Magnesium is one of the most abundant minerals in the body and plays a critical role in mental health that many people overlook. Recent research has shown magnesium deficiency may be at the root of treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the ways magnesium supports mental health and how you can get enough of this vital mineral.
An Introduction to Magnesium and Its Role in Mental Health
Magnesium is involved in over 300 enzymatic processes in the body and is essential for cardiovascular, neuromuscular, and cognitive health. It plays several important roles in supporting mental health:
- Regulates neurotransmitters like serotonin that influence mood
- Increases BDNF, a protein vital for neuron growth and flexibility
- Blocks NMDA receptors involved in anxiety and depression
- Lowers glutamate and increases GABA for anxiety relief
How Magnesium Regulates Neurotransmitters
The body uses magnesium to regulate neurotransmitter levels like serotonin, the “feel good” chemical associated with happiness and wellbeing.
Some researchers believe magnesium deficiency may be the underlying cause of treatment-resistant depression in some people.
Low magnesium levels can prevent antidepressants from being fully effective, since magnesium is required for adequate serotonin production.
Magnesium Increases BDNF for Neural Flexibility
Magnesium also increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein crucial for neuroplasticity.
BDNF acts as fertilizer for the brain, supporting neuron regrowth, repair, and flexibility. It’s one of the key chemicals involved in neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to remake connections and grow new neurons.
The NMDA receptor blocking properties of magnesium boost BDNF. This is the same mechanism by which the depression medication ketamine works.
Higher BDNF improves overall mental health and can help overcome depression or anxiety.
How Magnesium Blocks NMDA Receptors to Reduce Anxiety
Magnesium blocks NMDA receptors found in areas of the brain like the amygdala that control fear, anxiety, and avoidance behaviors.
Overactive NMDA receptors lead to excessive glutamate activity, associated with anxiety and depression.
By dampening NMDA receptor activity, magnesium helps quiet your “fear center” and limbic system regions. This leads to less anxiety, phobias, and avoidance tendencies.
Magnesium Lowers Glutamate and Increases GABA
Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter that ramps up brain cell activity, while GABA has a calming effect on the nervous system.
Magnesium helps rebalance these two neurotransmitters. It lowers glutamate levels that are often elevated with chronic stress and anxiety.
Magnesium also enhances GABA activity in the brain. Most anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines work by increasing GABA transmission.
Through these mechanisms, ensuring healthy magnesium levels can have an anti-anxiety and calming effect.
Most People Don’t Get Enough Magnesium
According to the National Institutes of Health, 68% of Americans do not consume adequate magnesium through their diets.
This widespread deficiency means most people likely aren’t getting sufficient magnesium for optimal mental health.
Even if you get enough magnesium through your diet, stress and anxiety can deplete your levels further. Let’s explore why this occurs.
How Stress and Anxiety Deplete Magnesium
During times of stress, anxiety, or illness, your sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear.
Levels of “stress hormones” like cortisol and adrenaline become elevated. These hormones cause you to excrete more magnesium through the urine.
Studies show even people with previously normal magnesium levels can develop a deficiency when under high stress. For instance, students’ magnesium levels dropped during high-pressure exam periods.
Those prone to anxiety and depression get stuck in a vicious cycle of low magnesium and worsening mental health issues. Fixing the deficiency is key to recovery.
Recommended Daily Magnesium Intake
The recommended daily magnesium intake is:
- Men: 400-420 mg
- Women: 310-320 mg
It’s best to get magnesium through whole food sources. However, with widespread deficiencies, supplements can help bridge the gap.
Let’s explore the top food sources of magnesium and when supplements may be beneficial.
Top Dietary Sources of Magnesium
Pumpkin seeds are one of the richest sources of magnesium. Just 1 ounce (about a handful) provides 156mg, almost half the daily requirement for women.
Other top sources include:
- Black Beans
In contrast, a 3oz cooked chicken breast only contains 22mg of magnesium. It’s difficult to meet your needs from food alone.
When Magnesium Supplements Are Recommended
There are several situations where magnesium supplements can be beneficial:
- If your diet lacks sufficient magnesium-rich foods
- Digestive issues like IBS that impair nutrient absorption
- As we age, lower stomach acid reduces magnesium absorption
- If you have depression or anxiety (to replenish depleted levels)
- To enhance antidepressant effects
While research is still limited, more psychiatrists are recommending magnesium to patients, especially those with treatment-resistant depression and anxiety.
Let’s look at recommended dosages and the types of magnesium supplements.
Magnesium Supplement Dosage Recommendations
The daily recommended magnesium dose for supplemental use is:
- Men: 400-420 mg
- Women: 310-320 mg
As you can see, this requires taking multiple capsules to meet your daily needs. It may be necessary to combine magnesium-rich foods with supplements.
Magnesium is available in several different formulations, which we’ll now explore.
Types of Magnesium Supplements
Some common types of magnesium supplements include:
- Magnesium oxide: Lower absorption but higher elemental magnesium. Can cause diarrhea.
- Magnesium hydroxide: Sold as milk of magnesia laxative. Avoid taking daily.
- Magnesium citrate: Better absorbed than oxide. The most popular form.
- Magnesium diglycinate/aspartate: High bioavailability.
- Magnesium L-threonate: Enhanced brain absorption but needs more research.
The most common side effect of magnesium supplements is diarrhea, most frequently with oxide and hydroxide types. Start with a lower dose and work your way up slowly to avoid this.
Conclusion: Address Your Magnesium Needs for Better Mental Health
In summary, magnesium is a critical yet often overlooked mineral for mental health and brain function.
Most people could benefit from more magnesium-rich foods or daily supplementation, especially those experiencing depression, anxiety, and high stress levels.
Ensuring you meet your recommended daily magnesium intake can help regulate neurotransmitters, support neuroplasticity, reduce anxiety, and enhance treatment benefits.
Through supporting healthy magnesium levels, you’ll be giving your brain the vital nutrients it needs to thrive.