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You finally make it home after a long day at work bookended by a long, traffic-jammed commute.

Your hands are still clenched from your vice grip on the steering wheel, and you wish they were loose enough to massage your sore temples made worse by sudden teeth-clenching jaw pain. Your heartbeat? Still racing from the stressful client call you took working overtime. You’re so tense that you have to remind yourself to breath.

Anxiety is no joke. Once it has you, it really has you. Maybe you’ve tried all the usual tricks of hot baths, meditation, and yoga with little to no success. To be more mindful, you may need to focus on your body—it could be missing out on an essential stress-busting nutrient.

Say hello to magnesium, the mind-massaging mineral.

What’s Magnesium?

Magnesium is a silver-white metal and an electrolyte. The word electrolyte may bring to mind a favorite sports drink or the hardest exercises you’ve ever done. But even if you’re not an athlete, don’t sweat it; your body has a taste for electrolytes. Magnesium joins the list of electrolytes alongside sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonate, chloride, and phosphate.

At their core, electrolytes are carriers of electrical charges, able to conduct their own electricity when mixed with water. Don’t be shocked if you can’t feel it—instead of sending a jolt through your system, electrolytes regulate nerve and muscle function, keep the body hydrated, and balance your blood pressure. Your muscles and neurons also rely on the movement of electrolytes through your intracellular and extracellular fluid.Terry1994

Let’s talk numbers: magnesium (Mg) is 12—at least on the Periodic Table of Elements. It also has a ranking of nine on the list of most abundant elements on the entire planet. But it scores highest at number four on the human body’s list of its most plentiful positively charged ions (also known as cations).AlGhamdi1994

Three hundred. That’s how many enzyme systems for which magnesium is a critical cofactor. Regulating blood pressure, controlling blood sugar levels, synthesizing proteins. You name it; magnesium probably has a hand in it. Bone structure? Check. Nerve function? Check. Muscle function? Double check.Young1997

Magnesium Deficiency

You could probably guess from those numbers that magnesium is considered to be an essential nutrient, which means our body cannot make it. The solution is simple: we have to consume it in our diet to maintain our health.

Luckily, magnesium has numerous food sources.

We’ve got the vibrant veggie classics, such as spinach, Swiss chard, kale and other leafy greens. The fibrous legumes, beans, and whole grains add bulk to the list, while Brazil nuts, almonds, and cashews supply a little crunch. And dark chocolate? It provides sweet relief.

If magnesium is abundant in so many foods, why does the Food and Drug Administration estimate that up to 68% of people in the United States are magnesium deficient?DiNocolantonio2018 To get to the root of the cause, we have to talk about the root of the food.

Modern agriculture calls for speed: when one crop is harvested, another crop is immediately planted in the same plot. While efficient at quickly churning out high crop yields, this process doesn’t allow the soil to properly restore its natural mineral content between crops.Fardet2013 Add this to the washing, transportation, and produce processing techniques, and by the time the food gets to your table, it has been largely stripped of its magnesium content.SchulzeRettmer1991

Magnesium deficiency, also known as hypomagnamesia, tends to be asymptomatic until your levels have dropped to exceedingly low levels. That makes it difficult to diagnose. Even if you do start showing the symptoms, they may be overlooked because they’re so common. The typical symptoms of magnesium deficiency include fatigue, depression, anxiety, muscle cramping, high blood pressure, sleep disturbances, and irregular heartbeat. Any of these sound familiar?

What’s Anxiety?

You know it when you feel it. But what is it physiologically?

At its best, anxiety is a self-preserving apprehension of what could happen; it’s a by-product of engaging the fight-or-flight response.

Your anxiety is tied to a release of hormones and neurotransmitters that stimulate the fight-or-flight (sympathetic) nervous system response. If you find yourself face-to-face with a grizzly bear, the encounter will activate your fight-or-flight response. Your adrenal glands release adrenaline and noradrenaline, which lead to increases in heart rate and blood pressure. Your pupils dilate to sharpen sight. Even your blood is redirected from your digestive tract to your muscles and limbs in preparation of a physical confrontation or a quick getaway.Ranabir2011

At its worst, anxiety is a disorder affecting the lives of up to 13.3% of Americans.Bystritsky2013 If your anxiety has begun interfering with your daily life, consider talking to your doctor about management strategies.

An illustration of the human body with exclamation points showing different places the body is affected by anxiety

But even if you don’t have a tried and true anxiety disorder, the feeling can still be debilitating. Anxiety exists on a spectrum, and all forms are valid, and there are many valid strategies for managing it. One possible, natural solution might be magnesium supplementation. To demonstrate how magnesium does this, let's look at the full-body experience of anxiety.

Magnesium’s Mechanisms

Magnesium levels and anxiety have a relationship. Things like exposure to stressful test conditions have been shown to increase urinary excretions of magnesium, which reduces your body’s levels and raises your need for this electrolyte.Grases2006 Dietary intake of magnesium has also been inversely associated with subjective anxiety in adult samples.Jacka2009

Magnesium appears to reduce anxiety through numerous mechanisms by acting on multiple levels within the body.

Inhibit Excitatory Receptors

Even if magnesium isn’t always on your mind, the mind is hungry for it. More specifically, magnesium can regulate neural receptor activity in your brain.

When stressors activate the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, stressful hormones and excitatory neurotransmitters rush to the site faster than a group of college students when you yell, “free pizza!”

Magnesium helps to moderate the activity of excitatory neural receptors.

This mainly occurs through the regulation of N-Methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor activity, whose hyperexcitability is frequently implicated in anxiety and panic disorders.Coan1985 Magnesium prevents the aberrant activation of these NMDA receptors.

Magnesium also carves out its own path on your serotoninergic pathway; magnesium intervenes in serotonin receptor binding to regulate this major hormone. Much like the fight-or-flight mechanism, serotonin offers mood-appropriate responses. However, when it’s out of balance, it can have adverse effects on your mood, behavior, and mental health.Cuciureanu2011

By regulating neurotransmitter activity, magnesium may help you regain control over your control center to attenuate the further physiological responses of anxiety.

Regulate Hormones

As we discussed earlier, many of the physiological stress responses are triggered by the flood of hormones into your bloodstream. Magnesium plays an important role in the regulation of these hormones.

Low blood levels of magnesium are associated with raised stress hormones, such as noradrenaline (NA). Also known as norepinephrine, this stress hormone leads to the signature increase in heart rate and blood pressure when we’re on edge.Cuciureanu2011

Another stressful culprit? Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH regulates the levels of a steroid hormone released from the adrenal gland: cortisol. This name may ring a bell. If not, perhaps the loving nickname “stress hormone” will.

Magnesium can decrease the release of cortisol’s gatekeeping hormone, ACTH, while simultaneously modulating our adrenocortical sensitivity to it. Translation? Fewer stress hormones and milder effects of the ones remaining.Cuciureanu2011

Lower Blood Pressure

Magnesium’s most infamous mechanism for reducing anxiety is perhaps its ability to reduce blood pressure, particularly in those with hypertension (high blood pressure) and those with low magnesium levels.Guerreroromero2009,Hatzistavri2009,Kawano1998

Magnesium is quite the trend-setter; in its regulation of hormones and neurotransmitters associated with the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, it appears to counteract triggers associated with an increase in blood pressure.

Like any good trendsetter, magnesium refuses to let its actions go unnoticed—the effects can be quite significant. One study of magnesium deficient and hypertensive adults with diabetes observed highly significant reductions in both systolic and diastolic blood pressures after taking a magnesium chloride solution daily for four months: -20.4+/-15.9mmHg systolic and -8.7+/-16.3mmHg diastolic.Guerreroromero2009 If you’re not familiar with blood pressure changes, consider this: a reduction of merely 3 mmHg in clinical trials is considered to be significant.

In another human study of those with normal blood pressure and low magnesium status, three months of normalized magnesium intake (via magnesium chloride) found a 7.1% reduction in systolic blood pressure and 4.7% reduction in diastolic blood pressure.Guerreroromero2011

But wait, there’s more: a twelve-week study of magnesium pidolate on those recently diagnosed with mild hypertension resulted in a -5.6+/-2.7mmHg change in systolic blood pressure and -2.8+/-1.8mmHg change in diastolic blood pressure.Hatzistavri2009

An eight-week study of magnesium lactate administration to persons with hypertension echoed these findings, with a 2mmHg - 3.7mmHg systolic reduction and 1.4mmHg - 1.7mmHg diastolic reduction. Though a smaller reduction, the effects are still significant. Perhaps even more significant is the study’s suggestion to increase magnesium intake as a lifestyle modification in pursuit of managing hypertension.Kawano1998

Relax Your Muscles

Leg cramps, anyone? You know the scene: you’re sleepy and snuggled in bed, when suddenly, leg muscles begin to spasm and sear with pain. This can be a mechanism of magnesium. Or the lack of, rather.

Magnesium deficiency can cause strange muscle cramping, especially in your legs. This is because of magnesium’s direct interaction with muscle tissue.

Magnesium is kind of like a bouncer for your cell membranes. In a process called ion transportation, magnesium contacts your cell membranes by bonding with specific receptor sites which can open the membranes and allow other mineral ions to enter and join the party. Magnesium is prepared to let in only the right ones, such as potassium and calcium. Together, these ions assist with muscle regulation and may be able to ease your muscle tension.Potter1981

Whether your tension is magnesium deficiency or not, when you’re anxious, you may not realize how tense your muscles are because it can be difficult to feel like you’re in control of them. Your shoulders might climb all the way up to your ears without you even noticing. Your jaw could be clenched without an intention. Take a moment to assess your own body: where is the tension? Drop those shoulders, pick up that posture, and don’t let magnesium deficiency cramp your style.

Tuck You In

Once the rest of your body has initiated magnesium-induced relaxation, there’s really only one final level of calmness to achieve. The cozy, convincing argument to not get out of bed in the morning: sleep.

You enter various stages of deep and light sleep, characterized by REM and non-REM activity.

Your brain wave activity also flows differently according to where you are in your sleep cycle and whether or not you’re dreaming.

The deepest phase of sleep is called slow-wave sleep, which is marked by delta wave activity in the brain as well as non-rapid eye movement (NREM). Slow-wave sleep can also influence your muscle behavior to make your movements slower and more laborious. If you’ve witnessed someone sleepwalking, you may have observed this unusual muscle behavior firsthand.

Magnesium has an eye on non-REM phases; a 2002 study found magnesium-deprived individuals who took magnesium before bed led to an increase in their slow-wave sleep.Held2002 Similarly, in a 2010 study on the effects of magnesium for sleep in adults with low magnesium levels, magnesium supplementation significantly improved sleeping patterns.Nielsen2010

If you’re starting to feel like a zombie during the daytime because of inadequate sleep, you might want to reach for a sleep supplement. Search for those containing magnesium glycinate and melatonin to help you fall asleep faster, obtain high-quality rest, and wake up feeling restored. Magnesium glycinate is the most bioavailable form of magnesium, meaning your body will be able to absorb it easily to fully enjoy its effects.Deng2013

Supplementing with Magnesium

Magnesium supplements are usually taken in doses ranging from 200mg - 350mg. There are many different forms of magnesium: magnesium citrate, magnesium oxide, magnesium glycinate, magnesium chloride, magnesium aspartate, magnesium hydroxide. Each form has a different absorption rate and may be used for a different purpose.

Typical side effects include gastrointestinal issues, such as upset stomach, abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. These effects are generally associated with the laxative forms of magnesium, such as citrate and oxide.

Keep in mind that magnesium can have a hypertensive effect; ask your doctor about mixing magnesium with blood pressure medicine ahead of time. As always, talk to your doctor beginning any new supplementation.

Take it Easy with Magnesium

With few side effects and numerous sources of magnesium widely available, magnesium may be just what you need to calm the overzealous system looking out for you.

In addition to regulating the top-level neurotransmitter activity associated with chronic stress, magnesium can ameliorate the physiological responses to your helpful-but-not-always-helpful sympathetic system. There really is a chill pill, and it’s anxious to meet you.

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