One Critical Mineral For Mental Health That You May Not Get Enough Of: The Relationship Between Magnesium and Depression

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 by Meg   •   Filed under Physical Health and Emotion

Magnesium is the bomb for depression. Chocolate has it (and so does that chocolate cream pie on the Thanksgiving table). You're welcome. 

Magnesium is involved in a great many bodily functions including the absorption of calcium. It is also crucial for contractions of the heart muscle and may be related to heart issues including coronary spasm and heart disease. It even has the ability to relax smooth muscles of the body which make it useful in asthma reduction and blood pressure regulation. 

As if the physical benefits weren't enough to make you run out and grab some magnesium rich foods, a wide range of mental health processes can be altered by the absence of this essential element.

Magnesium, Mice and Depression

Low magnesium levels trigger mental health issues in mice. And if those surly bastards can't stave off anxiety running on that wheel and boiking all day, what chance do we have?

According to Australian research published in "Neuropharmacology"1, mice who were fed a low magnesium diet showed increases in depressive behaviors like immobility. They also had more indicators of anxiety responses in open field tests.

In order to push the theory further, researchers dosed the animals with antidepressants in an effort to reduce the effects of the low magnesium levels. After the administration of drugs, the mice were able to avoid the anxiety and depressive behaviors, at least in the short term, a finding which supports the idea that low magnesium can alter hormonal regulation and neurotransmitter function. 

The Bad News

In humans, magnesium deficiency may contribute to even more issues because of its role in calcium absorption. When lack of magnesium is combined with (or causes) elevated calcium, or when high levels of stress are combined with magnesium deficiency, you've got a problem. 

One recent study, published in the academic journal "Medical Hypothesis", noted that each of these conditions has been previously documented as related to magnesium deficiency2:

  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Depression, including postpartum depression
  • Irritability
  • Addiction to substances/substance abuse
  • Sleep disturbances/insomnia
  • Confusion and memory issues
  • Headaches
  • Manic behavior/hyperexcitability 
  • Delirium
  • Hallucinations and delusions at more pronounced levels of deficiency

Magnesium is no joke. It's like the mob boss of essential elements. You deplete it, the remaining psychological systems fuck you up...just with emotional problems instead of a baseball bat.

The Good News: You Can Increase Your Magnesium Levels

In addition to finding that magnesium can mess up pretty much everything, the above research also found that supplementation of magnesium can heal depressive symptoms in less than a week2. Researchers went on to report that all manner of other conditions in their study, including headache, alcohol and drug abuse, suicidal thoughts, memory issues and lowered IQ improved as well. 

I am taking the IQ thing to mean that good chocolate can make you smarter. Boom.

So, how to avoid the mob boss?

Ways to Increase Magnesium and Decrease Depression

Magnesium Oil

Besides food, magnesium can be effectively absorbed through the skin. While I eat a magnesium rich diet, magnesium oil is my personal favorite method of magnesium replacement therapy. I make my own by mixing one part hot water with one part magnesium salts, or you can just buy magnesium oil already made. I just rub it on (or spray it on) a few times a day if I feel I need to.

Foods High in Magnesium

Magnesium supplements can cause stomach upset or diarrhea (making magnesium an effective laxative). Having it come out the other end means less time in the body for absorption. The sooner it's gone, the less you absorb, which may make high magnesium foods a better choice than supplements, since they stick around in the body a bit longer.

Magnesium rich foods, with the approximate percent of recommended daily values (%DV):

(Actual magnesium levels may vary based on the soil where they were grown.)

  • Pure, quality unprocessed dark chocolate (not a Hershey's bar), 1 cup 108%DV Cocao (unprocessed chocolate) has a much higher nutritional profile compared with cocoa (roasted, processed chocolate), though regular store bought dark chocolate still has a number of benefits, including magnesium. For the most bang for your buck, I like these cocao nibs or cocao powder. Adding sugar will change how easily you absorb the nutrients, though I sometimes add these items to smoothies with a little raw honey.
  • Spinach and other dark leafy greens like Swiss chard: 1 cup, 37% DV
  • Halibut: 3 oz, 23%DV
  • Pumpkin or squash seeds: 1/4 cup, 47% DV
  • Sesame seeds: 1/4 cup, 31%DV
  • Lentils: 1oz, 37%DV
  • Brown Rice: 1 cup, 21%DV
  • Black Beans: 1 cup, 30%DV
  • Sunflower Seeds: 1/4 cup, 28%DV
  • Cashews: 1/4cup, 25%DV
  • Almonds: 1/4 cup, 24%DV
  • Navy Beans: 1 cup, 24%DV
  • Tempeh (fermented soybeans) 4 oz cooked, 22%DV    
  • Buckwheat: 1 cup, 21%DV
  • Pinto Beans: 1 cup, 21%DV
  • Quinoa: 1 cup, 21%DV    
  • Bananas: 1 large, 10%DV
  • Avocado: 1 large, 9%DV
  • Blackstrap Molasses: 2 tsp, 7%DV    
  • Dried fruit like figs or prunes: 1%DV per piece (though eating them in the quantity that would replace magnesium levels may have more of a laxative effect than the magnesium supplements)  

For an added treat, I often mix a couple cups of warm milk with a few tablespoons of blackstrap molasses, vanilla and a dash of raw honey. If you really want to up the nutritional value for a picky eater, add a few pastured egg yolks and coconut oil and stir over low heat until it thickens (cooking the eggs without scrambling them). You can also add chocolate to it for a souped-up hot cocao. My kids dig their "molasses coffee". 

And there's always the chocolate. 

"Who would have thought that chocolate was good for you?" (Said no woman ever.)

Have you ever been diagnosed with low Magnesium levels? Did your mood change when the condition was treated? And most importantly...did you treat it with chocolate?

*Magnesium should be used as a supplement, not as a stand alone treatment for depression. If you are suffering from major depression, please seek the assistance of a clinician. 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease
A look at the effects of processed food on the brain.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
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Help Me, I'm Sad: Recognizing, Treating, and Preventing Childhood and Adolescent Depression
A deep but easily readable look into the world of childhood and adolescent depression.

Listening to Prozac: The Landmark Book About Antidepressants and the Remaking of the Self, Revised Edition
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Against Depression
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Prescription for Nutritional Healing
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Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia
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Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats
Great book on nutrition that includes old world recipes to get back to basics