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Magnesium may help you to ease your anxiety and insomnia

(UMass Dining/Flickr Creative Commons)

There isn’t much worse than staying up late working on a project, a paper or studying for an exam that is due the next day. But feeling exhausted after a long, trying day and finally laying in your bed to sleep and not being able to fall asleep is worse. Laying there, motionless, stressing about everything you have to do, unable to fall asleep – even though that’s the thing you want most in the world in that moment – is a horrible sensation. All you can do is toss and turn; you can’t seem to calm your mind enough to slip into a blissful darkness that will inevitably leave you brimming with energy to tackle the coming day.

Instead, eventually you get up to use the bathroom and glance at the clock. You realize you have been lying in bed worrying for over three hours, and there is only a few more before your alarm is set to go off. We all sometimes have nights like these, but if this is a recurring experience, it may be time to try something new. Asking your doctor about taking magnesium supplements may significantly improve your sleep quality, improving insomnia and day-to-day anxiety. It may also be helpful to those without serious cases of insomnia to improve nightly sleep and reduce symptoms of anxiety (speak to a professional before taking supplements.)

It is estimated that the majority of Americans in the 21st century have a lower magnesium intake from their diets as compared to previous generations, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted between 2005 and 2006. This is likely due to modern food processing methods that removes a significant portion of micronutrients from the natural states of foods. And according to two different studies, the prevalence of anxiety symptoms among the general population has been increasing in recent years (one study conducted between 1998 and 2008 across all ages, another between 2003 and 2011 and focused on ages six to 18), but the actual diagnoses of anxiety cases have not. This could mean a few different things, but I believe this may represent a trend in the quality of our food and in the myriad pressures put on the current generation. Life just seems to be too stressful these days, especially for a college student.

So what can magnesium do to help with anxiety and how does it do it? Essentially, magnesium reduces stress in the body and forces it to relax. Magnesium decreases levels of cortisol—also known as the ‘stress’ hormone. Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands in times of stress when the body preps itself for a “fight or flight” situation. Like many other hormones and substances in the body, cortisol is crucial to good health and helps maintain many bodily functions like regulating blood sugar levels, salt balance and blood pressure. But too much cortisol can be problematic, putting many systems on high alert for unnecessarily long periods of time. This can contribute to many health complications such as high blood pressure, digestion issues, weight gain and more.

Magnesium helps to decrease cortisol levels indirectly via an enzyme called 11b-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase1 (11b-HSD1). 11b-HSD1 converts cortisol to its inactive form cortisone, requiring another chemical NADPH to do it. This is where magnesium comes in. Magnesium helps to keep NADPH in its functioning form to allow it to convert active cortisol in the body to inactive cortisone, decreasing the number of cells throughout the body that receive cortisol’s signal to prep for a high-stress condition. This effectively results in a feeling of relaxation.

I believe it is important to understand what you are putting in your body – that’s why I included a little of the nitty-gritty science. The major takeaway is to not get caught in the vicious cycle of anxiety and insomnia. If this is a serious and relevant problem to you, seek help and advice from professionals. Magnesium may be a safe and natural way for you to relieve some stress and get a good night of sleep with minimal effort—but also try other relaxing techniques like remembering to have fun and doing enjoyable activities!

Nicholas Remillard can be reached at nremillard@umass.edu. H

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