To understand how magnesium contributes to high-quality sleep we must first understand what magnesium is. Most of us are likely already aware of magnesium and we may even be aware of its biochemical importance, but what exactly is magnesium? Discovered by the English chemist Sir Humphrey Davy in 1808, magnesium is a relatively lightweight metal with reactive properties found naturally in the earth’s crust. As a naturally occurring element, we consume magnesium in foods every day as part of our diet.
When introduced into our body, magnesium exists as a doubly charged ion Mg2+ and is an essential cofactor in hundreds of biochemical reactions. These reactions include normal metabolic processes, the synthesis and replication of nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), the normal function of cell receptors, normal muscle function, and keeping our electrolyte levels balanced. As such, magnesium deficiency can lead to neuronal excitability (increased strength of a nerve response) and enhanced neuromuscular transmission, and thus to increased wakefulness.
How does magnesium relate to high-quality sleep? We can define high-quality sleep as deep, restful, and uninterrupted sleep, without significant sleep disruption or sleep deprivation. In either case, disturbed neuronal function (both neuronal excitability and enhanced neuromuscular transmission) can cause or contribute to both sleep disruption and sleep deprivation. Neuronal overexcitation is particularly undesirable at night-time, and this enhanced neuronal activity can be suppressed by optimal (sufficiently high) magnesium levels.
Sub-optimal magnesium levels can contribute to insomnia in other ways. For example, nocturnal leg cramps, which are more common during pregnancy, can cause insomnia. In this case, magnesium plays a beneficial role because it modulates neuromuscular transmission to prevent leg muscles from cramping. Another frequent problem that disrupts sleep is obstructive sleep apnea. We know from clinical studies that low magnesium levels are associated with sleep apnea.
Unfortunately, the average western diet is generally deficient in magnesium. Although magnesium is available in many plant foods – including grains, seeds, green vegetables, legumes, and nuts – other natural compounds also present in these foods, including phytate and fiber, can reduce the absorption of magnesium in the intestine. Phytate is found in grains, legumes, and nuts; and fiber is present in all plant foods. Alcohol consumption can also reduce the absorption of dietary magnesium.
Furthermore, high levels of stress can increase the demand for magnesium, as can pregnancy. In the elderly, low magnesium levels are frequently observed and can be related to decreased intake and/or reduced absorption. Other risk factors for magnesium deficiency include diabetes and medications known to lower serum magnesium levels.
A deficiency of dietary magnesium can be balanced with dietary supplements containing magnesium. Magnesium is only sufficiently bioavailable if supplied as a water-soluble mineral compound such as magnesium citrate, magnesium bisglycinate, magnesium fumarate, or magnesium ascorbate. These compounds all release magnesium ions when dissolved in water. Only water-soluble magnesium ions (Mg2+) can be absorbed in the intestine. If you choose to supplement with magnesium, be sure to choose a form of magnesium that is water-soluble and highly bioavailable to improve absorption.
In summary, an adequate daily intake of magnesium, including magnesium-rich foods and dietary supplements, as indicated and when needed, can be highly beneficial for supporting healthy, regenerative, and undisturbed sleep. In addition, certain risk groups, including those experiencing increased levels of daily stress, pregnant women, those with diabetes, and the elderly should consider dietary supplements containing highly bioavailable magnesium.
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