Monday, February 22, 2010

Magnesium and Insulin Sensitivity

From a paper based on US NHANES nutrition and health survey data (1):
During 1999–2000, the diet of a large proportion of the U.S. population did not contain adequate magnesium... Furthermore, racial or ethnic differences in magnesium persist and may contribute to some health disparities.... Because magnesium intake is low among many people in the United States and inadequate magnesium status is associated with increased risk of acute and chronic conditions, an urgent need exists to perform a current survey to assess the physiologic status of magnesium in the U.S. population.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that's slowly disappearing from the modern diet, as industrial agriculture and industrial food processing increasingly dominate our food choices. One of the many things it's necessary for in mammals is proper insulin sensitivity and glucose control. A loss of glucose control due to insulin resistance can eventually lead to diabetes and all its complications.

Magnesium status is associated with insulin sensitivity (2, 3), and a low magnesium intake predicts the development of type II diabetes in most studies (4, 5) but not all (6). Magnesium supplements largely prevent diabetes in a rat model* (7). Interestingly, excess blood glucose and insulin themselves seem to reduce magnesium status, possibly creating a vicious cycle.

In a 1993 trial, a low-magnesium diet reduced insulin sensitivity in healthy volunteers by 25% in just four weeks (8). It also increased urinary thromboxane concentration, a potential concern for cardiovascular health**.

At least three trials have shown that magnesium supplementation increases insulin sensitivity in insulin-resistant diabetics and non-diabetics (9, 10, 11). In some cases, the results were remarkable. In type II diabetics, 16 weeks of magnesium supplementation improved fasting glucose, calculated insulin sensitivity and HbA1c*** (12). HbA1c dropped by 22 percent.

In insulin resistant volunteers with low blood magnesium, magnesium supplementation for four months reduced estimated insulin resistance by 43 percent and decreased fasting insulin by 32 percent (13). This suggests to me that magnesium deficiency was probably one of the main reasons they were insulin resistant in the first place. But the study had another very interesting finding: magnesium improved the subjects' blood lipid profile remarkably. Total cholesterol decreased, LDL decreased, HDL increased and triglycerides decreased by a whopping 39 percent. The same thing had been reported in the medical literature decades earlier when doctors used magnesium injections to treat heart disease, and also in animals treated with magnesium. Magnesium supplementation also suppresses atherosclerosis (thickening and hardening of the arteries) in animal models, a fact that I may discuss in more detail at some point (14, 15).

In the previous study, participants were given 2.5 g magnesium chloride (MgCl2) per day. That's a bit more than the USDA recommended daily allowance (MgCl2 is mostly chloride by weight), in addition to what they were already getting from their diet. Most of a person's magnesium is in their bones, so correcting a deficiency by eating a nutritious diet may take a while.

Speaking of nutritious diets, how does one get magnesium? Good sources include halibut, leafy greens, chocolate and nuts. Bone broths are also an excellent source of highly absorbable magnesium. Whole grains and beans are also fairly good sources, while refined grains lack most of the magnesium in the whole grain. Organic foods, particularly artisanally produced foods from a farmer's market, are richer in magnesium because they grow on better soil and often use older varieties that are more nutritious.

The problem with seeds such as grains, beans and nuts is that they also contain phytic acid which prevents the absorption of magnesium and other minerals (16). Healthy non-industrial societies that relied on grains took great care in their preparation: they soaked them, often fermented them, and also frequently removed a portion of the bran before cooking (17). These steps all served to reduce the level of phytic acid and other anti-nutrients. I've posted a method for effectively reducing the amount of phytic acid in brown rice (18). Beans should ideally be soaked for 24 hours before cooking, preferably in warm water.

Industrial agriculture has systematically depleted our soil of many minerals, due to high-yield crop varieties and the fact that synthetic fertilizers only replace a few minerals. The mineral content of foods in the US, including magnesium, has dropped sharply in the last 50 years. The reason we need to use fertilizers in the first place is that we've broken the natural nutrient cycle in which minerals always return to the soil in the same place they were removed. In 21st century America, minerals are removed from the soil, pass through our toilets, and end up in the landfill or in waste water. This will continue until we find an acceptable way to return human feces and urine to agricultural soil, as many cultures do to this day****.

I believe that an adequate magnesium intake is critical for proper insulin sensitivity and overall health.


* Zucker rats that lack leptin signaling

** Thromboxane A2 is an omega-6 derived eicosanoid that potently constricts blood vessels and promotes blood clotting. It's interesting that magnesium has such a strong effect on it. It indicates that fatty acid balance is not the only major influence on eicosanoid production.

*** Glycated hemoglobin. A measure of the average blood glucose level over the past few weeks.

**** Anyone interested in further reading on this should look up The Humanure Handbook

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