Ageing Well by Michael Elstein

The wonders of magnesium

Recently, I had two professional experiences that are inextricably linked. The other night, I chaired a medical meeting, the topic of which was "the management of chronic pain and fibromyalgia". The presenter was a psychiatrist. While his talk wasn't especially enlightening, what caught my attention was his two case studies. These were about two of his patients whom he successfully treated for chronic pain, depression and fibromylagia. One was on a cocktail of eight drugs including more than one anti-depressant, three anti-epileptic medications and a number of pain-killers. The other was on six different medications. She was similarly managed with a combination of treatments.

The other experience concerned a friend who contracted a virus that travelled to his heart, leading to an irregular heartbeat. Having had an echocardiogram, angiogram and an assortment of other investigations, he is now on a mix of pharmaceuticals to stabilize his heart rhythm and prevent him from having any further complications.

A magnificent mineral

A recent article I read referred to a "magnificent story in the making", acknowledging the profound impact magnesium has on cellular and whole body function. Two primary functions executed by the cell are the generation of energy and the manufacture of new cells courtesy of the healthy replication of DNA. Magnesium is intimately intertwined with each of these. Once these functions become corrupted, effective cellular function is compromised and this is when ageing and all the diseases that go with it, such as heart diseases, cancer and dementia, establish themselves. Magnesium may just be one of the remedies that could be incorporated to rescue this software before it becomes hardwired.

If you're suffering from headaches, anxiety, irritability, muscle cramps and muscle weakness, fibromyalgia (the psychiatrist mentioned above didn't highlight this), insomnia, depression, poor short-term memory, an irregular heartbeat, confusion and dementia, chances are you have a magnesium deficiency.

Some reports indicate that 70 per cent of the adult population in the USA, and indeed the West generally, don't obtain sufficient magnesium from their diets. Over 100 years ago, depression was a rare event. Before 1905, grains were unrefined. Now, whole-wheat grains contain a mere 10 per cent of the magnesium needed and depression is commonplace.

Nuts, legumes, wholegrain cereals, seafood, green leafy vegetables, chocolate, carrots, corn, brown rice and parsley are good sources of magnesium. The problem is our diets aren't always rich in these nutrients. As a consequence, a legion of medical ailments has been linked to a lack of magnesium. These include elevated cholesterol, angina and heart attacks, depression and psychosis, seizures, worsening diabetes, obesity and osteoporosis.

If you want to find out whether your magnesium levels are low, it would be wise to undergo the appropriate testing. Unfortunately, that's not a blood test as blood tests don't reflect the status of magnesium in your cells where the mineral actually carries out its activities and may be significantly depleted.

The best way to identify a magnesium deficiency is to go through the glorious experience of collecting all the urine you pass over a 24-hour period. If analysis shows your levels are low, this indicates you don't have enough magnesium to execute all this mineral's vital functions.

Alcohol, ageing, caffeine and excessive consumption of grains conspire to rob your of magnesium. Blood-pressure-lowering medications including diuretics and ACE inhibitors, the oral contraceptive oil, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and antibiotics also lower magnesium,

Inflammation and oxidative stress

Experiments on animals indicate magnesium deficiency increase inflammation and oxidative stress, but supplements can reverse these destructive events. Mitochondria are the "batteries" of the cell that provide energy. Mitochondrial DNA is more vulnerable to damage with ageing and defective mitochondria are not encouraged to replicate, leading to a process known as apoptosis, or self-destruction. To replicate efficiently, mitochondrial DNA needs magnesium, so magnesium deficiency is also associated with mutation of mitochondrial DNA and apoptosis. Ageing and a lack of magnesium are a double whammy for your mitochondria.

Interestingly, despite HRT being a factor in lowering magnesium, the female hormone oestrogen is also protective against the pro-inflammatory effects of magnesium deficiency, which suggests that hormone treatment in the form of oestrogen replacement together with magnesium repletion might be the ideal way to safeguard female health.

Preventing cancer

Our cells are constantly replicating and, for that to occur in a healthy and effective fashion, the integrity of cellular DNA needs to be preserved. As DNA is under a constant barrage from free, radicals and other noxious insults, DNA repair is paramount. Once faulty DNA establishes itself, abnormal cells can start to multiply, which culminates in the development of cancer.

The enzymes that facilitate DNA repair are dependent on magnesium for their activity. Any abnormal cells that gain a foothold are encourage to commit suicide by the process called apoptosis mentioned earlier and magnesium is there is stimulate this activity.

Magnesium is also essential for DNA duplication, making the presence of this mineral absolutely critical for survival and for the prevention of cancer. The trouble is these functions proceeed in your body without your awareness and it's only when you develop cancer that it becomes apparent that these faulty cells might have been stopped in their tracks if only magnesium had been present in sufficient quantities. Sadly, once cancer is resent, magnesium will only help to slow the growth of certain cancers, while it might potentiate others.

Avoid heart disease

Magnesium helps blood vessels to dilate, lowering blood pressure; it also reduces cholesterol, triglycerides and LDL, the so called "bad cholesterol", and raises HDL, the "protective cholesterol"; and it protects the endothelium, the lining of your blood vessels where heart disease is initiated. Inflammation and oxidation, two principal contributors to artery blockages, are limited by magnesium.

Depression and Alzheimer's dementia

Studies show magnesium can be used effectively to treat depression and to improve Alzheimer's dementia on its own and in conjunction with a drug called memantine. By limiting the negative effects of calcium on the brain and by stimulating enzymes that preserve the transmission of nerve impulses, magnesium might significantly prevent cognitive decline.

By assisting with insulin function, magnesium may help to prevent obesity and diabetes, which are rife in the Western world. Magnesium also prevents osteoporosis.

It is inconceivable that the psychiatrist and the cardiologists mentioned earlier appear blissfully unaware of the significance of magnesium. Ensuring adequate levels of this mineral together with a balance of other essential nutrients and hormones is critical for good health and wellbeing.

Dr Michael Eelstein is a Sydney-based anti-ageing physician and writer. He is the author of two books, Eternal Health: The Comprehensive Guide to Anti-Ageing for the New Millennium and You Have the Power! Why Didn't my Doctor Tell me About This?

(Extract from: Wellbeing Magazine, Issue No. 114 May 2008)