutritional system defects,rather than one deficiency causing one disease.
Why does a magnesium deficiency cause high blood pressure (hypertension) in one person, anxiety and panic attacks in another and headaches in another?
Magnesium is essential in a wide variety of metabolic processes in the body. Each of those processes and functions are complex and interactive and depend on an optimal supply of other co-factors and not too many interfering substances. Co-existing shortages and/or excesses will interrupt the workings of a particular system even more profoundly than a singular magnesium deficiency.
When magnesium deficiency is added to other potential problems, together they create a malfunction in a body system that may be severe enough to cause noticeable symptoms. An elite rugby player, one of the all-round fittest and strongest athletes in the world, may develop severe muscle cramps in their back and calf muscles reflective of the demands of their sport. A desk jockey with the same physiology (genes) and malnutrition profile is more likely to develop headaches and neck pain when their similar malnutrition muscle defect causes their continually contracted neck and shoulder muscles to fail and lock up.
On closer inspection, the individual rugby player who drinks more beer than their team mates, sweats more on the field, avoids the spinach at lunch and eats more sugar will be more prone to magnesium deficiency while ostensibly on the same team diet, training regimen and travel schedule. Try getting all of those variables into a randomized clinical trial looking at one end point, say muscle cramps, when a magnesium supplement is provided in a fixed dose to all the rugby players in one team for a few weeks to see if it helps prevent muscle cramps.
One small misstep for magnesium, one giant setback for mankind.
Magnesium lost the celebrity status in medicine that it rightfully deserves when it was beaten in the Battle of High Blood Pressure back in the middle of the last century. We are all paying for that loss and the cost has been enormous.
The blood pressure cuff was invented in 1896 by Dr. Riva-Rocci in Italy, but was only used routinely by doctors fifty years later. The earliest use of blood pressure measurements were by physicians in the USA working for life-insurance companies who were trying to determine which factors predicted an early death. Hypertension was incorrectly identified as an independent risk factor, without considering that it was likely a result of a more important underlying cause that was simultaneously promoting other mechanisms of cardiac disease.
At the same time, after World War II, American diets were rapidly changing. Seemingly unlimited calcium intake was pounced on by the dairy industry to promote their products. Ever-higher carbohydrate diets were promoted over animal fats and the vital calcium-controlling fat-soluble vitamins (A, E & K2) that come with them. Grains, fruits and vegetables were steadily losing their magnesium content as a result of agricultural and food processing practices. Even drinking water processed by distillation and reverse osmosis has all of its magnesium content removed.
Hypertension became and remains an epidemic. Today, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US reports that 29% of all American adults have hypertension. On closer look, 1/3 of middle-aged (45-55 year) adults have hypertension. Another 1/3 are at risk and go on to develop hypertension by the age of 65 years, leaving only 1/3 with good cardiovascular health. There is that rule of thirds again. (Discussed in the previous post, referring to the number of people who have trigger points).
We can’t be sure if it always was that way because blood pressures were not measured before the turn of the century. However, we do know that cardiovascular disease and deaths from it were increasing rapidly in the USA and other developed countries. Deaths from heart disease rose from 30,000 per year in the US in 1900 to almost a million by 1970. It was obvious to everyone that something was going on and action needed to be taken.
Despite early evidence and enough understanding of the role of the cationic (positively charged) electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium) in regulating the function and performance of the heart and blood vessels, the scientists of the day chose to focus only on sodium excess as the culprit. The role of magnesium was completely ignored, probably as a result of a few, small flawed studies that showed that low–dose magnesium supplementation (360mg) did not have an immediate appreciable effect on blood pressure. Calcium was given a safe passage with agricultural immunity.
As a result, the public was told to cut down on salt intake, while the dairy boards were free to advocate loading up on calcium and its promoter vitamin D, which is added to milk. At the same time the agri-food industry quietly decimated the magnesium content of our grains, fruits and vegetables.
Magnesium was relegated to the role of a laxative! And still carries this stigma today.
Testing of magnesium levels in humans only became common in the 1970s. Today, most of the patients at my hospital record low or sub-normal levels, so much so that low magnesium is now the new normal. Keep in mind that testing is done on blood levels. Magnesium is predominantly intracellular and the body will give up intracellular magnesium to try to maintain minimally safe blood levels which are crucial to support a normal heart rhythm. If blood levels are low, that’s reflective of a severe deficiency.
This is how hypertension came to be thought of as an independent risk factor for heart disease, leaving it open to be treated by any means possible as long as the blood pressure cuff recorded a low-enough reading. The term primary hypertension was used to identify high blood pressure with no identifiable underlying disease causing it. Low magnesium and potassium and high calcium levels were ignored as a possible cause, despite persistent evidence implicating these imbalances as a major factor.
Prevailing wisdom has us believe that lowering blood pressure with any blood pressure medication will lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and death. There are no clearly identified losers in the hypertension control sweepstakes, leaving physicians with a wide variety of acceptable drugs to choose from. The class of anti-hypertensive drugs with the best reputation are the angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, all of which have been clearly shown to spare magnesium excretion from the kidneys and raise cellular magnesium levels.
Ongoing work in this field, from controlled rat studies in a lab to human clinical trials to broad demographic data, continues to show the critical importance of calcium and magnesium in heart disease. Comparative demographic data from different countries and regions with different cardiovascular disease rates show a striking correlation with daily milk intake and calcium/magnesium ratio intakes. For example, the average daily intake of milk correlates with a 10-fold difference in coronary disease mortality between Finland (the highest) and Japan (the lowest studied).
Metabolic Syndrome – The Contagion Spreads
Research work done through the 80s and 90s at Cornell University College by Dr. Lawrence Resnick’s team identified high cellular calcium with a low cellular magnesium as common to all patients with primary hypertension. They went on to show that this imbalance is sentinel in metabolic syndrome (aka syndrome X), which really should be re-named to identify it as a primary intra-cellular pathological calcium dominance over magnesium.
Metabolic syndrome is a collection of related problems found in a single patient that is fast closing in on affecting 1/3 of the population of the USA. In short, metabolic syndrome manifests as hypertension, high (abnormal) cholesterol levels, diabetes (excess insulin production and poor glucose utilization) and a higher tendency to form clots (hypercoagulability) with abdominal obesity. Metabolic syndrome is usually divided up and treated with medications for each of the individual problems.
This triggers the standard array of anti-hypertensive, diabetic, cholesterol lowering and anti-coagulant therapies that most metabolic syndrome patients are subjected to. Often treatments are all lumped together, even if parts of the syndrome are not a problem in a particular patient, so that cholesterol-lowering medications are increasingly routinely prescribed to any patient with insulin resistance (diabetes) or hypertension.
Not surprisingly, anything done that lowers this calcium/magnesium dominance has been shown to have a beneficial effect on every aspect of metabolic syndrome, while further raising calcium levels or lowering magnesium will be detrimental. Increased salt, sugar and alcohol intake lower magnesium levels and are generally accepted to worsen metabolic syndrome.
While the incidence of cardiovascular disease and it partner in crime, metabolic syndrome, have been steadily rising, government health departments have appeared to be guiding their populations directly into the path of the storm.
In order for the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of calcium to comply with the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Pyramid that recommends 2-3 daily servings of dairy products, the Institute of Medicine revised the daily RDA for calcium to between 1,000mg and 1,300mg with the upper limit being 2,500mg per day, for ages 4-70 years. The implication is that no amount of calcium is too much. Cautions of overdose are left to the advice of your physician.
Calcium is an essential part of our bodies, but it is not used up like a nutrient. We just need to replace the amount that is lost every day. Calcium intake should reflect the proportion that is absorbed from our gut and the amount excreted in sweat and urine. Confirming clinical studies are not difficult or expensive to conduct, while the information provided is critical to our health.
Research has been done to identify our daily average needs. The results are quite at odds with the RDA, coming in at 200-400mg, a whopping 80% less than what we are being encouraged to consume, every day of our lives.
The danger of the government (RDA) calcium overdose recommendation is greatly exacerbated by the hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year on marketing the benefits of calcium in both dairy products and other foods like orange juice with calcium added or intrinsic to them. Even some indigestion medication suppliers want us to add their calcium to our already toxic load.
Suffice to say, the big lie that lots of calcium is good for us is repeated often enough that one is left feeling foolish believing or saying otherwise. For the sake of our own and our loved-one’s health, we should at least start questioning the calcium propaganda. We continue on this self-destructive path at our own risk.
To make matters even worse, while the calcium mantra was being etched into our lives, the RDA for magnesium was left unrevised and ignored, even as our daily average magnesium intake fell from 450mg before 1900, below the RDA of 350, to 250mg and falling. Studies show that higher calcium intake is detrimental to magnesium absorption and that the ratio of these two nutrients is very important for maintaining balance.
Without a food champion for magnesium, who is going to mount an expensive awareness campaign for what has become the most important mineral in the developed world?
Those caring government agencies appear to be strangely quiet right about now.