Magnesium and Hypertension: Stopping this Stealth Killer in its Tracks
By Sarah Clachar, Health Writer
It’s sneaky and deadly. Impossible to feel – only detectable through testing. One out of three Americans suffer from it. And it is a major factor in heart disease, the disease that kills more men and women in the United States than anything else.
What is this elusive threat? Hypertension or high blood pressure.
We need blood pressure to help us get blood around our bodies. It’s like the water pressure in our house’s plumbing. Without it, blood flow slows to a trickle. But blood pressure above the healthy zones of 100-140 over 60-90 means your plumbing is not working right. It forces your heart to work harder, putting you at risk for a heart attack. It can also indicate a build up of plaque in your arteries, the first stage of a clot.
And while pharmaceutical companies have developed several expensive medications for reducing blood pressure – diuretics, calcium channel blockers, ACE inhibitors, vasodilators and anti-adrenergic drugs - there is another simple solution to help support blood pressure:
The Cardiologist’s New Best Friend
In her book, The Magnesium Miracle, Carolyn Dean notes that a growing number of internists and cardiologists are turning to magnesium before these other drugs. “They call magnesium the ideal drug: it is safe, cheap, and simple to use, with a wide therapeutic range, a short half-life and little or no tendency toward drug interaction.”1
And Barbara Levine, Ph D., Associate Professor of Nutrition and Medicine at Weil Cornell Medical College, concurs. In her Magnesium Newsletter, Levine points to 4 significant studies – Harvard’s study of 40,000 nurses and 30,000 male health professionals, the Honolulu Heart Study, the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study, and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet trial. All of them showed low magnesium levels correlate directly with a high risk for hypertension and heart disease. Similarly, higher intake of magnesium means lower blood pressure and lower risk for cardiovascular disease.2
Keeping Your Cardiovascular System Strong and Supple
Levine explains that magnesium’s role in keeping our heart, blood vessels and blood pressure healthy is extensive and complex. “It’s unbelievable,” says Levine alluding to the number of ways magnesium works as an important cofactor in enzyme activities contributing to cardiovascular health.3
In an earlier newsletter, we discussed how magnesium acts as a critical enzymatic co-factor in the production of ATP, your body’s energy currency. Without access to this energy, muscles, like the heart, contract but do not relax or expand adequately. This energy also allows the smooth muscle cells around blood vessels to relax (dilate), making them larger and reducing blood pressure. Without magnesium, these muscles are unable to relax fully, your blood vessels stay tightly constricted, your heart keeps contracting and your blood pressure rises.
But magnesium’s role in arterial health doesn’t stop there.
Arteries are made up of several layers. The second layer is made up of a very thin connective tissue that contains the protein elastin, giving arteries their elasticity. Magnesium is a cofactor in the production of elastin. In fact, one of the early signs of magnesium deficiency is the degeneration of arterial elastin.
Closer to the heart, this becomes even more critical. Because the heart is constantly contracting and expanding, the coronary arteries have to be even more flexible to stretch and adjust accordingly.4
Support for Healthy Cholesterol
Magnesium also plays a role in keeping your arteries clear, by reducing cholesterol and limiting calcification of plaques.
The enzyme HMG-CoA reductase helps produce cholesterol. Statin drugs block this enzyme and cholesterol production. But blocking this enzyme completely can cause a host of problems – depleting your body of the critical Co-enzyme Q10 and your body’s repair putty, cholesterol itself. Unlike statins, magnesium slows down this enzyme, working naturally to limit your body’s production of cholesterol but not destroying the process completely.5
The Dance of Ions
Magnesium’s ability to limit the hardening of plaque taps into its activity as an electrically charged element called an ion. As Levine points out, magnesium balances out other charged ions – calcium, potassium and sodium – in an ongoing dance between these charged atoms. These ions move through the cell membranes, in and out of the blood stream, in response to the movement and presence of each other, influenced by the electrical charge they carry.
When inflammation damages an artery, white blood cells and cholesterol, your body’s repair team, collect nearby, ready to repair the damage. But if there is too much calcium in the blood it can precipitate. It comes out of its dissolved state into a solid state and hardens this repair job. This calcification turns the mix of cholesterol and white blood cells in to an easily breakable, life-threatening plaque. Magnesium’s presence limits the amount of calcium in the blood stream and, consequently, the amount that can precipitate.
Magnesium is also essential for the movement of potassium, another positively charged ion that plays a role in muscle contraction. Potassium also seems to play a significant role in controlling hypertension.
Finally, Levine points out that magnesium serves as “natures’ physiological calcium channel blockers.” Calcium in the cardiac cells stimulates the heart to contract. When calcium levels are too high, the heart has a tendency to contract more. Magnesium works as natural counterbalance to calcium, reducing its effect on the heart’s activity. And when the heart is pumping less, the blood pressure drops as well.6
Support Your Cardiovascular System with Magnesium
Beyond hypertension, magnesium helps prevent angina, heart attacks and, according to Levine, it has become a standard prescription after heart surgery to prevent arrhythmias.
However, despite the growing interest in this simple but wonderful element, magnesium has yet to really take its proper place in center stage as a heart protector. With only .03% in the blood stream (the rest in the skeleton or cells) a magnesium deficiency is hard to test for. Levine hopes that with the adoption of better testing methods, magnesium will gain more attention.7
Until these tests become available, Levine and other health practitioners in the know use symptoms and risk factors to decide whether to recommend increased magnesium intake.
So don’t let stealthy hypertension sneak up on you. If you are concerned about hypertension or heart disease, there’s a simpler route. Get your magnesium from nuts, leafy greens, whole grains, fish, fruit and a good magnesium supplement.
- Dean C. The Magnesium Miracle. P. 97
- Levine B. The Magnesium Newsletter, 2/02
- Barbara Levine, personal interview 2/18/09
- Dean, p. 102.
- Rosanoff, A et al. Comparison of Mechanism and Functional Effects of Magnesium and Statin Pharmaceuticals. Journal of the American College of Nutrition; 2004; 23: 501s-505s.
- Levine interview
- Levine interview