The Important Role of Nutritional Magnesium and Calcium Balance in Humans Living with Stress

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When stress hormones raise the calcium level in our cells and chronic stress looms, a good supply of dietary magnesium may help keep anxiety at bay.


The Stress Response

The stress reaction is a host of responses necessary for any animal to live in the world. Commonly called the “fight or flight” reaction, we as humans often experience it in rapid heartbeat and increased breathing rate. It comes when we exercise more vigorously than usual, or when we are suddenly and unexpectedly frightened.

We are all different. We show a range in how strongly we experience the stress response.

• Most of us are usually calm and experience the stress response when an unexpected noise frightens us to alertness, or we run to first base as fast as we can in a benefit baseball game which is not on our usual playtime schedule. We breathe harder for a while and notice our hearts beating faster and harder than usual, but after a while these responses all calm down, and we are again in our usual state – out of the stress response.

• Others of us are very low-key and it takes a lot to disturb our physiological calm.

• Still others of us are very sensitive to triggers of the stress response and go into it “at the drop of a hat” and to a greater degree than do calmer people.

• For some, parts of the stress response are almost always engaged – never really calming down all the way – giving one a hyper vigilant or anxious demeanor.

When a stress trigger occurs, the body puts out stress hormones, magnesium, and calcium, among other things, into the bloodstream. At the same time, nerve cells begin to “fire,” telling heart and muscles to “speed up, NOW!” These blood, nerve, and organ changes make possible the instantaneous and collective rise in the body’s heart rate, blood pressure, and other necessities for the fight or flight reaction.

Much research has been done on the stress response, especially on the effects of stress hormones such as adrenaline, also called epinephrine, on body, organ and cell. [Note: Adrenaline is produced by the core of the adrenal glands, while another important “stress hormone,” cortisol, is produced by the outer layer of the adrenal glands. Adrenaline levels are intended to spike quickly to meet an emergency and drop quickly later, while cortisol levels normally work on a 24-hour regulatory schedule. Repeated “adrenaline rushes” can interfere with cortisol function.]

You can get an idea of how widespread the stress response is (affecting every aspect of physiology) by noting some reactions to adrenaline. See Table 1.
Table 1: The Effects of Adrenaline
Adrenaline is one of the major stress hormones. When it is released into the bloodstream, it has simultaneous, rapid, and widespread effects on the body.

These include:
• Widespread effects on circulation, muscles and sugar metabolism
• Raised heart rate
• Increased heart output
• Increased rate and depth of breathing
• Increased metabolic rate
• Increased force of muscular contraction
• Delayed muscular fatigue
• Reduced blood flow to bladder (muscular walls relax and sphincters contract)
• Reduced blood flow to intestines
• Increased blood pressure
• Increased sugar (glucose) in the blood
• Increased break-down of glucose for energy (needs magnesium), especially in muscle cells
• Increased free fatty acids in the blood (needs magnesium)
• More oxidation of fatty acids to produce energy (needs magnesium)
• More ATP (the cells’ primary energy compound) produced (needs magnesium)
• Blood vessels constrict.

Calcium, Mainly Outside Cells, Magnesium Mainly Inside

Much study at the cellular, biochemical and physiological levels has shown that the stress response vitally involves the influx of calcium into cells, resulting in a drastic change in the cells’ internal Magnesium to Calcium Ratio (Mg:Ca).

In simple solutions, such as salt water, all ions are evenly dispersed. Not so in living cells. Ions are carefully and meticulously separated in living cells, and this ion “packaging” is vital to life processes and health.

Calcium ions, for the most part, are kept outside cells while magnesium ions are kept mainly inside cells. The stress response changes this. During stress response, calcium ions rush inside the cell, and this alters the internal Mg:Ca ratio. This change in ratio exhibits wide effects because, while magnesium and calcium are very similar in their chemistry, biologically these two elements function and react very differently.

Magnesium and calcium are two sides of a physiological coin: They are antagonistic to one another yet come as a team. For example:

• Calcium excites nerves, magnesium calms them down.

• Calcium makes muscles contract, but magnesium is necessary for muscles to relax.

• Calcium is necessary to the clotting reaction – so necessary for wound healing – but magnesium keeps the blood flowing freely and prevents abnormal thickening when clotting reactions would be dangerous.

Scientific study shows more and more that:

The underlying cellular change enabling the stress response is a low Mg:Ca ratio caused by a large and sudden influx of calcium into cells.

The stress response subsides when the cells’ magnesium returns to its dominant presence inside cells, moving extra calcium back outside to its “normal” position, thus restoring the cells’ normal Mg:Ca ratio.

This underlying principle is present in studies of nerve cell-stress hormone response, organs such as hearts, the high blood pressure response to stress, and the blood clotting response to stress, among many others. See Table 2.
Table 2: Magnesium and calcium are an “antagonistic team” in the fight or flight reaction.
Blood cell clumping (platelet aggregation)
Calcium’s influence – activates
Magnesium’s influence – inhibits

Other blood clotting reactions
Calcium’s influence – encourages
Magnesium’s influence – discourages

Nerve excitation
Calcium’s influence – enhances
Magnesium’s influence – discourages

Adrenaline secretion
Calcium’s influence – enhances
Magnesium’s influence – decreases

Adrenaline response
Calcium’s influence – enhances
Magnesium’s influence – decreases

Blood vessel contraction
Calcium’s influence – increases
Magnesium’s influence – decreases.

In the normal healthy state, the stress response occurs when necessary, and subsides when the crisis or trigger is over. Since magnesium and calcium – two essential nutrients that must be obtained by the body from its dietary environment – are so essential to this important response it is not surprising that nutritional magnesium and calcium status can affect the response.

Let’s see how.

In the normal, unstressed state, cellular Mg:Ca ratio is high. If this cannot be maintained due to lack of adequate body magnesium or an overwhelming amount of body calcium, the ratio may not be able to maintain or return itself to its healthy, non-stressed ratio.

• In such a case, the stress response, in the absence of an appropriate trigger, can occur. This can be seen when nutritional magnesium deficits cause high blood pressure or increased bloot “stickiness” (platelet aggregation).

• Additionally, since a low Mg:Ca ratio can increase adrenaline secretion as well as cells’ response to adrenaline, a too low magnesium state can keep the stress response from subsiding in a timely way.

• Even worse, when body magnesium becomes drastically low, this becomes a stress trigger in itself, alarming the body into further stress response without enough magnesium to back it up – resulting in a low magnesium/high stress crisis that can end in sudden death.

In the industrialized world, we live in a state of chronic, ongoing stress. This environmental reality increases our daily need for magnesium in order to maintain a healthy stress response that can calm when not necessary. [For general guidelines on minimum daily magnesium intake, click here.] …
* This material is excerpted with kind permission from a white paper published by Peter Gillham’s Natural Vitality Health News. The author – nutritionist Andrea Rosanoff, PhD – is directing scholar of the Hawaii-based Center for Magnesium Education & Research.

Note: This information has not been evaluated by the FDA. It is not intended to prevent, diagnose, treat or cure any condition, illness, or disease. It is very important that you make no change in your healthcare plan or health support regimen without researching and discussing it in collaboration with your professional healthcare team.

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