ADHD: The Incredible Power of Magnesium
by Susan Hughes, MSEd, HHP, CNC
I remember back in “the day” when my elementary school classroom consisted of a mix of shy and talkative, lazy and hyper, “smart” and “dumb”, bully and nice, and of course the class clown. Considered back then to be a result of . . . well, nothing really . . . this mish-mash of differing personalities and capabilities were regarded as something that just was. Every kid was informally labeled and that probably stuck long enough, in many cases, to do some long-term psyche damage. Some kids transformed through the years and became exact opposite adult versions of their child-selves, while some didn’t. There certainly was not a heck of a lot of formal support for these “just the way it is” differences at that time.
Comparing that classroom of the past with my son’s classroom of now, I’m aware of a lot more formal labeling and formal support and a much lesser sense of personal control. For the purpose of this blog post, I’m going to focus on one specific label of today and that is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD for short). If you or the school deems your child unfocused, overly energetic, or hyper that could necessitate testing for this disorder. DISORDER. So no longer is the label informal for that hyper kid I remember so well from my classroom of the past, now it is formal and heavily weighted toward the negative, as the word “disorder” is defined as: “an irregularity” or “a disturbance in physical or mental health or functions.” Wow. Is the child born with this …. irregularity? At what point does it come about? Is there a cause? I have my own beliefs of course, but I did first check this out on the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website. Apparently there is no known cause of ADHD, however current studies are examining how genes, environment, brain injuries, and nutrition may contribute. They said this disorder probably results from multiple factors. So far, genes have taken top billing.
I’ve told you before that I like to believe I am in control of my destiny. That means that I’m not a firm believer that genes, for instance, determine my future. There’s actually a lot of proof accumulating out there that my beliefs about this are right on – hence the science of epigenetics (“the study of changes in the expression of genes caused by certain base pairs in DNA, or RNA, being “turned off” or “turned on” again, through chemical reactions.”) In plain language, what our genes do can be changed by what we expose our bodies to. So nutrition, environment, even thoughts, can make a once-bad gene turn good again. I’m very interested in and excited about this relatively new field of study.
So with the possible exception of brain injury (I’m out of my element and completely not qualified to speak on that topic), I believe that ADHD can be controlled and eliminated and … I hesitate to say it because some folks are not going to agree … is not really a “disorder” in the first place. I urge you to hear me out before making a judgement.
Swapping one “d” word for another: Instead of “disorder” how about “deficiency”?
There is a lot of evidence out there suggesting that the deficiency of the calming mineral magnesium leads to traits similar to those demonstrated by individuals thought to have ADHD. You see, because of the drastic changes in our diet, the soil quality and chronic stress over the past century, magnesium and other minerals vital to the healthy functioning of our cells have become difficult to acquire from the foods we eat, and even more difficult to keep in our cells if it does get there in the first place. So could it be that a mere mineral deficiency is at the root of skyrocketing cases of anxious, hyper, unfocused kids and adults?
The supply of magnesium and other minerals in our diet is decreasing
Let’s talk about our diet, first and foremost. Processed foods don’t usually come close to replenishing the nutrients that the body must use merely to digest these foods and that, in itself, can cause lots of deficiencies over time. Check out my post on anti-nutrients. That said, today we can eat fruits and vegetables all day long and still fail to acquire, not to mention absorb, the amount of nutrients that these foods would have provided many years ago. How is this possible? Often the soil has been overfarmed and depleted of its nutrients. What vitamins and minerals are present in these healthy, whole foods fade with time and transportation – the time from farm to table is often weeks rather than mere minutes or hours as it was during those days when our food was farmed in our own backyard or, at worst, down the road a bit. I’m not suggesting that this should deter you from eating “fresh” produce, just realize the increased nutritional value of locally-farmed, organic foods and purchase these whenever possible.
Our body’s demand for minerals is increasing
The nutrients that do exist in the foods we consume are literally burned up by the stress of our everyday lives. Any time that the mind perceives a threat (no longer a once and done wild animal sort of threat but rather continuing pressure of traffic, school or work obligations, money, media, etc) the body responds by mobilizing all energy resources in order to assure survival. Non-vital functions are shut down for the time being until the threat is perceived to have passed. Vitamins and minerals are burned to allow the adrenal glands to produce stress hormones. Cellular metabolism speeds up, like a car revving it’s engine, even if that car isn’t going anywhere. That’s fine for a while, but our stress-handling system wasn’t meant to function continuously for 24/7 and when it does, it exhausts our cells of their energy. (Read a bit more about that here). It depletes their fuel – nutrients. Most notably, magnesium. And kids’ lives are very stressful these days. Many are on the go non-stop, with school then sports then homework, with barely enough time to slow down and eat a nutritious meal or rest before the next activity. Expectations, 24/7 connectivity thanks to technology and not enough sleep all are contributors to what can seem like a neverending treadmill!
And one more thing regarding diet: the ability of the body to actually absorb and assimilate nutrients from our food is highly dependent on the health of the digestive system. The necessary enzymes and a healthy balance of gut flora (see my post on probiotics for more info on that) is a necessity or else what we take in will simply remain unused and excreted.
So hopefully I have made my case regarding the difficulty of actually getting what our cells need in the first place. But why am I so focused on magnesium? Why do I believe it is so critical for both emotional and behavioral support, including support for ADHD?
Magnesium is critical in over 350 essential biochemical reactions in the body including digestion, energy production, muscle function, bone formation, creation of new cells, activation of B vitamins and muscle relaxation. It assists with the proper functioning of the kidneys, heart, adrenal glands, nervous system and brain. In addition, it is a major player in the uptake and metabolism of glucose. Plain and simple, magnesium helps the body work properly, is calming to the nervous system and brain and a relaxant to the muscles. And for those high sugar diets that some kids tend towards? Well, magnesium helps the body to process that sugar.
So when it comes to a child symptomatic of ADHD, magnesium will help the child think clearly and focus more easily while calming those thoughts running rampant in their mind. It also aids in the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that provides a sense of calm and well-being. Physically, magnesium relaxes the muscles – in fact, one symptom of low magnesium is muscle twitching and cramping. A relaxed body will lead to calmer behavior. Finally, the assistance of magnesium in the healthy management of blood sugar will help to prevent these levels from the high and low spikes which stress the mind and body and can lead to acting out.
The benefits are evident, so how do we get the magnesium we need?
Although there are challenges to this as discussed above, consuming a diet rich in magnesium is something to shoot for. Whole foods contain not only magnesium, but a host of other important vitamins and minerals that all work together to assure that cells are working properly. Excellent dietary sources of magnesium include bran (rice, wheat and oat), dried herbs, dark chocolate, nuts and seeds such as pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, almonds and cashews, and molasses.
Based on what we discussed earlier, chances are that dietary sources will not be enough. So, in addition to diet, magnesium supplementation is an effective way to replenish magnesium. Lastly, soaking in an “Epsom Salt Bath” (1 cup of Epsom Salts dissolved in warm bath water, with this amount adjusted downward based on age and weight) – provides a very relaxing and easily absorbed way to replenish magnesium stores and calm a child before bedtime. Just one thing to keep in mind: ease into magnesium supplementation slowly and base dosage on a child’s size. Too much too fast will cause loose stools so too avoid that take it nice and slow.
The bottom line is that you have nothing to lose when it comes to increasing the magnesium intake for yourself or your child. As is always the case, I recommend speaking with your physician or naturopath prior to starting any new supplemental nutrient regimen, however magnesium toxicity is very rare because any amount deemed unnecessary by the body is simply excreted by the body (unless the individual has kidney dysfunction, in which case supplemental magnesium should be avoided). And rather than merely blocking symptoms, you will be giving the body what it needs to function properly. That’s always a good thing!
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