Magnesium and Omega 3 Fatty Acids: Essential for the Heart and Brain

Your heart beats an astounding 100,000 times in one day. During an average lifetime, our heart will beat over 2.5 billion times! If you give a tennis ball a hard squeeze, you’re using about the same amount of force your heart uses to pump blood to the body. Now imagine doing that roughly every second without rest. The amount of force needed goes up when the arteries become hardened and filled with plaque. Our hearts deserve a little TLC to keep them healthy and strong.

Checking cholesterol levels is a common practice, so most people know that their total cholesterol is one indicator of heart health, and most know their cholesterol numbers. Checking blood pressure is also common practice, and, again, most people know where they stand. But few know their magnesium status or their ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids. So this article will focus on those two lesser-known factors. 

First up, magnesium.

A decade-long study that reviewed cardiovascular disease research spanning over 70 years found that low magnesium levels contributed more to heart disease than did cholesterol or even saturated fat. Andrea Rosanoff, PhD, director of research and science information outreach for the Center for Magnesium Education & Research, has studied magnesium and its connection to heart disease for over forty years. According to her, common risk factors for cardiovascular disease are associated with low magnesium status or low dietary intake. So if you have high LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, or metabolic syndrome, you are likely to have low magnesium. 

The highest levels of magnesium in the body are in the heart, especially in the left ventricle. So although having enough magnesium is important for hundreds of chemical reactions in the body, it is arguably most important for the heart. 

Because it is so frequently undiagnosed, estimates vary on just how prevalent a problem this is. Most studies find that 30-80%  of the population is deficient in this important mineral, but this is under-tested and largely not addressed.  Magnesium is especially important during times of high stress. This percentage is higher in some populations like post-menopausal osteoporotic women, or people with hypertension who have been on a hydrochlorothiazide or a single non-diuretic drug for 6 or more months. 

Because calcium and magnesium compete for intestinal absorption, the percentage of people deficient in magnesium is likely worse now due to calcium supplementation. For many years now, at their doctors suggestion, people have been taking high dose calcium supplements in an attempt to help  increase bone density. There have been some concerns raised about whether this practice of supplementing with calcium contributes to more calcium plaque deposits in arteries (atherosclerosis) and thereby an increase in cardiovascular disease, with mixed results in scientific studies. 

Although magnesium is  sometimes included in blood tests, serum magnesium is not a good marker for measuring magnesium status or deficiency. This is because only about 1% of the total body magnesium is in the blood. A better test for the amount of intracellular magnesium is the RBC magnesium test, but most medical doctors do not run this test.

Magnesium comes in many different forms. Each form is slightly different and has different rates of absorption and different effects on the body. Magnesium taurine is more often given for heart support. Magnesium citrate is best for helping with constipation. Magnesium L-threonate is a newer generation magnesium product that is known to cross the blood-brain barrier, so it is a good choice for helping mood, cognition, reaction time, and for head traumas. More on that in another blog post coming soon! Magnesium oxide is the worst absorbed and cheapest (but also the smallest, so more of it fits in each capsule). As with most things in life, it is not a one size fits all approach. Every individual is unique and has unique needs. A good doctor will take all this into account when recommending which kind and which dose is appropriate. 

In our practice, we combine lab tests, best practices as determined from scientific and clinical studies, and applied kinesiology to determine the best type of magnesium and the best dosage.

Up next, omega 3 fatty acids and the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3.

Many processed vegetable oils are high in omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory… Grapeseed oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, canola oil, and soy oil are amongst the worst as far as high omega 6 content. Wild caught fish is one good source of omega 3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory. There are vegetarian sources as well. DHA and EPA are the main subtypes of omega 3’s, and, according to some studies, the ratio matters. Adults may need much more EPA than DHA, which very hard to find in supplements. Kids need more DHA for their developing brains.

That’s why testing is important, both for those who never supplement with omega 3’s and for those that have been on fish oil for years. Your ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is important, and so is the amount of EPA versus DHA.

According to several sources, human beings evolved on a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids of approximately 1. Nowadays, thanks to the Western diet, the average ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids ranges from 15 to 16.7.  That’s 15 times more omega 6 fatty acids compared to omega 3s! And that’s just an average — there are many people whose ratios are even worse. The target goal is a ratio of 2.5 to 4. 

Why does this matter? Well, it matters for keeping your heart healthy.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to significantly reduce the risk for sudden death from cardiac arrhythmias, to decrease the risk of heart attacks by 28%, reduce the risk of fatal heart attacks by 50%… And omega 3 supplementation decreased the risk of cardiovascular disease death in diabetics by 19%. Omega-3 fatty acids are also used to treat hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol and triglycerides) and hypertension. 3 to 4 grams daily of omega 3s have been shown to decrease triglyceride levels by 20-50%. 

The Link Between Heart and Brain

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, there is a term for the spirit known as Shen. This embodies consciousness, emotions and thought. But Shen is housed in the heart, not the brain. This idea of a connection between the heart and the brain is not merely confined to Chinese Medicine. We see this connection clearly in the case of Magnesium and Omega 3 fatty acids.

Besides being important for heart health, magnesium prevents nerve cells from being damaged by overstimulation. It is also vital to take magnesium in higher doses after all traumatic brain injuries to protect the brain cells from damage and death. Magnesium acts as the gatekeeper for NMDA receptors, which are involved in healthy brain development, learning, and memory.

As with magnesium, supplementing with higher amounts of omega 3 fatty acids is essential in the aftermath of traumatic brain injuries. These two supplements together prevent further nerve cell death from swelling and inflammation.

The omega 6 to omega 3 ratio also matters to those of us who have a brain and want to keep it healthy. A high ratio (too many omega 6 fatty acids relative to omega 3 fatty acids) leads to accelerated brain aging and lower cognitive abilities. In 2012 the Framingham Heart Study at Boston University reported that participants with an omega 3 index in the lowest quartile had lower total brain volumes. Plus those same subjects had lower test scores in the areas of visual memory, executive function and abstract thinking. In other words, not only did their cognitive abilities decline, but their brains literally shrunk without enough omega 3 fatty acids.

There are studies that indicate that optimal omega 3 to omega 6 ratios protect nerve cells and help prevent dementia and Alzheimers disease. A Tufts University study in 2006 found that people with the highest DHA levels had a 47% lower risk of developing dementia. Omega 3 fatty acids are important for expectant mothers, and their consumption during pregnancy has been linked to improved IQ. It is important  for kids as well. An Oxford University study of school age children found that blood levels of omega 3 fatty acids significantly improved a child’s ability to concentrate and learn.

Athletes should take note as well, as decreasing omega 6s like arachidonic acid and increasing EPA (an omega 3 fatty acid) improved reaction time and vigor and reduced anxiety. Another  study comparing omega-3 index levels of college at the athletes found those with higher omega 3 had significantly better C reactive protein levels  and a reduction in soreness after exercise.

Studies show high omega 3s may provide effective pain relief for chronic musculoskeletal pain and reduce the need for medication; they may also reduce the incidence of neck and back pain, both of which have high associated medical costs and result in missed days from work. Given this prevalence and the current opioid epidemic, Omega 3s are one important tool for naturally managing pain.  

With so many benefits, most of us should be regularly taking a good quality fish oil. There is some controversy over whether vegetarian sources are as effective as fish oil. And not all fish oils are created equal. There are different methods of extraction, different fish sources, and issues with contaminants and heavy metals. That’s why it is important to look for independent third party purity testing. Talk to your doctor about finding out your omega 6 to omega 3 ratio,  determining whether you should be on an omega 3 supplement, and about which brands are worthwile. 

-Dr. Margarite Melikian

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