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“Do you know much about dairy farming?”. I have to confess, I don’t. This wasn’t a question I was expecting following my presentation, “Bringing Your Best Brain To Work and Play”. However, I was in New Zealand and in an agricultural area, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been that surprised. My questioner then leaned forward and I knew I was about to learn something. “Do you know what happens to dairy cows if they are deficient in magnesium?”. My deficit in dairy farming knowledge was becoming increasingly obvious.

“If a dairy cow doesn’t get enough magnesium, she goes off her legs and starts staggering all over the place. If she doesn’t get an infusion quick, she’ll die of a heart attack.”

Oh, how horrible. Visions of staggering cows with intravenous drips being resuscitated in fields came to mind. Hypomagnesemia or “Grass staggers” is a well-recognised problem in the dairy industry and I was deep in conversation with a retired dairy farmer. What he wanted to know was how this applied to humans and brain health.

Magnesium deficiency is the second most common nutritional deficiency after Vitamin D and is something that we need to be aware of because of its potential impact on health and cognition.

What do we need magnesium for?

Magnesium is an essential dietary mineral needed for a variety of functions including the energy needed for normal muscle and nerve function. We need it for heart health, maintaining our blood pressure,  normal digestion and as a precursor to the formation of serotonin.

In addition, it plays a vital role in regulating our blood sugar and insulin sensitivity, operates as an anti-inflammatory agent, protects us from depression and is important to maintaining good synaptic function.

Why are so many of us low in magnesium?

 There are a number of reasons why. The main culprits include:

  • The Western diet that lacks sufficient dark green leafy greens
  • Advancing age
  • Drinking coffee and caffeinated beverages

 And the biggie: STRESS.

Recognising magnesium deficiency matters because of its potential impact on:

  • Learning and memory
  • Depression
  • Cognition as we age

We learn through our brain’s natural plasticity with the formation of synaptic connections between neurons leading to the formation of neural pathways. This is enhanced by exercise, insulin and the presence of magnesium. Animal studies have revealed how magnesium can enhance learning ability, working memory function, long term memory and sleep quality.

When we are stressed, the body releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in increasing quantities. Cortisol in excess becomes neurotoxic leading to a reduction in brain volume of the hippocampus, the area associated with learning and memory.

The presence of magnesium can alleviate some of the damaging effects of severe chronic stress, which is why Dr Emily Deans Psychiatrist refers to magnesium as the “original chill pill.”

It has been estimated that 20% of us over the age of 55 will experience some form of cognitive impairment. Yikes!! That is 20% too many.

Where to get your nutrients

However, all is not lost. All that is required is to eat brain-healthy foods as found in the Mediterranean and MIND diets, get enough exercise, sufficient sleep and effectively manage our stress to maintain better brain health and function.

Meanwhile, as my friend the dairy farmer reminded me, healthy nutrition is the starting point for a healthy body and brain. For boosting magnesium there’s no better start than eating your greens, especially the dark leafy kind, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, nuts such as almonds and cashews, seeds including pumpkin, sesame and sunflower, beans and legumes, fruits including raspberries, strawberries and cantaloupe melon, quinoa, cacao and tofu.

If we get our nutrition right, we are a long way in front to limit the potential damage our over-busy, over-committed, sleep-deprived lifestyles can inflict on our health and performance.

Whilst magnesium is a vital nutrient, our focus is better directed to what we eat as a whole. Fortunately for us, hypomagnesemia is less likely to be an issue if our eating pattern is predominantly plant-based supplemented with a wide variety of fruits, seeds, nuts, legumes, whole-grains, and lean protein.

 Is your brain-power being diminished by a poor diet?

What could you be doing to ensure you are optimizing your brain health through better nutrition?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

One Comment

  • Marlene Rattigan says:

    A great and relevant post, as usual, Jenny. In Western Australia our soils are very mineral-deficient. As such, farmers give their sheep "salt licks" which have selenium in them. The soil is so deficient in this mineral that the fleece falls of the sheep’s back if they don’t have selenium. There are lots of stories like this. Farmers are a wake-up to such things because it effects their livelihoods. We can have wonderful diets full of loads of fresh veggies but if the soil is deficient in essential minerals the plants cannot possibly uptake them. Awareness is critical. Thanks for reminding us. Also thanks for reminding us of the significance of stress. The best diet goes to hell in a hand basket very quickly if we don’t manage stress. It’s not a bad idea to take a good quality multi mineral and multi vitamin supplement daily -just in case. People have said that just produces expensive urine. In cases of high stress or other reasons, it’s just good insurance. We pay out for expensive insurance premiums annually yet how often do we make a claim? We don’t think twice about it because we know it’s necessary. It’s a shame many people don’t regard their health in the same way.

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