A common mineral deficiency that contributes to insomnia
Magnesium is the most important mineral that can help insomnia. Studies show that insomnia is one of the symptoms of magnesium deficiency. Other symptoms of this deficiency such as restless leg syndrome, muscle cramps and anxiety disorders may also disrupt sleep. There is a consensus from past studies that magnesium supplementation can improve sleep by reversing magnesium deficiency and by other direct effects on the sleep center of the brain. How can such a simple mineral have a profound effect on sleep? Can magnesium really relieve stress-induced insomnia? Read on to find out.
by Brad Chase
Magnesium is one of the essential minerals needed by the body. It is required for the syntheses and activities of a number of important compounds including the chief energy molecule of cells, ATP (adenine triphosphate), as well as the genetic materials, DNA and RNA.
In adults, the daily recommended magnesium intake is 300 – 400 mg. This can be obtained from supplements or foods rich in the mineral.
Magnesium-rich foods include leafy green vegetables, cocoa powder, dark chocolate, nuts, seeds, milk, halibut, oats, peanut butter and unprocessed brans of grains such as wheat and rice.
Of its different roles in the body, the most important functions of magnesium in the body involve nerve conduction, glucose tolerance, blood pressure and sleep.
Magnesium can act directly on cell membranes by closing calcium channels. This reduces electrical conduction in nerves and muscles. Its ability to calm neuronal activity is responsible for its muscle-relaxant and sedative properties.
Because magnesium can also reduce blood pressure, its salts are commonly used to treat hypertension. Magnesium salts are the safest antihypertensives for pregnant women. Therefore, they are the first-line treatment for eclampsia.
In addition, high salt intake and prolonged intravenous feeding can lower magnesium levels.
Other causes of magnesium deficiency include diuretic use, chronic pain and excessive physical exercise.
Magnesium deficiency can cause insomnia by different mechanisms all of which involve hyperexcitability.
One way by which magnesium deficiency may disturb sleep is through restless leg syndrome. Low magnesium levels lead to poor control of electrical conduction in the neurons present in the muscles. This leads to a prolong opening of the calcium channels and increased muscular activity.
The result of such magnesium deprivation is muscle spasms that present as restless leg syndrome.
Restless leg syndrome is the term used to describe the involuntary movement of limbs caused by magnesium deficiency. In most cases, it gets worse at night and can, therefore, interfere with sleep.
Restless leg syndrome causes the sufferer to wake up repeatedly during the night. In this way, it induces insomnia. To correct this type of insomnia, the underlying cause (restless leg syndrome) must first be addressed by raising magnesium levels.
Besides muscle spasms and restless leg syndrome, magnesium deficiency can also directly lead to insomnia.
There are reports that magnesium supplementation increases vivid dreaming in some users. While this is often described as a side effect, it is really the result of the effect of magnesium on sleep architecture.
Increased vivid dreaming is an indication that magnesium promotes slow wave or “deep” sleep.
Much as magnesium reduces nerve conduction in the muscles, it can also slow down neuronal activities in the brain. By reducing the electrical conduction between brain cells, magnesium reduces the “noise” signals that cause anxiety and sleeplessness. Instead, it induces calm and promotes sedation.
Because even marginal magnesium deficiency can cause muscle spasms, irregular heart beat and hyperexcitability, it is quite easy for low magnesium levels to set off insomnia.
Fortunately, such insomnia can be treated by simply raising magnesium levels with diet or supplements.
According to this 1980 study, the link between magnesium and sleep is developed early in life. The study published in the European Journal of Pediatrics involved 14 full-term newborns whose sleep behaviors were correlated to their serum magnesium levels.
The researchers compared the infants’ serum magnesium levels during active sleep and quiet sleep.
They found that serum magnesium levels were higher when the duration of quiet sleep was increased. Also, as active sleep increased, serum magnesium levels decreased. To increase magnesium levels, the researchers gave the infants magnesium injections.
Quiet sleep corresponds to deep sleep while active sleep involved body movements. During quiet sleep, the infants’ muscle tone and body movements decreased.
This study shows that magnesium promotes deep sleep and calm. In addition, it demonstrates that the mechanism by which magnesium improved the duration and quality of sleep was fully developed even during infancy.
This direct link between magnesium and sleep early in life indicates that magnesium promotes sleep by increasing the level of certain natural compounds in the central nervous system.
If magnesium levels are directly linked to sleep quality in infancy, is the link still present in old age? A 2013 study published in Zahedan Journal of Research in Medical Sciences provided good evidence that the link is still present.
In the double-blind study, the researchers recruited 46 obese, elderly insomnia patients. Each of them was given either placebo or 500 mg/day of magnesium for 8 weeks.
The results of the study showed that while magnesium supplementation did not significantly increase serum magnesium levels in the treatment group, it did improve sleep and physical activity in the participants.
This study confirms that magnesium supplementation is effective for treating insomnia even in the elderly.
A similarly designed study conducted by the same group of researchers directly investigated the effect of magnesium supplementation on insomnia. This study was published in 2012 in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences.
This study involved the same number of elderly insomnia patients as well as the same dose of magnesium supplement.
The results of the study showed that magnesium increased sleep time and sleep efficiency while reducing sleep onset latency and insomnia severity index. In addition, the researchers showed that magnesium supplementation increased the serum levels of melatonin (sleep hormone) and renin while reducing cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
This study confirms the calming effect of magnesium. It shows that magnesium supplementation improved sleep quality partly by increasing the secretion of melatonin.
In addition, the study also confirms another mechanism by which magnesium can improve sleep: relieving stress by lowering the level of cortisol.
While the previous study showed that magnesium supplementation can reduce the level of cortisol, a stress marker, this study shows that stress can also lower serum magnesium level.
Therefore, one of the ways by which stress triggers insomnia is by lowering magnesium level.
In this 2004 study published in the journal, Clinical Cardiology, the researchers recruited 30 healthy male college students who were about to write their examinations.
By monitoring signs of stress before and after the students’ 4-week examination period as well as their red blood cell magnesium levels, the researchers were able to determine the effect of stress on magnesium level. In addition, the researchers noted that during the 4-week examination period, the students suffered from chronic sleep deprivation.
The results of the study showed that stress and chronic insomnia reduced vasodilation in the students as well as red blood cell magnesium levels.
In contrast, vasodilation induced with nitroglycerin did not affect red blood cell magnesium concentration.
This study shows that chronic stress and sleep deprivation can affect vasodilation and reduce intracellular magnesium levels.
Therefore, while magnesium deficiency can trigger insomnia, sleep deprivation can also reduce magnesium levels.
Besides directly affecting the duration and quality of sleep, studies show that magnesium can also affect sleep structure especially the normal sleep-wake rhythm.
In a study published in the journal, Neuropsychobiology, in 1993, the researchers demonstrated this effect in a group of rats. They divided the rats into 2 groups. The first group was fed on magnesium-deficient diet for 9 weeks while the second group only stayed on the magnesium-deficient diet for 7 weeks and was thereafter given normal diet for another 4 weeks.
The results of the study showed that magnesium deficiency increased periods of wakefulness and reduced slow wave sleep.
In addition, the rats in the first group experienced disorganized sleep structure in the form of light sleep and frequent arousal from sleep. In contrast, the rats in group 2 recovered their sleep organization following the reintroduction of magnesium in their diet.
This study confirms that magnesium deficiency affects the structure and quality of sleep.
The researchers also concluded that magnesium was required for protecting the neurons of the central nervous system from oxidative stress.
Besides magnesium, there are other minerals used to treat insomnia in alternative medicine. These other essential minerals include zinc and calcium. In addition, melatonin (a naturally occurring sleep-promoting hormone in the nervous system) is often recommended in the treatment of insomnia.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society investigated the benefits of combining magnesium with zinc and melatonin in treatment of insomnia in the elderly.
For this study, the researchers recruited 43 residents of a long-term care facility. Each of these participants was given either 100 g pear pulp (placebo) or a combination of 5 mg melatonin, 225 mg magnesium and 11.25 mg zinc mixed with 100 g pear pulp 1 hour before bedtime for 8 weeks.
The results of the study showed that the natural supplement combination
The researchers, therefore, concluded that the combination of magnesium, zinc and melatonin is recommended for insomnia patients in order to improve the quality of sleep.
A review published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine in 2005 discussed the link between magnesium and melatonin.
The authors of the review noted that magnesium supplementation promoted the activities of the enzyme, N-acetyl transferase which is involved in the synthesis of melatonin. Therefore, magnesium promotes the secretion of melatonin from the pineal gland.
However, there appears to be a negative feedback control between magnesium level and melatonin production.
Therefore, raising melatonin level is not likely to be the main mechanism by which magnesium improves sleep.
Restless leg syndrome has been shown to cause sleep disturbance. Unfortunately, the prescription drugs used in its treatment may become ineffective later as the body develops tolerance to them. These drugs may also cause rebound insomnia.
Therefore, a safer alternative can help patients suffering from insomnia induced by restless leg syndrome.
In an open pilot study involving 10 adults suffering from this type of insomnia, a group of researchers investigated the benefits of magnesium supplementation by giving them 12.4 mmol/day of magnesium for 4 – 6 weeks.
The results of this 1998 study published in the journal, Sleep, showed that magnesium reduced periodic limb movements during sleep and also improved sleep efficiency.
This preliminary study indicates that magnesium supplement is effective for treating insomnia induced by restless leg syndrome. The researchers, therefore, recommended magnesium as a safer alternative to the dopaminergic drugs used to treat restless leg syndrome.
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