Many people take magnesium at bedtime because they find it helps them sleep. Yet is this just placebo effect? Definitely not! For those with sleep problems, answering "how does magnesium help with sleep"? can be extremely valuable. The main reasons are that it relaxes your muscles, relaxes your nervous system, balances the adrenal glands, and has an indirect anti-inflammatory effect. Further, for those trying to get a good night's sleep, magnesium's actions in the body are perfectly complemented by melatonin.
1.) Magnesium relaxes muscles throughout the body
As we recently discussed in a previous article, your muscles are dependent on magnesium to disengage and relax, and on calcium to contract. Yet, both minerals play roles in both functions, so the key is more about an appropriate balance, rather than just getting one or the other.
On the other hand magnesium deficiency can contribute to muscle cramps, excessive tightness, and excessive muscle-nerve firing. Those whose sleep is suffering because of neck and upper-back muscles that are tight, hard and won't relax, or foot cramps, or restless-leg syndrome, etc. would do well to increase their magnesium intake, particularly at bedtime.
Also, given the major connections between the gut and the brain, consider that if the muscles in your gut will not relax properly due to a magnesium deficiency, the brain will also have a much harder time relaxing, (and vice-versa in a vicious cycle). Just think of the last time you suddenly became worried or anxious about something. How did your gut react? Among many other things, it gets tight, your appetite drops, and given the sympathetic/adrenal stimulation, (see below), there is also more of a tendency to get constipated. These tendencies are all intensified if you are deficient in magnesium, as is the firing of our stress response, (i.e. the HPA axis), which can directly increase inflammation.
2.) Magnesium calms-down nerves that are firing excessively
When it comes to sleep, magnesium plays a direct role in the function of the nerves that bind the neurotransmitter GABA, which calms the central nervous system, and is essential in the onset of sleep. Likewise, magnesium also helps offset excessive stimulation of the brain's arousal system by both noradrenalin and histamine. In turn this helps achieve normal balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in the body. So for those of you who have a sleep disorder, or difficulties with high levels of histaminic allergies, or who find yourselves obsessing "on the hamster wheel" when you go to bed, you may definitely appreciate the effects of magnesium.
Though the exact mechanisms governing sleep and arousal in the central nervous system are complex, and still not definitively understood, one thing that is clear is that if the neurons in the portions of the brain responsible for sleep or arousal are inflamed, they are not going to do their jobs properly. (Such as in people who are tired & sleepy through the day, yet can't get to sleep at night.) I have had many clients who have invoked various anti-inflammatory strategies through the day, only to find that their sleep improved dramatically.
Normal functioning of circadian rhythms, involving proper release of melatonin is directly involved here. If you are not sleeping properly, and engaging the restorative actions of your parasympathetic nervous system, your inflammation and cortisol levels are both going to rise!
3. How melatonin augments the effects of magnesium
As mentioned in our last article, something that can be very deadly for neurons of the central nervous system is sudden large influxes of calcium. This is one of the things that can occur if an organism is under too much stress, including oxidative or inflammatory stress. In this event what actually occurs is over stimulation of an excitatory receptor called the NMDA receptor. Both melatonin and magnesium act to modulate this event, and prevent it from being exaggerated.
Whereas magnesium is an extremely important natural calcium channel blocker, and prevents the flood, melatonin attenuates the oxidative and inflammatory stress, being highly antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and helping to keep your daily hormonal rhythms in balance. This means all of your hormones, including sex hormones like DHEA, adrenal hormones like cortisol, and many others.
In general melatonin is part of the natural system meant to help you quiet down when it gets dark, and put your system into rest and restore mode. But be aware that artificial sources of light that you may be exposed to after it is dark outside; disrupt normal melatonin production. So for those working shift work, or simply late at night, supplementing it can be doubly important. And in this regard melatonin and magnesium make an awesome duo!
4.) Magnesium plays a direct role in balancing adrenal function
For anyone who has ever tried to go to sleep when they are particularly scared, worried, or upset about something, you know what it feels like to have high sympathetic tone! At this point, one of the things that is going on is that your adrenals are being activated, or given the situation, over-activated. As mentioned in Part 1 of these articles, magnesium plays a direct role in the generation of ATP through the mitochondria, and the adrenals are one of the most mitochondria-dense tissues in the body! Yet, magnesium once again calms and balances adrenal function, preventing a "hair-trigger" on stress hormone release.
Just like all the other functions in the body, muscle, nerve, brain, gut, and hormonal function are all tied together. Though a person may be able to take a drug to manipulate one or more of these systems, long term the only way to completely correct a disruption in one of them is to consider all of them, and what systems may be involved in bringing them into balance. In this regard, using broad spectrum natural/nutritional factors, such as magnesium or melatonin, that have a broad impact on many different systems at once can be extremely helpful.
Until Next time,
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