The pursuit of optimal brain health is a priority for women of all ages. Ensuring a well-balanced diet with essential nutrients is crucial for supporting cognitive function. However, with the plethora of information that we have access to, it can be challenging to tease out which vitamins and minerals are most important when it comes to maintaining optimal brain health. 

In this 11-part series, we proceed from Vitamin A to Z (zinc!) to highlight the science-backed benefits of each nutrient, with a specific focus on its significance for women’s cognitive function. We will break down the emerging evidence and highlight which foods serve as rich sources of these nutrients so that you can incorporate them into your healthy, balanced diet.

Last month, we focused our attention on the first micronutrient important for protecting the brain from inflammation – omega-3 fatty acids. We discussed the benefits for omega-3s throughout the lifespan from early childhood development to protection from neurodegenerative diseases as we age. 

This month we turn our attention to magnesium. Magnesium is a naturally occurring, chemical element that plays a role in a number of biological processes such as muscle and nerve function, blood sugar regulation, and bone development. Magnesium also supports the electrical activity of the muscles in the heart– allowing them to contract and beat steadily. Foods rich in magnesium include green leafy vegetables, whole grains, and beans.

Magnesium is essential for a number of cognitive processes including the regulation of neurotransmitters which are chemical messengers that transmit signals between nerve cells in the brain. 

Magnesium specifically helps to maintain the proper balance of these signaling molecules, and recent evidence has found that this is essential to support healthy brain function and mood regulation. 

A 2015 review article published by Grober in the journal Nutrients highlights the role of magnesium in migraine prevention and treatment – a common and often disabling headache disorder more common in women than men. The review article summarizes that patients with cluster headaches and migraines more frequently have low levels of magnesium in their blood. 

To evaluate the effects of prophylactic magnesium supplementation, 81 adult patients with frequent migraine attacks were randomized to receive an oral magnesium pill or a placebo for 12 weeks. The authors found that the frequency of migraine attacks was reduced by 41.6% in the magnesium group and by 15.8% in the placebo group. 

Additionally, the number of symptomatic days that participants experienced was significantly reduced in those who received supplementation. While acknowledging the ‘placebo effect’ in the study, the benefits of magnesium supplementation were exponential. In the hospital setting, intravenous magnesium is a common and effective medication to support symptom improvement in patients presenting with acute migraine headaches. 

Magnesium also helps regulate the body’s response to stress by decreasing the release of hormones like cortisol. 

You may recognize cortisol as it is often referred to as the “stress hormone”. When the body experiences stressful stimuli, such as a physical injury or emotional distress, the adrenal glands release cortisol into the bloodstream. Cortisol helps us cope with stress by increasing blood sugar levels, providing a quick source of energy for the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response. 

However, chronic stress, whether it be physical or emotional in nature, can deplete magnesium levels in the body leading to increased cortisol release. The ongoing state of stress associated with chronic cortisol release has been linked to an increased risk of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. 

To see how magnesium influences this risk, Dr. Benjamin Littenberg published an article in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine in 2015 examining the association between dietary magnesium intake and depressive symptoms in American adults. Dr. Littenberg’s team found a significant association between low magnesium intake and depression, especially in younger adults. While not a replacement for the medical and behavioural therapies for mood disorders, this and other studies raises the interest in utilizing diet and nutritional interventions to modulate mood symptoms. More studies are underway to evaluate the effectiveness of magnesium supplementation as adjunctive treatment for anxiety and depression. 

Overall, adequate magnesium levels are essential for maintaining optimal brain function including the production of neurotransmitters, as well as in managing stress through regulating our cortisol response. In addition to its role in migraine prevention, sufficient magnesium intake through diet or supplementation is important for supporting brain, bone, muscular and cardiovascular health. Stay tuned for the following article on our superfood of the month – beans, an excellent dietary source of magnesium, to find out how you can incorporate more of this mineral in your diet. 

CHECK OUT THE OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES:

Part 1: Vitamin A (to Zinc!)

Part 2: Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)

Part 3: Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin) 

Part 4: Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid)

Part 5: Vitamin B-12

Part 6: Vitamin D

Part 7: Vitamin C

Part 8: Omega-3 fatty acids

Part 9: Magnesium