Inside the Brain Chemistry of Your Body’s Most Valuable Mineral: Magnesium

by Dr. David Minkoff March 26, 2020 6 min read

Athletic woman doing yoga on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

How you can reduce stress and anxiety with Magnesium

We’ve all heard about all the negative effects of stress and the modern lifestyle. 

We’re all rushing around, overworked, in a constant state of fight-or-flight and it has disastrous effects on our health. 

But what if “stress” wasn’t the real problem? 

What if our bodies knew exactly how to cope with the intensity of modern life… if we just gave the body what it needed to thrive? 

And the key may be one little mineral.

The Many Hats of Magnesium

Magnesium is one of the most critical minerals for maintaining optimal health. It wears a lot of different hats in the complex workings of our bodies. 

It’s involved with the absorption of almost every other mineral. That means not having enough magnesium can quickly catalyze other mineral deficiencies and secondary health problems. 

It also plays a crucial role as a cofactor in everything from vitamin D, metabolism, energy production, bone health, cardiovascular health, and at least 300 known biochemical reactions. [1-3]

The Invisible Epidemic: Magnesium Deficiency

Most people don’t realize that they may be magnesium deficient. The problem is that because magnesium plays such an important role in so many other biological properties, it’s easy to misdiagnose. 

With widespread industrial agriculture methods, our soil is quickly becoming stripped of minerals like magnesium. 

Even with a supposedly “healthy” diet, you may not be getting the magnesium you need for health. According to virtually every reliable source you can find, somewhere between 75 and 90% of the American population is magnesium deficient. [1,4]

If you’d like to know more about magnesium deficiency and potential signs, you can check out our in-depth article here. 

The surprising part, though, isn’t that we are magnesium deficient. 

The most astonishing part about this hidden epidemic is that it may actually destroy your ability to handle stress.

Hyper Activation: Stress and Anxiety

One of the biggest problems we blame on the modern lifestyle is this feeling of “never turning off.” 

Our brains seem to always be going and going and going. 

This is one of the primary drivers of anxiety, where our nervous system is so over-driven we just can’t seem to relax.

Magnesium turns down the volume on our nervous system and stress levels in two important ways. 

The first way has to do with the connections between brain cells. The second way has to do with the “neurotransmitter of relaxation.” Let’s start with the first one. 

How Mg Blocks the NMDA Receptor… and Relaxation

The connection between brain cells (neurons) is called the synapse. 

The synapse is that tiny gap between two neurons where they communicate through biochemical messenger molecules called neurotransmitters. 

Usually, a neurotransmitter fits into a receptor like a key fits into a lock. Then the lock turns and sends the signal to the inside of the cell.

In the picture above, neurotransmitters are the little yellow dots. The receptors are the bigger yellow blops on the left side. 

One of the most powerful stimulating neurotransmitters is called glutamate. It’s so powerful, that too much can actually kill a neuron if there is too much of it. It binds to a receptor in the synapse called an NMDA receptor. 

But what’s interesting is that there is also a high concentration of magnesium in the synapse. 

The magnesium can enter the receptor as well. When it does, it blocks the glutamate. Magnesium is like your brain’s way to keep the glutamate signal from getting too strong. [5-6]

It’s like a natural limiter for your nervous system to keep you from getting spun out, overwhelmed, and stressed out.

But without enough magnesium, glutamate pushes our nervous system into unhealthy hyperactivity, amplifying the sensations of stress and anxiety in our lives. [7]

Magnesium turns down your stress before it even happens. 

Now let’s look at the other way magnesium helps your body cope with stress. 

The Mineral Pump That Keeps You Healthy

Now before we get into the second way magnesium affects your ability to cope with stress and relax, we need to get into a bit of biochemistry. 

One of the most important proteins for a healthy body is what’s called the “sodium-potassium pump.” It’s involved in everything from the firing of neurons to muscle contraction to blood pressure. 

You can think of it like a gate-keeper for your cells, making sure you have the right balance of minerals inside the cells for optimal function. 

When you get too much of one mineral, the cells cannot function as well. After a while, this starts showing up as symptoms, depending on which cells are most affected. 

Balance is the key to optimal health, and this little sodium-potassium pump is one way the body maintains balance. 

And, as you might suspect, magnesium plays a critical role in its function. [8,9]

And this sodium-potassium pump is especially important for the “relaxation” signal in your brain. 

The “Relaxation” Neurotransmitter

The other way magnesium buffers us against the negative effects of stress is through a different neurotransmitter called GABA. 

GABA is the relaxation signal in our brains. It turns everything off. That nice relaxed buzz you may feel from a glass of wine? A big part of that comes from the alcohol turning on the GABA signal in your brain. 

The main way GABA affects the body is through the sodium-potassium pump. And like we learned above, magnesium is critical to its proper function. That means without enough magnesium in your body, the GABA signal is broken. [10]

It’s like cutting the wires on the brakes of a car. You can push the pedal all you want, but the car won’t respond. No matter how much GABA signal your brain sends, the rest of the body won't get the message. 

That means stress –– and all of the problems that come with it –– keeps on piling up even when you should be relaxing.

And all because of magnesium deficiency. 

Magnesium and Sleep Quality

Any time your nervous system is overactive, you will likely find sleep problems. 

As we just learned, one of the many side-effects of magnesium deficiency is too much glutamate stimulation, which can push us into stress and anxiety. 

Another side effect is not having enough GABA signal to calm things down. So without magnesium, our stress levels go up and we lose the ability to recover and relax. 

It should come as no surprise, then that one of the most common uses of magnesium supplements is as a sleep aid. [11]

Research also shows that magnesium may increase melatonin –– the sleep hormone –– during sleep. [12]

With the combination of reducing glutamate, boosting GABA, and increasing melatonin, Magnesium helps your nervous system calm down at night so you can more easily drop into the “rest and relax” state you need for rejuvenating sleep.

Adding Magnesium Into Your Daily Routine

There are many ways to get more magnesium into your body. 

The first one is through diet. Magnesium-rich foods include: 

Nuts, chocolate, dark leafy greens, dates, figs, avocado, whole grains like buckwheat, barley, millet, and rye, and seaweed.

Now, because of soil depletion, the mineral content of most foods continues to fall –– even organic food. So you may want to consider supplementation. 

When it comes to supplementation, there are many options. 

Your skin is highly absorbent and is an excellent route to get more magnesium into your body. 

Magnesium Oil - this is a mineral oil rich in magnesium. The oil helps carry the magnesium through the upper layers of the skin and deeper into the fascia and capillaries. 
Epsom SaltBath - The chemical composition of epsom salt is Magnesium Sulfate. Taking a hot bath with 1-2 cups of epsom salt opens up the pores of your skin and helps the magnesium penetrate deep into your muscle tissue, relaxing your muscles, easing the stress response, and bypasses the digestive tract to get the magnesium directly into your body.
Magnesium Supplements - Oral supplements are also an easy and effective way to get more magnesium into your body. It’s important to take care, however, as different forms of magnesium absorb differently. 
Magnesium citrate has the highest absorption. 

A Multi-Layered Approach to Stress-Free Living

Magnesium is a critical piece of the optimal health puzzle.

However, please understand that we are not suggesting magnesium will miraculously solve your life problems. No amount of a mineral supplement will compensate for an unhealthy lifestyle.

Getting enough magnesium will, however, supply your body and brain with the resources they need to properly regulate your health, and help you get the rest, relaxation, and deep sleep you need.

And in our hectic modern world, we all need all the help we can get. 


  2. DiSilvestro R. Handbook of Minerals as Nutritional Supplements. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press; 2004.
  3. Kimura M. Overview of Magnesium Nutrition. In: International Magnesium Symposium. New 
  4. 13. World Health Organization. Calcium and Magnesium in Drinking Water: Public health significance. Geneva: World Health Organization Press; 2009.
  8. Gupta R, Gupta P, Moore R: NMR studies of intracellular metal ions in intact cells and tissues. Annu Rev Biophys Bioeng 1984; 13:221-246
  9. Rude RK: Physiology of magnesium metabolism and the important role of magnesium in potassium deficiency. Am J Cardiol 1989; 63:31-34

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.