Magnesium And Your Brain
There are times when our body may choose to interfere with the calcium magnesium balance to improve survival. Since calcium is the “on” switch for cardiac, vascular and skeletal muscle, a move towards calcium dominance will increase the contractility of all of those muscles resulting in more blood being pumped against higher resistance with a higher blood pressure. Skeletal muscles will likely be stronger and more able to react rapidly.
It is not surprising to find that stress will increase calcium dominance by dumping magnesium. Simply reduce the laid back relaxing magnesium molecules for the time being, just a bit, until the crisis is over. Unfortunately, when the stress becomes chronic the magnesium losses are ongoing. This magnesium loss, along with the direct sympathetic nervous stimulation of the cardiovascular system, helps explain why stress increases blood pressure and heart disease.
Clinical research with adrenaline and steroids show that these master stress hormones cause a decrease in magnesium as well as calcium, sodium and potassium. Recovery of magnesium from this stressful episode is slower than for potassium and puts the body at risk for overall depletion. Even the stress of elective surgery reduces serum magnesium levels significantly.
In a healthy environment, once the stress had passed, magnesium levels would return to normal and a calm equilibrium would be achieved.
Emotional stress plays directly into the same physical stress mechanism and will have a similar effect, with all of the physical manifestations such as sweating, tremor, dry mouth, high heart rate, hypertension and a feeling of panic.
This leads to ask some important questions –
- If stress causes calcium dominance by preferentially depleting magnesium, could dietary induced calcium/magnesium imbalance result in the physical manifestations of stress?
- What, if any, effect do calcium and magnesium levels have in the brain?
- If magnesium levels are depleted by stress, can depleted magnesium levels cause the symptoms of stress that we call anxiety and depression?
- Is magnesium depletion the reason why we feel emotional stress at the same time that the deficiency translates into physical symptoms and disease?
These questions need to be considered if we are to better understand the effect that the calcium/magnesium switch has in the brain.
It is generally accepted that our modern life is very stressful and leaves us feeling anxious and depressed. According to Stephen, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas, “A century ago, according to the best epidemiological evidence we have, the lifetime rate of depressive illness in the U.S. was about 1 percent. The rate now stands at 23 percent. So we’ve had roughly a 20-fold increase over the course of a century. Since World War II there’s been roughly a 10-fold increase. And a recent study found the rate of depression has more than doubled in just the past decade.“ 1 The incidence of depression is increasing almost in step with cardiovascular disease and is affecting people earlier in their lives.
A life Of Stress In The Modern World
Leads us to an important question – are our lives in North America really that stressful?
We have never had a safer, more comfortable and affluent lifestyle. We have enough food and water. We have not lived through a world war or a great depression. Yet, psychiatric disorders account for a third of all non-infectious conditions and are the leading cause of disability in North America, with depression accounting for almost half of the problem.
While there may be broad racial differences in affluence and comfort, the number of white women in the USA taking antidepressant medication is almost four times higher than black women and five times higher than Hispanic women. Income differences within those three groups do not make much difference. 2
While it’s not possible to attribute a single cause to a wide variety of diseases across many different people in varying situations, this important question is rarely asked – What if anxiety, depression, suicide and substance abuse were simply a manifestation of an induced stress state caused in part by our profound calcium/magnesium malnutrition?
A look at the research done in this field points to low magnesium and high calcium levels in the brain as a contributor to depression. This collective evidence seems more robust and believable than the concept of a selective neurotransmitter deficiency with its generally unsatisfactory treatment results.
Researchers in Norway found an association between presumed magnesium intake based on food intake and self-reported depression and anxiety in adults living in a community in Western Norway. 3
In a study published by George Eby and Karen Eby in the Medical Hypothesis Journal in 2006, entitled “Rapid recovery from major depression using magnesium treatment”, they found support for their hypothesis that magnesium is therapeutic for depression and related mental disorders.
The study looked at several patients suffering from depression and anxiety disorders, before and after giving them high doses of magnesium. You can read the study here. Below is an example of one of the results that they witnessed.
A 59 y/o “hypomanic-depressive male”, with a long history of treatable mild depression, developed anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and insomnia after a year of extreme personal stress and bad diet (“fast food”). Lithium and a number of antidepressants did nothing for him. 300mg magnesium glycinate (and later taurinate) was given with every meal. His sleep was immediately restored, and his anxiety and depression were greatly reduced, though he sometimes needed to wake up in the middle of the night to take a magnesium pill to keep his “feeling of wellness.” A 500mg calcium pill would cause depression within one hour, extinguished by the ingestion of 400mg magnesium.
There was a fear that this patient would develop osteoporosis due to his elimination of dairy products and calcium supplements. They found that his high magnesium, low calcium intake did not have an adverse effect on his bone density over a 5-year observation period.
While this observational study does not meet the standard of the double-blind, placebo-controlled study, it does provide a lot of insight into the use of magnesium as a tool for treating depression and anxiety related conditions. More rigorous studies are needed.
The good news for those suffering from these conditions is that they can add magnesium to their diet or through supplementation, with very little risk to their well-being. While anti-depressants on the market today come with a slew of very scary warnings, about the worst case scenario for excess magnesium intake is diarrhea. Hardly a life-threatening side effect.
Magnesium Deficiency Hurts The Brain
The mechanism by which magnesium deficiency causes neuronal dysfunction centers on its importance in both energy (ATP) production within cells and the NMDA-coupled calcium channel blocking effect of magnesium to prevent excessive calcium entry into neurons. Failure to control calcium sets off a repeating cyclical reaction of excessive glutamate release, which causes neuronal depolarization and in turn more calcium release, resulting in neuronal dysfunction and depression.
Although healthy levels are required for normal cell function, glutamate and calcium appear to work together in the brain to cause damage and cell death. L-glutamate is an amino acid that functions as an excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. It quickly becomes toxic when glutamate receptors become overly sensitive to glutamate, often in the presence of excess calcium.
Excess glutamate causes increased calcium influx by over-stimulating the NMDA-coupled calcium channels, increasing calcium entry into neurons and their energy-producing mitochondria. Excess mitochondrial calcium severely interferes with mitochondrial function, which causes cell disorder through enzyme activation and eventually cell death.
Brain injury of any type causes excessive release of glutamate and subsequent neural degeneration. Calcium plays a vital role in the injury mechanism, so it is not surprising that magnesium has been shown to reverse this damage.
Magnesium also has direct anti-depressant effects through its positive effects on serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine. Magnesium decreases the release of the master control stress hormone (ACTH) from the brain and probably reduces the resulting stress steroids from the adrenal gland from entering into the brain.
Magnesium was the earliest substance reported in the effective treatment of anxiety and depression in 1921 4. Further studies in the 60s confirmed the key role of magnesium deficiency in causing major depression.
Ongoing research in the field of magnesium and the brain all point towards the beneficial effects of magnesium. Toxicity is virtually impossible, as the body does not rely on magnesium-controlling mechanisms as with calcium, which are prone to failure. Only overt kidney failure can cause accumulation of magnesium above healthy levels. Of course, a massive overdose of magnesium given intravenously over a short time (I talked about this in How Does a Muscle Fail?) does cause death.
This two-part review of magnesium (last week’s post was mainly about cardiovascular disease) was written to highlight the role of magnesium in two of the major health issues facing mankind today. Cardiovascular disease and psychiatric disorders account for a huge proportion of suffering, death and cost in society today.
It is quite tenable that these diseases are rooted in our concurrent global calcium/magnesium imbalance epidemic.
I believe that the newly emerging chronic pain epidemic is another piece of this magnesium puzzle. This implies that it would be common to see hypertension, depression and chronic pain in one patient at the same time, particularly if none of these diseases were effectively treated.
Far from magnesium deficiency having a ridiculously long list of seemingly unrelated ailments blamed on it, on closer inspection, we see a pattern emerging of profound cellular dysfunction based on a magnesium deficit in the face of calcium overload translating into related system failures. It really does make sense when its presented from a systems perspective.
Researchers in the field of cancer are closing in on mitochondrial disease as a trigger for cancer cells to form. Watch that space to see if calcium shows up in the cast of suspected protagonists.
Silence From The Medical Mainstream
I want to finish with a few questions that we should all be asking ourselves.
What would explain the deafening silence from the medical-industrial complex on the subject of magnesium?
Why do medical journals continue to prevent their authors from making outright recommendations for magnesium supplementation, instead, having them state that better diets for all are sufficient?
Could it be that magnesium has the potential to have a profound impact on our health, negating the need for a growing and expensive shopping list of drugs which only serve to exacerbate what is simply a nutritional deficiency?
The truth is that everyone will have different answers to these questions, and objective answers are hard to find. But if you have the chance to add an inexpensive and safe nutritional supplement to a healthy diet, with the benefit being improved health in many different areas, it seems to me that this particular question has an easy answer.