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Stress is one of the most commonly used words in relation to ill health and yet few really understand how far-reaching the effects can be, or what to do about it. Stress can be physical, mental or emotional, and may be short-lived or ongoing. The health effects may be subtle to begin with (symptoms such as irritability, headaches, poor sleep and low energy are common with stress overload) but if left unchecked, these can eventually lead to ‘burnout’ and increased risk of chronic illness.

Sadly, ongoing or chronic stress has become the norm in today’s fast-paced society. Renowned functional medicine doctor, Dr Mark Hyman said, “if you really knew what was happening to you when you are stressed, you would freak out. It’s not pretty”. In fact, the list of health risks that may be associated with chronic stress is near endless; from hormonal havoc to weight gain, cardiovascular disease, thyroid problems, neurodegenerative diseases, inflammation, susceptibility to illness and infection, IBS, depression, anxiety, autoimmune disorders and many more. We know chronic stress is a big problem, but what action can you take to help restore harmony and balance?.

Fortunately, there are many diet, lifestyle and supplement strategies that can really help. In this article, we take a closer look at the links between magnesium and stress, how you might benefit from optimising your magnesium intake and how to include more of this mighty mineral in your diet. Is magnesium good for stress? The short answer is yes. Read on to find out more.

Magnesium and stress

When you are exposed to a (real or perceived) threatening situation, the brain sets off an alarm system and the adrenal glands release hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. Once the threat has gone, hormone levels return to normal, however if the stress persists (as with most modern stressors) the stress response stays switched on. This is when acute stress turns into chronic stress and health starts to suffer as a result.

More than 325 enzymes need magnesium to work optimally, and many of these function in the nervous system. No surprise then that magnesium is significant in helping the body to deal with stress. Acute stress is associated with increased urinary excretion of magnesium, and when stress is ongoing this may result in gradual loss of magnesium.1,2 This can soon become a vicious circle, since magnesium is needed for the stress response yet the stress response depletes magnesium.3 Destructive diet and lifestyle behaviours such as smoking, drinking alcohol and over-eating convenience foods are often used as ‘coping strategies’ during stressful times, yet these may add to the cycle and further deplete magnesium.

Research has shown improved stress response with magnesium supplementation.4,5 In addition, long-term exposure to chronic stress is known to be a significant risk factor for the development of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Studies have also demonstrated anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects of magnesium supplementation.6-8

Magnesium-rich foods

First port of call for optimising magnesium intake is to include more magnesium-rich foods in your diet. Magnesium-rich foods include pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, almonds, spinach, cashew nuts, peanuts, wholegrains, oats, black beans, kidney beans, edamame beans, live yoghurt, banana, salmon, avocado and dark chocolate (100% cacao).9

Do I need to take magnesium supplements?

This is a question that can only be answered on an individual basis as there are many factors which affect your unique nutrient needs and requirements. Read more about low magnesium in our article, Low Magnesium Your Top 5 Questions Answered. Here are some factors to consider. A typical Western diet is unlikely to provide optimal magnesium and this is even less likely if your magnesium needs are increased during times of chronic stress. Our food is typically not as nutrient-dense as it once was; this is due to factors such as nutrient-depleted soils, processing, storage and transport.10,11 If you do decide to take a magnesium supplement, it’s worth paying close attention to the form of magnesium. Magnesium glycinate may be a particularly useful form during times of stress. This is because you get the benefits of both magnesium and glycine. Not only is magnesium calming and relaxing; glycine has calming and relaxing benefits too,12-16 thus you may get the stress-supportive benefits of both with the form of magnesium glycinate. Find out more about the different forms of magnesium in supplements.

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12. Yamadera W, Inagawa K, et al. Glycine ingestion improves subjective sleep quality in human volunteers, correlating with polysomnographic changes. Sleep and Biological Rhythms. Volume 5, Issue 2. April 2007. Pages 126-131.
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16. Kawai N, Sakai N et al. The sleep-promoting and hypothermic effects of glycine are mediated by NMDA receptors in the suprachiasmatic nucleus, Neuropsychopharmacology 40(6) (2015) 1405-16.

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