The one supplement this neuroscientist CEO takes every day

Yesterday, I gave a presentation about our cognitive test to a crowded room. For the Q&A portion, the group asked questions about the technology and how to use it in research or clinics.

However, once I stepped down from the stage, and people came to talk to me one-on-one, the nature of their questions changed. They asked the kinds of questions most people want to know: What can I do for my cognitive health? Does brain training work? Is there one thing you recommend most to stay cognitively healthy? The answer to that is if I had to name one thing, it would be physical exercise.

When asked whether there is a supplement I take to keep healthy and cognitively fit, the answer is magnesium.

Cortisol, Magnesium, and Health

As the CEO of a growing company with teams and customers on three continents, the stress of long days, travel, and multiple time zones are part of the job. Therefore, I look for every possible leg-up in managing the pressures of the role.

In general, I am not a big believer in taking supplements. Too often, people try to excuse a poor diet by taking supplements instead of adopting healthier eating habits.

But the one supplement I take every day is magnesium. And here is why: Magnesium, an essential nutrient, plays a crucial role in many of the body’s molecular functions. Cells require it to form their most important energy source, ATP. Without magnesium, ATP is not biologically active and thus unusable. Magnesium also regulates blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar. The brain is dependent on this essential nutrient for nerve impulse transmission and the metabolism of neurotransmitters.

The association between magnesium and cognitive health is particularly interesting to me as a neuroscientist. As part of the Hordaland Health Study, researchers investigated the relationship between magnesium intake and depression and anxiety. They found that low levels of magnesium correlated with an increased number of depressive and anxiety symptoms. Supporting this finding is the fact that magnesium deficiency is also associated with reduced serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is a well-known mediator of mood, anxiety, and sleep.

Magnesium deficiency also causes upregulation of the HPA (Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal) axis, which leads to anxiety-like behavior in mice. The HPA axis is responsible for influencing the production of the stress hormone cortisol. An increase in cortisol leads to increased feelings of stress and anxiety. A study by Golf et al. noted that cortisol levels decreased when patients were administered supplementary magnesium, further cementing the mineral’s role as a mediator of stress.

Elevated cortisol is great when we are in danger and need to engage our fight or flight response. What is not good for us is the chronic elevation of cortisol from things like work-related stress. Our bodies do not readily distinguish between constant threats at work and threats of physical harm, and so respond to both with the same elevated stress hormones.

That is another article, but the net result is that our stress packed modern lives often lead to a constant physical primer for “combat or escape” mode. When experienced chronically, this state can cause increased rates of everything from colon cancer to migraines to heart disease and depression. In the immediate here and now, this often shows up as feeling jittery, not being able to sleep well, and feeling less cognitively “sharp” than normal.

Getting Enough Magnesium

Studies indicate that anywhere from 42% to 68% of Americans don’t get sufficient magnesium in their diets.

If you’re concerned about meeting your daily requirement of magnesium, one of the best ways to reach your quota is to include magnesium-rich foods in every meal. Kale and other dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts, and whole grains are all great sources of magnesium—and staples of the Mediterranean Diet. Part of the reason why magnesium deficiency is so common among the American population is due to our diet of processed and fast food. However, a large spinach salad for lunch might not work for everyone.

I have Celiac disease, which can inhibit the body’s absorption of magnesium. And while I haven’t purposefully eaten gluten in years, this is something I have to monitor.

So, yes, I take magnesium supplements. It’s critical. But it is also not a panacea for all stress and health problems. Our health is best optimized by eating a healthy diet, moving every day for at least an hour, getting plenty of sleep, and connecting with our family and friends. These “big four” of sleep, diet, movement, and staying connected to other people are a theme with many health professionals because we know good habits in those four areas correlated to a longer, healthier, happier life.

In the meantime, this neuroscientist also takes magnesium every day along with doing my very best to keep healthy habits in those four domains.