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Book: Magnesium, The Nutrient That Could Change Your Life

Title Page and Table of Contents


8. THE MINERAL OF LIFE

Recent studies are throwing more and more light on the metabolic role of magnesium. Because progress in learning about this trace mineral has been painfully slow, however, we often see what magnesium does without understanding how it does it. We know, for instance, that magnesium bonds calcium and phosphate to teeth, thus strengthening resistance to decay, without understanding the mechanism involved. But now with the availability of the radioactive isotope magnesium 28, scientists have been learning more about how this mineral is absorbed, transported, and utilized in the body.

A comprehensive review of the subject appears in a book called The Role of Magnesium in Biologic Processes (Thomas publishers, 1963) and a 1965 supplement by J. K. Aikawa, M.D., associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado. His supplement informs us that magnesium plays important roles in bone metabolism, energy-giving processes, and in formation of nucleic acids that control the behavior and properties of living cells.

To understand how magnesium functions, we must consider its activity as an electrolyte, which is an element whose atoms contain an electric charge that is either positive or negative. The balance of these charged particles in our bodies is actually slightly more positive than negative. The magnesium cation with its positive charge is an active electrolyte that is constantly moving back and forth across cell membranes to maintain the proper balance. Scientists are still unsure of the mechanism that transports magnesium across membranes, but they have some theories.

 

Proper Amount Absorbed

Absorption into the gastrointestinal tract, for example seems to depend upon the load presented to the mucous membranes of the intestine. A study by L. Graham, J. Caesar, and A. Burger was reported in Metabolism (Vol. 9, 1960). Radioactive magnesium was used to trace the activities of the mineral. This radioactive form used for study purposes is not the type obtained from our diet.

In man, it was observed that, on a diet with an average amount of magnesium, 44 percent of the ingested radioactivity was absorbed; on a low-magnesium diet, 76 percent was absorbed; and on a high- magnesium diet, only 24 percent was absorbed.

These results indicate that there is no need ever to fear an overload of magnesium in the diet. Any excess will be excreted harmlessly, whereas a deficiency could have serious results.

How does absorption occur in the small intestine? The presence of calcium is an influencing factor. Magnesium and calcium have a natural affinity for each other. Scientists have learned that if either of the minerals is consumed greatly in excess, it will be carried out of the system with the aid of the other element. However, these minerals are absorbed more easily when they are both present than when either is present alone. Thus, a deficiency of either element can cause a deficiency of the other as well, particularly in tissues where they are needed.

A study published in Clinical Science (Vol. 22, 1962) by N. Alcock and I. MacIntyre demonstrates this concept. It was observed that absorption of both magnesium and calcium was impaired in magnesium-deficient rats. Additional dietary calcium aggravated magnesium deficiency, but the absence of calcium enhanced magnesium absorption. Dr. Aikawa remarks: "These results suggest the existence of a common mechanism for transporting calcium and magnesium across the intestinal wall."

Bone structures, which contain about 60 percent of the body's magnesium store, are also related to mineral transport. Dr. Aikawa observes two ways in which magnesium becomes a part of bone: living bone cells draw the element into the structure; or the mineral may simply adhere to the bone surface through a process called passive adsorption.

In laboratory tests, bone cortex and serum albumin both compete for the absorption of magnesium. Dr. Aikawa states: "Such a mechanism might play a role in the in vivo [in a living organism] balance between storage of bone and maintenance of the extracellular concentration of magnesium."

 

Enzyme Activator

Magnesium regulates the functions of cells other than bone. Certain small bodies within normal cells called mitochondria are considered the cells chief source of energy because they contain the enzymes that burn glucose to release energy. This burning of glucose, however, does not take place unless the enzymes are activated by an auxiliary substance. Magnesium, recognized to be an activator for many enzymes, plays an important role in this regard.

The mitochondria transport certain electrolytes and can take up or force out water, but to perform these activities, energy is again required. The studies of H. Baltscheffsky suggest that magnesium is specifically involved in regulating mitochondrial respiration, a process in which oxygen is taken in and carbon dioxide is given off.

One of his experiments, published in Biochim. Biophys. Acta (Vol. 20, 1965), revealed that when mitochondria were placed in a magnesium-free medium, the rate of respiration increased spontaneously. Baltscheffsky suggested that the swelling and structural disintegration of mitochondria were responsible for this increased rate, since it appears that magnesium is linked to mitochondria by a bond; if this bond breaks, respiratory rate is affected.

Magnesium is also "an absolute requirement for the, binding of phosphate," according to Dr. Aikawa. There are two kinds of binding--active and passive. He sums up this complex but vital transport function: "Since mitochondrion is probably a model for cell membranes generally, coupled translocation of [the magnesium ion] and phosphate in the mitochondrion provides the first intimate glimpse into the active, transport which goes on in a living system."

The structure of RNA (ribonucleic acid), the genetic substance that synthesizes protein, is built upon magnesium. RNA is believed to control thought and memory and the structure of all organs. The mineral has been observed to preserve the integrity of ribosomes, which contain tiny particles of nucleic acid molecules. Dr. Aikawa underlines the importance of this added responsibility: "The ribosomes from adult frog liver are subunits of RNA protein held together by magnesium. Removal of magnesium from frog liver or whole tadpoles by versene breaks the normal aggregation of 80 to 100 S particles into two to four S pieces."

Undoubtedly, many more functions of magnesium will be discovered in the coming years.

As Dr. Aikawa notes: "In the final analysis, the ultimate explanation of the fact that magnesium alone is operative in such diverse but fundamental cellular processes must be based on the unique atomic structure of this element. Just how it is unique remains to be ascertained." To us it means that, while the emerging biochemical information may be complicated and difficult to understand, its underlying meaning is simple and basic. It has been learned and established that magnesium is a key element in indispensable life processes. Without enough magnesium in the system, life itself is threatened. And since we cannot harm ourselves with an excess, it is better to take too much than too little.

How magnesium, along with calcium, helps the body to sustain a healthy nervous system is new information, that has recently been unveiled in a report from Columbia University. It is signed by Richard D. Penn and Werner R. Loewenstein and appeared in Volume 151 of Science (January, 1966) the organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

 

Electrical Impulses

The new knowledge the report brings forth relates to the electrical nature of nerve impulses, which is probably why it has taken so long for laboratory science to learn these essential facts. Until the development of very new instruments capable of measuring the microcurrents of electricity that pass along the nerves, all such studies were doomed to failure.

But the instruments now exist, and with their aid Penn and Loewenstein were able to measure what happens to the electrical currents conducted along a chain of nerve cells under various circumstances.

 

Free Calcium Conductor

It was found that the nerve cells, as might have been expected, transmit minute electrical currents from one to another at the point where the cells join. It was also found, however, that the calcium existing in a free state in the fluid outside the cell acts as a conductor. And as, little by little, the calcium in this fluid bath was decreased, the amount of current that one cell was able to transmit to another also decreased. "At a certain level of calcium withdrawal from the cell system, junctional conductance reaches a critical low point at which the cells become functionally disconnected: the nerve impulses which are normally discharged in synchrony by the cells become asynchronous. These effects of calcium on junctional connections are irreversible . . ."

What this means, more specifically, is that Penn and Loewenstein have found that when there is insufficient free calcium in the serum, the individual nerve cells seal themselves off and actually increase their resistance to the transmission of electrical nerve impulses. There is thus a double action, the assistance of calcium as a conductor being also lost. As a consequence, an insufficiency of calcium leads to an inability of the nerves to conduct commands to the various organs of the body properly. Moreover, once this insufficiency has become established, it cannot be reversed. No amount of calcium in the diet will restore the health of nerves already damaged by a deficiency of this precious mineral.

 

Magnesium As Good

According to Penn and Loewenstein, the only protection we have against the ill effects of such a calcium deficiency would seem to be the maintenance of a high serum magnesium level. "Magnesium seems to substitute for calcium in maintaining intercellular communication." They go on to show that the nerve cells did not uncouple (sever their points of contact) as long as there was a good supply of magnesium in the serum, even without calcium.

In other words, a sensible person desiring to maintain a healthy nervous system, which in turn is vital to general health, will make certain that the level of free calcium and magnesium in his blood serum is always a high one. Don't think you can get along without these minerals for a few months and then catch up later. Damage will be done, and once done, it cannot be repaired.

Even though there are many good food sources of both these minerals, to maintain a really high serum level we must face the problem not only of eating them but also of absorbing what we eat. And it is for purposes of absorption that we recommend that everyone take supplements of both bone meal and dolomite. These mineral supplements provide a complex of mineral nutrients in the proportions that best promote complete absorption and use by the human metabolism. If you take them daily, you can feel confident that you will never suffer from a calcium or magnesium deficiency.


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