Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in your body, a necessary co-factor for hundreds of enzymes, and the most critical mineral of all for coping with stress. Stress-related diseases which run rampant through modern society, like heart attacks and high blood pressure, are often accompanied by magnesium deficiency. Unfortunately, most Americans consume diets that fail to meet the government's RDA for magnesium, and magnesium intake is even lower than average among people who develop heart disease.
The best food sources for magnesium are vegetables like buckwheat (kasha), mature lima beans, navy beans, kidney beans, Swiss chard, oats, whole barley, millet, bananas, blackberries, dates, dried figs, mangoes, watermelon, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazel nuts, shrimp, and tuna.
When you are chronically stressed, you can become magnesium deficient even if you eat these foods regularly. The complex relationship between magnesium and stress explains why many of the patients I see require magnesium supplements, because even a nutritious diet does not correct their magnesium deficiency.
Under conditions of mental or physical stress, magnesium is released from your blood cells and goes into the blood plasma, from where it is excreted into the urine. Chronic stress depletes your body of magnesium. The more stressed you are, the greater the loss of magnesium. The lower your magnesium level to begin with, the more reactive to stress you become and the higher your level of adrenalin in stressful situations. Higher adrenalin causes greater loss of magnesium from cells. Administering magnesium as a nutritional supplement breaks this vicious cycle by raising blood magnesium levels and buffering the response to stress, building your resistance.
Personality has a marked effect on the stress-magnesium cycle. A study done in Paris found that stress-induced depletion of magnesium was much greater for people who show the "Type A", competitive, heart-disease prone behavior pattern than for their less competitive colleagues. Dr. Bella Altura, a physiologist at the State University of New York, has proposed that depletion of magnesium among Type A individuals is the main reason why Type A individuals are at increased risk of heart attacks.
It appears that the body's magnesium economy is an integral part of the stress response system. When stressed for any reason, the body's hormonal response causes an outpouring of magnesium from cells into plasma. This outpouring is a bit like taking magnesium by injection, except the source is internal. The effect of the sudden increase in magnesium is both energizing and calming. Magnesium is needed to burn sugar for energy; it also calms the excitation of cells produced by the stress-induced release of calcium. If there is insufficient dietary magnesium, or if there is insufficient rest in between episodes of stress, the body's magnesium stores are slowly depleted. The hormonal response to stress disintegrates. The plasma magnesium does not elevate in response to stress as it should, so that the energizing/calming effect of magnesium is not present to counter the nerve-jangling effect of adrenalin and other stress hormones.
Consequently, the disorganizing effects of stress are intensified and coping is impaired. Higher blood pressure, abnormalities of your heartbeat and an increased risk of heart attacks or of angina may be one result.
Laboratory tests for magnesium are often misleading in evaluating your need for magnesium because blood magnesium levels fluctuate, depending upon where you are in the cycle of stress responses and magnesium depletion. Your symptoms are a better guide. Muscle tension, spasm and twitching are the most characteristic symptoms of magnesium depletion, followed by palpitation and breathlessness. Irritability, fatigue, trouble falling asleep and hypersensitivity to loud noises are also common. The presence of migraine or tension headache, unexplained chest pain, strange sensations of the skin (like insects crawling) and abdominal pain or constipation are further indications of magnesium deficiency. If you suffer from any of these symptoms, or if you are being treated for heart disease or high blood pressure, you may need a magnesium supplement.
The best dietary supplements are the acid salts of magnesium like magnesium chloride, citrate, gluconate or glycinate. The dose needed varies from 100 mg to 500 mgs per day of elemental magnesium. Magnesium taken by mouth is very safe, except in people who suffer from kidney disease or are severely dehydrated. These people may develop levels in blood that are too high; they should only take magnesium supplements under strict medical supervision. Just as magnesium taken at bedtime can induce sleep, high blood levels of magnesium may cause drowsiness and lethargy.
Much has been written about the need to balance the calcium/magnesium ratio when taking supplements. This notion is based upon the known interactions between magnesium and calcium in cells. Calcium freely dissolved in the fluid of each cell has a stimulating effect that leads to rapid contraction of muscle cells and excitation of nerve cells. These cellular effects of calcium result in muscle spasm, poor circulation, and rapid heartbeat. Magnesium in the cells of your body is nature's calcium blocker and many of its protective benefits result from blocking these undesirable effects of calcium, reducing high blood pressure and stopping palpitations. No dietary formula can balance calcium and magnesium in the cells, however. Only your body can do it. Your job is to give your body enough magnesium and enough calcium so it can get the job done right.
People who take magnesium supplements do not automatically require extra calcium. In France, where therapy with magnesium pills has been widespread for thirty years, calcium is rarely given in conjunction with magnesium. There is also no evidence that magnesium and calcium interfere with each other's absorption. Calcium and magnesium are absorbed into he body by distinct and separate mechanisms. Similarly, people who benefit from calcium supplements do not always have to take extra magnesium, although many women who are taking calcium for the purpose of preventing osteoporosis may well need magnesium in addition. There is a growing body of evidence that magnesium in the diet is as important for prevention of osteoporosis as is calcium.