Yesterday at #Health2.0 I gave a demo of our cognitive test to a crowded room. As always, after the presentation the group asked questions centered on the technology and how to use it in research or clinical applications.
However, as people came up to talk with me afterwards they asked the kinds of questions most people want to know: What can I do for my cognitive health? Does brain training work? Is there one thing you recommend most to stay cognitively healthy? The answer to that is if I had to name one thing it would be physical exercise.
When asked if there is a supplement I personally take to keep healthy and cognitively fit, the answer is: Magnesium.
Cortisol, Magnesium and Health
As the CEO of a growing company with teams and customers on 3 continents, the stress of long days, travel and being in multiple time zones in one week are all part of the job. Therefore, I look for every possible leg-up in managing the pressures of the role.
In general, I am not a big believer of taking supplements. Too often a poor diet is ignored and people take supplements instead of changing critical eating habits.
But the one supplement I take every day is Magnesium. And here is why:
Classified as an essential nutrient, magnesium plays a key role in many of the body’s molecular functions. It is required for the formation of cells’ energy source, ATP. Without magnesium, ATP is not biologically active and thus unusable. In fact, magnesium regulates blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar. Additionally, the brain is dependent on magnesium for nerve impulse transmission and the metabolism of neurotransmitters.
The association between magnesium and cognitive health is particularly interesting to me as a neuroscientist. As part of the Hordaland Health Study, researchers investigated the relationship between magnesium intake and depression and anxiety. They found that low levels of magnesium correlated with an increased number of depressive and anxiety symptoms. This finding is supported by the fact that magnesium deficiency is also associated with reduced serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is well-known mediator of mood, anxiety, and sleep.
Magnesium deficiency also causes upregulation of the HPA (Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal) axis which leads to anxiety-like behavior in mice. The HPA axis is responsible for influencing production of the stress hormone cortisol. An increase in cortisol leads to increased feelings of stress and anxiety. In fact, a study by Golf et al. noted that cortisol levels decreased when patients were administered supplementary magnesium, further cementing the mineral’s role as a mediator of stress.
Elevated cortisol is great for fight or flight response – it is necessary. What is not good for us is the chronic elevation of cortisol from things like work related stress. Our bodies do not readily distinguish well between constant threats at work and threats of physical harm and respond to both with the same elevated stress hormones.
That is another article, but the net result is that our stress packed modern lives often lead to a constant physical primer for “combat or escape” mode that when experienced chronically can cause greater rates of everything from Colon Cancer to Migraines to Heart Disease and Depression. In the immediate here and now this often shows up as feeling jittery, not being able to sleep well and feeling less cognitively “sharp” that we normally feel.
Getting enough Magnesium
Studies indicate that anywhere form 42% to 68% of American’s don’t get sufficient magnesium in their diets.
If you’re concerned about meeting your daily requirement of magnesium, one of the best ways to reach your quota is to include magnesium rich foods in every meal. Kale and other dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts, and whole grains are all great sources of magnesium—and staples of the Mediterranean Diet. Part of the reason why magnesium deficiency is so common among the American population is due to our diet of processed and fast food. However, a large spinach salad for lunch might not work for everyone.
I also have Celiac Disease, which it turns out can inhibit the body’s absorption of magnesium, and while I haven’t purposefully eaten gluten in years this is something I have to monitor.
So, yes I take magnesium. It’s critical. It is also not a panacea for all stress and health problems. It is critical to eat a healthy diet, move every day for at least an hour, get plenty of sleep and to unplug from devices and connect with our family and friends. These “big four” of sleep, diet, movement and staying connected to other people are a theme with me and many health professionals, because we know good habits in those four areas are correlated with a longer, healthier, happier life.
In the mean time this neuroscientist also takes magnesium every day along with doing my very best to keep healthy habits in those four domains.