The benefits of increasing your magnesium intake: Less stress and better cognitive function

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published April 10, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Magnesium deficiencies can increase the risks of stress, and stress can increase the chances of magnesium deficiencies.

  • Working the other way around, magnesium intake may decrease stress levels and have other cognitive health benefits.

  • Doctors can assess patients for magnesium deficiency by asking them about their diets and symptoms of stress and conducting blood or urine testing.

It’s well established that magnesium deficiency increases the body’s susceptibility to stress and that stress can increase the risks of magnesium deficiencies. But to what extent can increasing magnesium intake reduce stress, too? And does the electrolyte have other cognitive health benefits?[]

Here’s what we know.

The vicious circle of magnesium and stress

Known as the “Vicious Circle Concept,” research on magnesium and stress interactions was first brought to light in the 1990s. According to a 2020 review in the journal Nutrients, multiple studies suggest that “stress [can] increase magnesium loss, causing a deficiency; and in turn, magnesium deficiency [can] enhance the body’s susceptibility to stress.”[]

Thirty years later, the relevance of these findings stands—and, to match the towering stress levels found in today’s society—they may stand taller now than ever.[] A study from The Pennsylvania State University showed that middle-aged people in the 2010s were about 19 percent more stressed than middle-aged people in the 1990s. Further, several researchers have noted that COVID-19 increased stress levels among people of all ages.

According to research, about half of the US population doesn’t get enough magnesium.[] 

As physicians, it can help to educate yourself and your patients on magnesium and stress connections to help advise patients when and how they should increase their intake.

Magnesium benefits

Studies show that magnesium intake can decrease levels for people who are magnesium deficient. It may have extra benefits for people with normal magnesium levels and intake too—but more studies are needed to confirm.

​​Sony Sherpa, MD, a holistic physician and health writer for the site Nature's Rise, says while “the exact mechanism of action is unknown, some researchers believe that magnesium helps regulate hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can become unbalanced during times of stress and anxiety.”

According to the book Magnesium in the Central Nervous System, magnesium can stimulate receptors in the brain to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety.[] Some ways it can do this is by reducing the actions taking place in the calcium channel as well as in NMDA receptors, as a result reducing releases of epinephrine and nor-epinephrine, and increasing GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) concentration in certain brain areas. GABA receptors help slow down brain activity and can help induce relaxation.[]

Other studies in animals have connected magnesium deficiency to enhanced anxiety. Mice in the study showed sensitivity to treatment with anxiolytics and antidepressants.[]

“Magnesium can be especially beneficial for people suffering from anxiety and stress-related disorders, helps reduce the activity of certain neurotransmitters associated with anxiety, including serotonin and norepinephrine, [and] aids in relieving muscle tension and spasms and helps improve sleep quality, leading to reduced feelings of anxiety and stress,” says Sherpa.

What’s more, magnesium’s benefits could go beyond stress reduction and has the potential to reduce cognitive decline risks with age.

Researchers in Australia found that magnesium-rich foods such as spinach and nuts could promote neuroprotection and reduce risks of dementia as people age.[] The researchers looked at a cohort of 6,000 people in the United Kingdom between the ages of 40 and 73 that they deemed “cognitively healthy.” They found that people who consumed more than 550 mg of magnesium a day had a younger brain—by approximately one year than people who consumed about 350 mg of magnesium a day, which is about the intake recommended by the National Institutes of Health.[]

The researchers suggest their results could help guide new public health interventions and dietary strategies to promote healthy aging.[]

“Magnesium may help protect against age-related degenerative changes to neurons, which can contribute to decreased memory function,” says Sherpa, who was not affiliated with the study. “However, further research is needed to fully assess the potential benefits of magnesium in terms of reducing dementia risk.”

How to know if symptoms indicate magnesium deficiency (hypomagnesemia)?

According to the NIH, normal magnesium levels in the body comes to about 25 g, with about 50 to 60 percent of the electrolyte found in the bones and the rest in soft tissues. About 1 percent of the body’s magnesium is in blood serum, and normal concentration levels range from 0.75 and 0.95 millimoles (mmol)/L, according to NIH. Serum magnesium levels below 0.75 indicate hypomagnesemia or a magnesium deficiency.[][]

But magnesium deficiency can be hard to diagnose based on symptoms alone, especially because stress symptoms can look eerily similar. According to researchers in the journal Nutrients, symptoms of magnesium deficiency and stress can both look like:[]

  • Fatigue (or tiredness)

  • Irritability (or anger)

  • Nervousness (or mild anxiety)

  • Upset stomach (or gastrointestinal problems)

  • Muscle tension (or cramps)

  • Headaches 

  • Tiredness

To help differentiate cause and effect, you may want to ask them about their diet or prescribe them a blood or urine test.

Some symptoms of magnesium deficiency that don't typically overlap with symptoms of stress include sadness, depression, chest pain, or hyperventilation. Some symptoms of stress that don’t typically overlap with symptoms of magnesium deficiency include mild sleep disorders, nausea, or vomiting.[]

Magnesium risks

Increasing magnesium intake can have health benefits, doing so in overload can lead to unfortunate side effects, like diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting.

Natural forms of magnesium

Several foods contain magnesium, so people can increase their intake without taking a magnesium supplement. This can be helpful to make patients aware of especially if they are changing up their diet, as opposed to supplements, or experiencing or have experienced side effects from magnesium supplements. 

Some foods that contain naturally high amounts of magnesium include:[]

  • Nuts

  • Legumes

  • Whole cereals

  • Fruit

  • Coffee

  • Cocoa-based products

Fish, meats, and milk also contain intermediate amounts of magnesium. Plain water does too—especially hard water—but not as much as the above.[]

What this means for you

Magnesium deficiency is linked to increased stress, and increasing magnesium intake may help reduce stress levels—and other cognitive health risks, like dementia. By staying up to date on the benefits of magnesium and signs of magnesium deficiency, you can best advise patients on how and when to vamp up their intake of the electrolyte.

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