Forget those prescription drugs or the latest exercise fads – it turns out Dr. Mum has had the key to preventing heart disease all along!
Mums and grandmas have known forever about the importance of magnesium. It’s been used to heal wounds since the 1600s, and I bet at some point your mother threw you into an epsom salt (a.k.a. magnesium salt) bath to help relieve sore muscles or even a stubborn cold.
But when it comes to preventing serious and chronic health conditions, magnesium has failed to get the respect it deserves.
Magnesium helps promote everything from strong bones to a good night’s sleep – but other supplements like calcium and melatonin seem to grab all the headlines.
But now it looks like magnesium is about to be recognized as the hero mineral it is. Because a growing body of research is proving that it can hold the key to protecting your heart – and even stopping a deadly heart attack before it ever strikes.
The heart’s silent saviour
Magnesium’s ability to fight inflammation has long been tremendously underappreciated. But it’s so important, because we’re learning that inflammation is the hidden culprit that starts to break down your body’s organs, including your cardiovascular system.
It begins when the cells that line your arteries (a.k.a. the ‘endothelium’) become inflamed. In response, your body produces inflammatory messengers (like C-reactive protein, nuclear factor kappa B, and cytokines) and puts platelets on the injured cells in a process called thrombosis. Your body further attempts to heal the area by using cholesterol and other substances to ‘patch’ the wound.
But the patch, called an atheroma, later collects calcium and fibrous tissue, which eventually harden into plaque and obstruct the artery. That’s when you develop a serious condition like atherosclerosis.
And hardened arteries can lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, or other problems that collectively are called ASCVD (atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease).
Stop cardiovascular disease before it starts
Research shows that if you’re getting enough magnesium, your body is less likely to go through that inflammatory response in the first place.
In one of the studies that supports the use of magnesium in atherosclerosis, rabbits with varying levels of cholesterol (from low to high) were fed a diet either low or high in magnesium. As expected, the most aortic plaque formation occurred in the group with high cholesterol and low magnesium.1
But here’s the really interesting part: the ones with both high cholesterol AND high magnesium were almost plaque-free!
Since then, several other animal studies have supported the same conclusion: dietary magnesium can prevent arterial clot formation and therefore prevent ASCVD.
But it’s not just about inflammation. Magnesium can also prevent you from having a heart attack, keep your blood pressure from getting too high, and make sure you’ve got enough good cholesterol and not too much of the bad stuff.
Blocking calcium: Magnesium is the body’s natural calcium-channel blocker. That’s a good thing because too much calcium in the cells can result in too much muscle contraction – and since your heart is a muscle, you’ll want to keep it nice and relaxed if you want to avoid a heart attack.
Here’s how it works: when magnesium moves from its regular place inside your body’s cells, through the cell membrane to outside the cell, it blocks calcium from entering the cells. This leads to less production of the two main hormones that contribute to high blood pressure – angiotensin and aldosterone – and the result is lowered blood pressure.
Balanced cholesterol: Additionally, magnesium can help keep your cholesterol balance in check. Its presence is necessary for many of your body’s enzymes to work properly – including ‘lipoprotein lipase’, the enzyme that increases your production of ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL) and keeps your triglycerides from getting too high.
On the other side of the coin, magnesium also lowers the ‘bad’ cholesterol LDL by a mechanism related to its role in metabolizing lecithin, a nutrient mixture critical in balancing lipids in the body.
Finally, magnesium can also work in the same way that statins do: by inhibiting HMG-CoA, the enzyme that makes cholesterol in your body in the first place. Only, with magnesium, you don’t get all those scary side effects and risks.
Without magnesium, your heart disease can get worse fast
If you’ve already got ASCVD, studies show that magnesium can prevent it from getting any worse – and can even improve your condition!
A common way doctors evaluate the severity of your atherosclerosis is by measuring a biomarker called Carotid Artery Intima Medial Thickness, or CIMT. The thicker the artery, the more severe the condition.
One study showed that supplementing haemodialysis patients with just 100mg of magnesium a day for two months actually lowered their CIMT – that is, the magnesium REDUCED the thickness of their arteries!2
The reverse is also true. The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study3 showed that lower levels of magnesium intake resulted in thicker arteries (and therefore a higher CIMT). This was more significant in women than in men in this study, and it appears from other studies as well that women are particularly susceptible to the cardiovascular damage associated with low magnesium.
Magnesium also seems to protect against some of the potentially disastrous consequences of ASCVD, including getting hit with a stroke.
In 2012, several studies on the link between magnesium and stroke were compared for common effects and combined, so that the researchers could see possibly significant findings that weren’t obvious in the individual studies. Among the 240,000-odd participants who were included, 100mg of magnesium daily was associated with an 8 per cent reduction in the type of stroke caused by a blockage of an artery that brings blood to the brain (called ‘ischaemic stroke’).4
Your risk of stroke can also be increased by atrial fibrillation, a dangerous complication of cardiovascular surgery that can also be lessened by magnesium before you go under the knife. In one study, only 2 per cent of patients treated with IV magnesium sulphate before cardiac bypass surgery experienced the irregular heart rate associated with atrial fibrillation – far less than 21 per cent of the untreated group.
I always wonder how many lives could be saved by loading a patient with magnesium before performing the thousands of potentially dangerous cardiovascular surgeries that are the bread-and-butter of many modern hospitals.
And that’s just the beginning…
I’ve got lots more to talk about regarding magnesium, so stay tuned for a continuation on the topic in next month’s newsletter. I’ll talk more about intravenous magnesium therapy, which can be beneficial for lots of other conditions. In my office, we use it for everything from chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia to hypertension, angina, asthma, and even panic disorder. In next month’s issue, I’ll also take you through the various forms of oral magnesium supplements and ways to get your magnesium levels checked.
In the meantime, it can’t hurt to load up on a magnesium-rich diet, like spinach and other dark leafy greens, bananas, nuts and seeds, fish, avocado, and even… wait for it… dark chocolate! Magnesium is hiding in all of these delicious foods, just waiting to work its wonders on your heart health.
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Vol. 10, Issue 2 • February 2016
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.