There are many nutrients your body needs every day to function optimally. One of them is magnesium, which has specific implications for brain health.
What is Magnesium?
“Magnesium plays a fundamental role in regulating various biological processes that are necessary for proper function,” says Candace Pumper, registered dietitian at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
This powerful mineral is used in over 300 enzyme systems in the body that contribute to:
“Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral, after calcium, sodium, and potassium, that the body needs on a daily basis,” says Pumper.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance, or RDA, of magnesium for adults is 400 to 420 milligrams per day for men and 310 to 320 milligrams per day for women. Pregnant women need 350 to 360 milligrams of magnesium daily.
Magnesium for brain health
Magnesium’s role in helping the body produce energy is critically important, “because more than 20% of all energy produced in the body is consumed by the brain,” says Dr. Michael del Junco, internal medicine specialist at Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange. County, California.
As such, magnesium plays a central role in brain health. “Appropriate levels of magnesium ensure optimal nerve transmission and neuromuscular conduction, and protect against over-excitation of neurons and oxidative stress,” says del Junco. Which, in simple terms, means that if you don’t have the proper levels of magnesium, it can lead to reduced cognitive performance. “Abnormal levels of magnesium have even been linked to conditions such as migraines, depression, chronic pain, strokes, seizures and dementia.
Magnesium is also essential for the normal functioning of neurons and helps regulate neurotransmitters, which are the chemical messengers that help brain cells communicate with each other and with the rest of the body.
Two neurotransmitters in particular – glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA – depend on proper levels of magnesium.
“Glutamate plays a major role in normal brain function, including shaping learning and memory,” says Pumper. “For the brain to function properly, glutamate levels must be tightly controlled. Any imbalance can disrupt nerve cell communication.
A 2018 review study published in the journal Nutrients found that there is “strong evidence to suggest a role for magnesium in migraine and depression” and there is “emerging evidence” to suggest that magnesium has an effect protective in conditions of chronic pain, anxiety and stroke. “Further research is needed on magnesium as an adjunct treatment for epilepsy and to further clarify its role in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease”
What is currently known, says Pumper, is that “adequate magnesium levels appear to protect against chronic disease and promote brain health, and low magnesium status is increasingly linked to disease risk.” , including neurological and psychiatric disorders and impaired disease management”.
Food sources of magnesium
- Pumpkin seeds, shelled, roasted: 1 ounce = 156 milligrams of magnesium.
- Chia seeds: 1 ounce = 111 milligrams.
- Dry roasted almonds: 1 ounce = 80 milligrams.
- Cashews, dry roasted: 1 ounce = 74 milligrams.
- Peanuts, dry roasted: 1 ounce = 49 milligrams.
- Peanut butter, smooth: 2 tablespoons = 49 milligrams.
- Whole flax seeds: 1 tablespoon = 40 milligrams.
- Spinach, cooked: ½ cup = 78 milligrams.
- Baked potato with skin: 3.5 ounces = 43 milligrams.
- Black beans, cooked: ½ cup = 60 milligrams.
- Edamame, cooked: ½ cup = 50 milligrams.
- Lima beans, cooked: ½ cup = 40 milligrams.
- Quinoa, cooked: ½ cup = 60 milligrams.
- Cereals, shredded wheat: 2 large crackers = 61 milligrams.
- Rice, brown, cooked: ½ cup = 42 to 44 milligrams.
- Wheat germ: 2 tablespoons = 35 milligrams.
- Bread, whole wheat: 2 slices = 46 milligrams.
- Soy milk, plain or vanilla: 8 ounces = 61 milligrams.
- Yogurt, plain or low fat: 8 ounces = 42 milligrams.
- Skim milk: 8 ounces = 24-27 milligrams.
- Dark chocolate, 70-85% cocoa: 1 ounce = 64 milligrams.
- Dark chocolate, 60-69% cocoa: 1 ounce = 50 milligrams.
The amount of magnesium found in these foods can fluctuate depending on local farming practices, how they’re fertilized, and how they’ve been processed, refined, or cooked, says Pumper.
Some foods, like some breakfast cereals, are fortified with extra magnesium.
Pumper adds that some sources of mineral water and bottled tap water may contain magnesium and may “provide portions of the RDA of this mineral. But the amount varies by source and brand with a range of 1 milligram. per liter to 120 milligrams per liter.
Should I take a magnesium supplement?
Del Junco says if your magnesium levels are normal, you should “avoid supplements.” There is no current evidence to suggest that magnesium supplementation will provide measurable benefit to a patient with normal magnesium levels.
However, some people may not be getting enough magnesium in their diet. Del Junco notes that signs of abnormal magnesium levels are often vague and nonspecific, but can include:
- Small appetite.
- Poor concentration.
- Muscle spasms.
Your doctor can test if your magnesium levels are out of whack. Certain populations may be at higher risk for magnesium deficiency, including:
- Older adults.
- Patients with uncontrolled diabetes.
- Patients with chronic diarrhea or other digestive disorders that cause them difficulty in absorbing nutrients from food.
- People who consume alcohol daily.
- People taking certain medications, including proton pump inhibitors (such as omeprazole for gastroesophageal reflux) and loop or thiazide diuretics (such as furosemide, hydrochlorothiazide, and chlorthalidone which can be used for congestive heart failure, high blood pressure and other heart conditions).
If you are lacking in this nutrient, del Junco recommends “trying to increase your magnesium intake through your diet. If you’re unable to get enough magnesium from your diet, consider a supplement.
Pumper agrees that food first is best. “Magnesium supplementation can certainly help fill the gaps in a nutrient-deficient diet, but the challenge is discerning which products to choose. For consumers, speak with your doctor before adding a magnesium supplement to your routine. is a good first step.
If you and your healthcare provider determine that supplementation is a good idea, Pumper recommends considering the following when choosing a product:
- The ideal form and dosage for your needs. “Magnesium supplements come in different forms, each with different absorption capacity, benefits, and effects on the body.” Common forms include magnesium citrate, magnesium oxide, magnesium glycinate, magnesium chloride, and magnesium sulfate. Del Junco says magnesium citrate is the most easily absorbed form of magnesium supplement when taken orally. So what is the best form of magnesium supplement for brain health? “Magnesium citrate is often used to treat low magnesium levels and may also be effective as an acute migraine treatment option,” says Pumper. “This form is gentle on the stomach, has good absorption capacity and is safe”,
- Product quality. Pumper recommends selecting products bearing “quality certification seals on product labels to ensure product integrity.” Certification bodies include ConsumerLab.com, NSF International, or the US Pharmacopeial Convention.
- Other medications you are taking. Supplements can sometimes interact negatively with other medications or supplements you are taking, so it is very important to check with your health care provider before adding any herbal product or dietary supplement. Magnesium supplements in particular sometimes interact with and decrease the absorption of certain medications, including antibiotics, diuretics, proton pump inhibitors, bisphosphonates (which are used to treat bone conditions such as osteopenia and osteoporosis) and high doses of zinc (greater than 142 milligrams per day).
- Medical conditions you have. People with chronic kidney disease should not take magnesium supplements because they can cause large amounts of magnesium to build up in the blood and lead to muscle weakness.
Taking too much magnesium can cause side effects, including abdominal cramps and diarrhea. “If you experience these symptoms, reduce your daily dose,” del Junco says. It is also best to contact your health care provider for further advice.