Our diet, we know, has a great impact on our health, both in the short and long term. And more and more studies are emphasizing the importance of proper balance in the intake not only of the main components of our diet (or macronutrients, i.e., proteins, fats and carbohydrates) but also of micronutrients, consisting mainly of minerals and vitamins. In a study published in the European Journal of Nutrition, a team of researchers from the Australian National University specifically asked what role magnesium plays in maintaining our health, particularly that of our brains. Here is what they found.
Does magnesium have protective functions on the brain?
There are already many studies in the scientific literature supporting a possible “neuroprotective” function of magnesium, or at least the correlation between levels of this mineral that are taken in through the diet and certain parameters indicative of our brain health. For example, results from a study published in 2012 conducted in Japan had shown that, among participants, those taking in more magnesium through the diet had a lower risk of developing some forms of dementia than those taking less. Another study, this one from 2022 and conducted in the United States, brings similar evidence, concluding that intake of at least 350 milligrams of magnesium per day is generally associated with better cognitive function.
A diet higher in magnesium correlates with better brain health: the risk of developing dementia decreases
How can magnesium help counter cognitive decline?
Compared with most previous research involving people over the age of 60, the new Australian National University study tries to broaden the age range considered, and also to understand on which specific physiological parameters magnesium has its effect.
The researchers analyzed data on more than six thousand healthy individuals, aged 40 to 73 years. In particular, they examined, through diagnostic tools such as MRI, specific parameters including gray matter volume and White Matter Lesions(WML), which enable the exchange of information between different areas of gray matter. The presence of WML is indicative of the process of cognitive decline and normally begins from damage to small intra-cranial blood vessels.
To obtain data on magnesium intake levels, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding their eating habits at five different times over 16 months. Thus, it was found that higher dietary magnesium intake generally correlated with higher brain volumes and lower levels of white matter lesions in different brain regions. In other words, magnesium seems to have a positive effect on the health of our brain. As you can immagine, keeping its structure intact, is crucial to preserving its function. According to these results, therefore, magnesium would have a positive role on both investigated parameters, particularly visible within the female population and especially in the postmenopausal period.
One mechanism by which magnesium might exert its neuroprotective functions is by regulating oxidative stress and neuroinflammation: according to several studies in mice, for example, magnesium deficiency stimulates the production of pro-inflammatory mediators.
An easily integrated ally
Despite this large body of evidence accumulated over time, some aspects are still awaiting explanation. During the Australian study, for example, there emerged anunexpected observation: members of the group of participants called “high decreasing“, that is, those who drastically reduced their magnesium intake levels during the 16-month observation period, were found to have on average higher volumes of gray matter compared with the group in which mineral intake levels remained constant over time (called “normal stable”). Theapparent contradiction, the authors speculate, could be related to the fact that the initial levels of recruitment were higher in the “high decreasing” than the “normal stable“, and that therefore the positive effect in terms of brain volume is relative to earlier habits than the observation time window during which the data were collected.
The neuroprotective effect of magnesium could be due to its action as a modulator of the immune response. Some studies indicate its ability to regulate oxidative stress and neuroinflammation
The researchers themselves stress, however, that further research will be needed to confirm their findings, and especially to understand the reason behind the more pronounced effect observed in women than in men. Certainly if the neuroprotective role of magnesium is confirmed, it would be very good news, given the ease with which one can intervene in terms of diet or dietary supplementation. In this regard, it is important to note that magnesium can be supplemented in different “forms,” on which its bioavailability and, consequently, its effect may depend.