Role of Magnesium in Fighting Stress

Many people associate magnesium as the go-to mineral supplement for relaxation and sound sleep, and they are correct. Sufficient levels of magnesium help with restful sleep, stable moods, and calm nerves. It can even help to reduce anxiety and depression. Why? Because magnesium supports the nervous system so it can properly respond to stress. Magnesium deficiency can be a factor behind migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, audio-genic stress, fibromyalgia, nervousness, anxiety, depression, and sleep-related issues. As we will soon learn, magnesium is a great stress reliever for many reasons.

Magnesium is ranked as the fourth most abundant mineral in the human body. What’s more, it is has a significant presence in the intracellular matrix (second only to potassium). Magnesium is a key player in many cellular processes such as biochemical reactions, ion channels activity, bone health, muscle health, energy production, protein synthesis, and metabolic pathway regulation. Magnesium is also important in the mediation of neural transmission in the Central Nervous System. It is no wonder that magnesium and stress relief go hand in hand.

It is thought that magnesium is a crucial mineral for more than 325 enzymes, many of which belong to the nervous system [1]. This further demonstrates the important role of magnesium for a healthy and well-functioning nervous system.

Magnesium as a counter ion to Calcium

It is well known that calcium is very important for strong bones and a healthy skeletal system. However, there’s more to the story. Cells need calcium to carry out important functions such as hormone secretion, impulse conduction, and brain neuron firing. Once calcium has done its job, it must then be removed from the cells, which is where magnesium comes in. Magnesium controls the traffic of potassium and calcium as they are ushered in and out of the cells. What’s more, magnesium helps the cells to produce energy so they can send the calcium back to the extracellular matrix.

During times of stress, calcium is sent to the cells to spark the “fight or flight” response [2]. This is a chain of hormonal changes that allows the body to be responsive to physical or psychological stress. As a result of all this chemical traffic, the nerve cells tense, the heart beats faster, and blood pressure rises. However, the body returns to a calm state once the stressor has been dealt with. Magnesium helps in this process by acting as a counter ion to calcium, making sure calcium is removed from the cells when it is no longer needed.

When your body does not have sufficient levels of magnesium, calcium can build up in the cells. The result is painful muscle contractions, firing nerve cells, hyper-excitability, and nervousness. When the nerve cells cannot relax, you experience feelings of anxiety and a constant feeling of being in “alert mode”. It is clear, therefore, that magnesium deficiency and stress are tightly entwined.

Magnesium as a counter to stress hormones

Magnesium helps to maintain homeostasis of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This is a complicated chain of hormonal interactions, chemical signals, and feedback that is very important in stress response. This complex chain is also important in mood regulation, immunity, digestion, libido, metabolism, and healthy energy levels.

During times of stress, the body produces the stress hormones cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. These hormones help the body to deal with threats quickly and efficiently, ultimately helping us to make life-saving choices rapidly. When stressors occur, the hypothalamus region of the brain tells the pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This causes the adrenal glands to release stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline in preparation for the “fight or flight” mode.

Cortisol (as well as other stress hormones) uses reserved energy so you can deal with stress efficiently and effectively. The result of this chemical surge causes an increase of glucose to flow to the muscles for instant energy, boosted blood circulation, and faster respiration so oxygen can be readily available to the brain cells. Blood flow is sent to the heart, brain, and skeletal muscles so the body can deal effectively with stressors and threats.

It’s all sounding great so far. However, when stress is long-term and stress hormones are constantly being released, the HPA axis can be disrupted. As a result, the good intentions of cortisol are negated. Many of us deal with constant stressors in this fast and demanding world. This means our HPA axis is constantly set to ‘ON’, releasing cortisol frequently. This constant pressure on the adrenal system can cause adrenal fatigue and associated symptoms such as high blood pressure, headaches, heart palpitations, anxiety, depression, disrupted sleep, digestive issues, poor immunity, weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes.

Magnesium helps the adrenal glands respond to ACTH in a balanced and healthy manner, thereby keeping cortisol excretion within a safe and healthy range. [3] [4].

Magnesium and NMDA receptor

We can attribute much of magnesium’s neurological benefits to its ability to bind to N-methyl-D-aspartate or NMDA receptors. This is an important mechanism in our body’s ability to handle stress. NMDA is a glutamate receptor that activates when it binds with glutamate (an excitatory neurotransmitter). NMDA activation is important for our Central Nervous System, learning, and memory. However, abnormal NMDA activation can lead to neurotoxicity and damaged nerves, ultimately causing panic attacks, anxiety, and pain associated with fibromyalgia.

Magnesium doesn’t always trigger the NMDA receptor when it binds with it. It can also act as a gatekeeper, therefore, regulating glutamate-mediated excitability. [5] [6]

Magnesium and neurotransmitters

We know by now that magnesium, stress, and anxiety are strongly connected. Magnesium is an important factor in the production of neurotransmitters that help to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.

  • It is a cofactor of tryptophan hydroxylase, an important enzyme in the biosynthesis of the chemical serotonin. Serotonin regulates appetite, mood, social behavior, sleep, overall cognitive function, and stress response.
  • Magnesium and brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF inhibits the activity of GSK-3, an enzyme that is targeted by antidepressant drugs
To conclude, magnesium is important for stress reduction as it relaxes the nerves and helps to maintain balanced stress hormones. In turn, magnesium helps to regulate and improve mood, sleep, anxiety, and pain. Stress and magnesium have a surprisingly complex relationship. For example, chronic stress can cause magnesium deficiency.

Stress causes the body to tap into magnesium stored to combat the stressor and trigger the flight or fight response. Ongoing stress can lead to depleted magnesium stores.

What’s more, magnesium deficiency can impede our body’s ability to handle stress, further exacerbating the issue. Studies suggest that people who deal with ongoing stress also lose magnesium through urine. In short; stress and magnesium deficiency exacerbate each other’s negative effects.

  1. Robert Vink. Magnesium and stress. ResearchGate. 2015
  2. Timothy S. Luongo et al. The Mitochondrial Calcium Uniporter Matches Energetic Supply with Cardiac Workload during Stress and Modulates Permeability Transition. Cell Reports, June 2015
  3. Sartori SB, Whittle N, Hetzenauer A, Singewald N. Magnesium deficiency induces anxiety and HPA axis dysregulation: modulation by therapeutic drug treatment. Neuropharmacology (2012) 62(1):304-12.
  4. Held K, Antonijevic IA, Künzel H, et al. Oral Mg(2+) supplementation reverses age-related neuroendocrine and sleep EEG changes in humans. Pharmacopsychiatry (2002) 35(4):135-43.
  5. Szewczyk B et al. Antidepressant activity of zinc and magnesium in view of the current hypotheses of antidepressant action. Pharmacol Rep. 2008 Sep-Oct;60(5):588-9.
  6. Poleszak E, Wlaz P, Wróbel A, et al. NMDA/glutamate mechanism of magnesium-induced anxiolytic-like behavior in mice. Pharmacol Rep (2008) 60(5):655-63.