Think of all the jobs the nervous system must perform. Every activity of life, from the respiration of a single cell, to a gross motor function such as piloting an aircraft, is controlled by the nerves.
Yet nutrition as it applies to the nerves is a sadly neglected affair. Any schoolchild knows he needs plenty of protein for muscle, vitamin C for healthy gums, and calcium for strong bones. But ask him what foods are good for his nerves and chances are he doesn't know. Fortunately, the fats, proteins, and vitamins that are needed for healthy nerve tissue are fairly abundant in the diet. However, one nutrient that recent research has found to be lacking in the diets of most people, and which lack may be the cause, of so much nervous illness, is magnesium. Information on, the essentiality of magnesium to the nerves was published by Penn and Loewenstein of Columbia University in Science (January, 1966), and will be discussed in a later chapter. Taking advantage of new advances in electronic measuring techniques, the scientists studied the electrical conduction of currents by the nerves. Their most important finding was that while calcium is the prime conductor of these minute electrical currents, it is magnesium that maintains normal levels of calcium in the system.
How does magnesium regulate calcium levels? Inside the body, these two minerals are positively charged. When they come into contact with negatively charged particles, an electrical current is formed. It is believed that fatty acids comprising the major portion of nerve tissue are negatively charged. It is for this reason, then, that calcium and magnesium supplies must be constantly renewed; without them, the flow of current by the nerves cannot be maintained.
In, like fashion, a storage battery "works" only when a positive and a negative electrode are present to maintain an electrical current. When the positive plates become exhausted, the battery is no longer any good. By this same mechanism, small amounts of electrical currents flow from the calcium ion to the negatively charged nerve lipids. When magnesium levels are low, the calcium supply becomes exhausted, and in the absence of adequate calcium, the nerve cells cease to function.
Magnesium works in other ways to preserve the health of the nervous system. By the twentieth century, doctors had learned that magnesium injections exert a depressant effect upon the nerves. In fact, one of the early uses of the mineral was to induce sleep. It is significant that hibernating animals have very high magnesium levels. Magnesium has also been shown effective in controlling convulsions, in pregnant women, epileptic seizures, and "the shakes" in alcoholics.
Yet one of the paradoxical effects of the mineral upon the nerves is that a magnesium-deficient person who takes magnesium feels more energetic than before, even though the mineral is a depressant and not a stimulant. Actually, magnesium relieves the nervous irritability and excessive energy that give rise to fatigue in the first place.
It should not be surprising, then, that when a person's magnesium level is subnormal, the nerves are unable to control such functions as muscle movement, respiration, and mental processes. Twitching, irregular heartbeat, irritability, and nervous fatigue are symptoms of what is frequently found to be magnesium depletion.
Most often, deficiency is simply a result of failure to obtain adequate magnesium from such dietary sources as wheat germ, cocoa, desiccated liver, eggs, green vegetables, soybeans, and almonds. In some instances, however, absorption of nutrients can be impaired by coexisting illness, such as an intestinal infection. In such an event, much of the ingested magnesium may be lost from the body.
A case history presented in the Archives of Neurology (June, 1965) by Dr. Robert Fishman of New York illustrates just how "inadequate dietary intake coupled with excess gastrointestinal loss" can lead to a host of nervous disorders.
A 29-year-old man suffering from intestinal trouble for six years finally had large portions of the large and small colon removed. Six months later, he was readmitted to the hospital for a broken vertebra resulting from a "generalized convulsion" he had experienced during sleep. Dr. Fishman writes: "During the week prior to admission, he was noted by his family to be increasingly irritable and mildly confused, and to have twitching of the muscles of the face, hands, and feet."
The patient, described as "agitated" and "anxious," soon suffered a second convulsion. His pulse was 140 beats per minute (70 is average). After injections of magnesium sulfate were administered, his restlessness and neuromuscular difficulty disappeared. As bowel function improved, his need for magnesium gradually diminished.
Animals, too, can develop neurological damage when their diet is deficient in magnesium. Grass tetany results when cattle cannot obtain magnesium in ample amounts from chlorophyll, the green coloring matter in grass. Muscle spasms, frothing at the mouth, hypersensitivity, increased pulse rate, and fatal convulsions may occur in prolonged depletion.
Sometimes magnesium deficiency can cause disorders so severe that massive doses of magnesium by injection are required. High doses of injected magnesium, however, can cause profound depression of the entire nervous system and, ultimately, respiratory paralysis. The possibility of this danger is increased when a pregnant woman develops preeclampsia.
This condition, which affects about one in 500 pregnant women, may consist of convulsions, nausea, dizziness, and headache. It is believed that defective chemical substances in the blood or products derived from the placenta are unable to be excreted properly and may cause harm to the fetus. It has become almost routine for hospitals to inject the mother with magnesium to control eclamptic convulsions and to facilitate kidney function.
The uses of magnesium for nerve health still require further research, but even from the results of the few studies already made, we can be certain that unless our bodies are adequately fortified with this mineral, the nervous system can degenerate seriously.
During 1966, there were published in The Lancet an article and successive letters dealing with a degenerative nervous disease that was observed among patients in Nigeria, one of the larger African countries. The original article by a Nigerian doctor, Professor Monekosso, described the disease carefully and, in effect, appealed for help in treating it. The disease was characterized by "mental apathy and depression; ataxia [loss of coordination]; decreased motor power, bulk, and tone; foot drop and wrist drop; calk tenderness, and limbs cold to the touch." The senses of touch and hearing were also impaired.
The symptoms were clearly suggestive of a form of beriberi, the thiamine (vitamin B1)deficiency disease, and sure enough, on investigation it turned out that the thiamine intake of these patients was inadequate. However, administration of either thiamine alone or vitamin B complex did not cure them.
One of the later letters commenting on this article was written by Dr. Joan Caddell of the George Washington School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. It was published in the October 1, 1966, issue of The Lancet. It was the opinion of Dr. Caddell that magnesium deficiency was probably involved because of the essential role of magnesium in the biosynthesis and activation of thiamine pyrophosphate. . . . What she was really saying was that sometimes a thiamine deficiency is caused by a deficiency of magnesium and therefore it will not be cured by the administration of thiamine alone. Quoting her own experience in Nigeria, she stated:
"Malnourished young Nigerian children from the same cultural group as the above [Monekosso] patients developed a similar syndrome, often with more acute features. The children had had severe, prolonged gastroenteritis and had received a diet of cornstarch and cassava. Vitamin-B enriched protein-milk therapy aggravated the syndrome, sometimes with the development of staring, nysthemus, ataxia, tremors, or convulsions. Magnesium deficiency was biochemically established by analysis of skeletal muscle and plasma. The symptoms were reversed after addition of magnesium to the therapy."
The exchange provides an excellent illustration of how much medicine has yet to learn about the many roles of magnesium in human metabolism and its indispensability to general health. The fact is that, as new studies are published and new discoveries made, it is becoming clearer and clearer that magnesium is one of the basic nutrients needed for a healthy nervous system and therefore almost any affliction in any part of the body might turn out to be actually an illness of the nerves that are involved because they are deficient in magnesium.
Epilepsy is one good example of this. As far back as recorded history goes, the "falling disease" has been one of the great mysteries of medicine. While dozens and hundreds of other illnesses responded to investigation, epilepsy remained unexplained and untreatable by any known method. It, is only within the past year that there has been published work revealing that epilepsy is accompanied by a lower than normal level of magnesium in the spinal fluid, and that administration of magnesium can be expected to bring about quick improvement. It is a field that still requires much investigation, but present indications are that deficient magnesium in the spine, and the subsequent effect on major nerves of the spine running to and from the brain, may be the actual cause of epilepsy. Later in this book we will see that this work emerging from the Hereford Clinic and Deaf Smith Research Foundation in Hereford, Texas, under the direction of Lewis B. Barnett, M.D., further establishes wide-range effects that magnesium nutrition has on the nervous system.
Most recently, there was published in The Lancet (April 1, 1967), a case history of a newborn infant who developed convulsions because a metabolic abnormality did not permit the child to utilize its magnesium intake properly. "On three occasions withdrawing or decreasing magnesium supplements led to a fall in both plasma-magnesium and plasma-calcium levels and to recurrence of the convulsions." This is more evidence that if the nervous system is deprived of adequate magnesium the entire person will suffer for it.
If additional evidence were needed that healthy nerves require magnesium, it would certainly be supplied by the recent investigational studies entering into the development of "memory pills" at the Abbott Laboratories in Chicago. Memory, of course, is one of the primary and most important functions of the human nervous system. And the stimulant to memory and other mental function that is being developed at Abbott has magnesium as its basis.
In other recent studies we have learned that the motor nerves--those that carry messages by electrical impulse from the brain to the muscles--are dependent on magnesium for the ability to conduct these minute electrical messages properly. Now we are learning that magnesium is equally important to the central nervous system (spinal cord), and to the brain itself. Add to this the essentiality of the same mineral for hard healthy bones and teeth and for the functioning of many of our enzyme systems, and we believe it becomes perfectly clear that a person would have to be a fool to take any chance on not getting enough magnesium for even a single day.
This page was first uploaded to The Magnesium Web Site on January 3, 2001