How magnesium relieves anxiety, depression, and stress
Magnesium is fundamental to many processes in our bodies; it plays a role in over 300 biochemical reactions necessary for our physical homeostasis. It supports the cardiovascular system, endocrine system, and digestive system. It prevents the hyperexcitability of neurons that results in anxiety, stress, and cell death. For this reason it’s also being investigated as a preventative treatment for neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and stroke. Magnesium also reduces the risk of heart disease, lowers blood pressure, and reduces the frequency of migraines.
Magnesium deficiency is extremely common
Most people aren’t getting enough magnesium – it’s estimated that about 68% of all adults in the US are deficient in this essential mineral.
Why? Most processed foods are stripped of their natural magnesium. For instance, refined flour contains only 16% of the magnesium found in whole wheat. So much pasta, so little Mg!
Water treatment facilities also tend to filter magnesium out of our drinking water. Poor diet is strongly linked to magnesium deficiency, and other factors like excessive alcohol intake and stress can also deprive our bodies of much needed magnesium.
Several studies have established magnesium’s efficacy in treating depression and anxiety. In one recent study, daily use of magnesium significantly reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety within just two weeks.
Magnesium deficiency, stress, and neural atrophy
So how does magnesium work? Because magnesium is so vital to so many processes, its role in relieving depression is multi-faceted. However one way is by regulating the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary adrenocortical) axis – our body’s main stress response system, which controls the secretion of our stress hormones.
A second way magnesium may act to curb anxiety is by preventing glutamate from excessively binding to NMDA receptors. Glutamate is the main excitatory neuro-transmitter in our brains, and anxiety provokes an overactivation of NMDA receptors. Over time, these neural pathways become reinforced, and chronic overactivation of these receptors causes the death or atrophy of complementary neurons, resulting in neurological dysfunction. Long term, the cell death caused by NMDA overactivation causes a loss of neuroplasticity, and even brain damage.
Don’t freak out – you can reverse this process and grow new brain cells. However, this neuronal death and atrophy causes key areas of the brain to shrink, a core physiological feature of depression. The hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory, is 10-20% smaller in patients with stress-related disorders like major depression and PTSD.
Have you ever heard it said that a depressed person has “stopped growing”? Well, this may be more than figurative – the hippocampus is also where all new neurons are born (perhaps thousands a day in healthy adults), so damage to neurons in the hippocampus may also limit our ability to form new neurons. If our ability to create new brain cells is stunted, it can affect our entire brain, literally limiting our ability to learn and grow. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for planning, cognition, creativity, self-expression, and social behavior, also tends to be smaller in people suffering from depression.
Magnesium may also support serotonin production, and increase the availability of GABA, the inhibitory neurotransmitter that relaxes us.
New neurons, neurogenesis and neuroplasticity
In short, magnesium deficiency can lead to excess anxiety and stress, which can in turn cause neurons and areas of the brain to atrophy, a central feature of depression. The good news is that you can reverse a lot of this damage by stimulating the growth of new neurons, which is called neurogenesis. Since all new neurons are born in the hippocampus, learning is a great way to stimulate neurogenesis. Exercise is also a classic way. Sex is said to help, too, by way of relieving stress.
Another experimental class of treatments, psychedelics, increases neuroplasticity and may even stimulate neurogenesis. Psychedelics reverse depression-related neuronal atrophy by stimulating the growth of dendritic spines and synapses in existing neurons. These are the very ends of neurons, where they communicate with other neurons. More and stronger synapses mean new connections and neural pathways, which translates to new ideas, thoughts, creativity, and growth.
Your brain will also need magnesium in order to create nucleic acids, which are essential parts of neurons and all living cells.
What type of magnesium should I take?
As with many supplements, absorption is a factor. Magnesium comes in many forms. Look for supplements with magnesium glycinate or magnesium chloride, which are thought to be among the most easily absorbed by the body.
Of course, mental health is complex; biological mechanisms interact with social, environmental, and historical factors. However nourishing your mind and body by getting enough magnesium is an excellent place to start to feel better.