Many people struggle with varying degrees of anxiety throughout their lives. Sometimes anxiety is acute, like the feeling you might get if you are running late for an important meeting. This type of anxiety typically resolves itself shortly. Other forms of anxiety can be longer-lasting and chronic, such as when coping with multiple stressors like unpaid bills, a stressful job, or taking care of an ill family member, just to name a few. There is also a connection between our eating habits and stress, anxiety and the amount of sleep we get each night. Anxiety is a complex emotion or state of being and can be difficult to tackle, but as it turns out, a simple deficiency in magnesium, a common mineral in our bodies and food, may be partly to blame.
The Role of Magnesium in the Body
Magnesium is involved in more than 300 different reactions in the body that regulate blood sugar, blood pressure, muscle and nerve function, protein synthesis, energy production, bone development, and even DNA and RNA synthesis, among many others. In our bodies, the majority of magnesium is found in our bones and other tissues, whereas less than 1 percent is in our blood. This means that assessing whether or not someone is deficient in magnesium can be very difficult and often as a result, magnesium deficiency goes undiagnosed. You may be wondering then, if so much magnesium is stored in our bodies, how do some people become deficient?
How Does Magnesium Deficiency Develop?
Despite being extremely abundant in our bodies, deficiency is possible and fairly common. In fact, dietary intake of magnesium is consistently found to be inadequate in the U.S.1 One reason for this is likely due to the fact that a Western diet is rich in refined and processed foods.2 For example, refined white rice has a substantially lower magnesium content than brown rice, because the nutrient-rich germ and bran have been removed. A diet rich in foods that lack magnesium will contribute to the development of a deficiency.
The type of food one eats isn’t the only culprit in magnesium deficiency. Chronic diseases (such as type 2 diabetes or gastrointestinal diseases), alcoholism and certain medications can also contribute to the development of a magnesium deficiency via their ability to interfered with magnesium absorption and utilization in the body. Although magnesium deficiency is difficult to diagnose, we do know some warning signs that it is developing. These initial signs include things such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, weakness, or even aggression and anxiety.2 If the deficiency intensifies, one can even develop abnormal heart rhythms, muscle cramps, seizures, depression or changes in personality.2
What Is it About the Lack of Magnesium That May Make People Anxious?
As mentioned earlier, magnesium plays a role in many different metabolic reactions and body functions, including several in the nervous system. Anxiety is also a potential side effect of magnesium deficiency. Although the exact mechanism is not yet clear, researchers are studying whether abnormal neurological mechanisms, particularly in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, may be related to magnesium deficiency to explain the link with anxiety.3
Few clinical trials have been done to evaluate a true connection between magnesium and anxiety, but from the evidence that we do have, it seems clear that there is some beneficial relationship between supplementation and reducing feelings of anxiety.4 Similarly, a recent clinical trial showed promising results for magnesium supplementation in adults with depression.5 After just six weeks of supplementation with magnesium chloride, there was a statistically significant improvement in depressive symptoms, with no major side effects noted.
What Are Some Sources of Dietary Magnesium?
If you are in generally good health, free of chronic diseases and not taking medications that interfere with magnesium absorption or metabolism, then getting enough magnesium from a healthy diet is fairly easy, as long as you eat a variety of plant foods. The recommended daily intake is 310-420 mg (female and male respectively), and just 1 oz. of almonds contains 80 mg.
Other good sources of magnesium in foods include ½ cup cooked spinach (78 mg), 1 oz. cashews (74 mg), 1 oz. dark chocolate (65 mg), 1 cup soymilk (61 mg), ½ cup black beans (60 mg), ½ cup edamame (50 mg), 2 tbsp peanut butter (49 mg), 8 oz. low-fat yogurt (42 mg), 1 banana (32 mg), and 3 oz. salmon (26 mg). Unrefined grains like brown rice, oatmeal, whole wheat breads and pastas are also excellent sources, especially if they are fortified.
Most people don’t regularly eat a variety food that would contain enough magnesium to meet the minimum suggested amounts. For this reason, magnesium supplements are often suggested. When magnesium is delivered as a supplement, it is never just magnesium alone. What I mean by that is we find it with another element, like chloride, making it a magnesium “salt.” We typically think of salt as the stuff we put on our food, but in chemistry, there are many different types of salts. In general, they are two ions with opposite charges (positive and negative) joined together by a chemical reaction, and they separate when dissolved in water.
What’s interesting about this is that salts in general have evolved as a natural way to calm the body and mind. Take salt caves for instance, or a bath full of Epsom salt. We also deliver salts through many psychiatric medications such as lithium, that are meant to calm the mind (and they don’t necessarily contain magnesium). Perhaps this is something we need to be looking further into as well.
A trend in the supplement world has been to develop drinks or powders to add to beverages in order to get nutritional benefits. We see that with magnesium supplements, as well. Supplements like Jarrow Formulas Calming Day can be especially useful since it contains two forms of magnesium as well as a variety of other ingredients that can help support your body and focus. When taking supplements, however, keep in mind that you don’t want to take more than is recommend by the manufacturer. This is because high magnesium intake from supplements has the potential to cause diarrhea, nausea and abdominal cramping. Otherwise, high doses of magnesium are generally safe since any excess is eliminated by the kidneys.
As you can see, it’s pretty easy to get your recommended daily intake of magnesium through food alone, but those who are not huge fans of vegetables or tend to eat a lot of processed foods, are likely missing out on good sources of magnesium, and thus may need to consider using a supplement.
Researchers are still looking for an explanation as to how magnesium can help anxiety, but right now we know that supplementation can potentially be an effective (and safe) way to increase magnesium intake and ease one’s mind naturally. So, if you’re worried you’re not getting enough magnesium based on your diet alone, or want to explore a way to manage mild anxiety without jumping right into taking medication, magnesium supplementation may be a good place to start.
1 National Institutes of Health (2018). Magnesium Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/.
2 DiNicolantonio JJ, O’Keefe JH, & Wilson W. (2018). Subclinical magnesium deficiency: a principal driver of cardiovascular disease and a public health crisis. Open Heart. 5(1): e000668.
3 Sartori SB, Whittle N, Hetzenauer A, & Singewald N. (2012). Magnesium deficiency induces anxiety and HPA axis dysregulation: Modulation by therapeutic drug treatment. Neuropharmacology. Jan; 62(1): 304–312.
4 Boyle NB, Lawton C, & Dye L. (2017). The effects of magnesium supplementation on subjective anxiety and stress—a systematic review. Nutrients. May; 9(5): 429.
5 Tarleton EK, Littenberg B, MacLean CD, Kennedy AG, & Daley C (2017). Role of magnesium supplementation in the treatment of depression: A randomized clinical trial. PLoS One. 12(6): e0180067.
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction, with a special focus on nutrition during early life and pregnancy. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She is an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York, NY and is a visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University in New Jersey. Dr. Avena has written several books, including What to Eat When You’re Pregnant and What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler. She regularly appears as a science expert on the Dr. Oz Show, Good Day NY and The Doctors, as well as many other news programs. Her work has been featured in Bloomberg Business Week, Time Magazine for Kids, The New York Times, Shape, Men’s Health, Details, as well as many other periodicals. Dr. Avena blogs for Psychology Today, is a member of the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau and has the No. 2 most watched TED-ED Health talk, “How Sugar Affects Your Brain.” You can follow Dr. Avena on Twitter (@DrNicoleAvena), Facebook (www.facebook.com/DrNicoleAvena) and Instagram (@drnicoleavena), or visit www.drnicoleavena.com.