An Interview with Andrea Rosanoff, Ph.D., Part 5 of a Multipart Series on Magnesium

Let’s continue our conversation with Andrea Rosanoff, Ph.D., about the great importance of the mineral magnesium. In earlier conversations, we discussed magnesium’s role in producing energy, utilizing vitamin D, longevity and heart health. Now, let’s look at the many ways in which magnesium affects nerve and mental health.

Dr. Rosanoff is a nutritional biologist and the director of research at The Center for Magnesium Education & Research, LLC in Pahoa, HI. Dr. Rosanoff spent her undergraduate years at the University of California at Berkeley studying biological sciences and then taught science for several years before returning to graduate school. After earning her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in nutrition from UC Berkeley in 1982, Dr. Rosanoff began her study of nutritional magnesium, especially as it relates to health in the developed world. Her work as the senior chemical specialist for Dialog Information Services and information analyst at Chevron Res & Tech. Corp. gave her early training of and access to the online scientific literature, which she now uses in her research and teaching on all aspects of nutritional magnesium.

Her main research interests include the development of the nutritional magnesium paradigm of cardiovascular disease, the role of magnesium nutrition in osteoporosis, diabetes, psychobiological and renal disease, global spreading and generational effect on nutritional magnesium of the processed food diet and the role of magnesium in stress reactions. Some of her recent publications include studies on changing food crop magnesium concentrations and their possible impact on human health, magnesium supplementation and hypertension, a comparison of magnesium supplements with statin pharmaceuticals, and the rising calcium to magnesium ratio of dietary intakes in the United States.

Andrea Rosanoff, Ph.D.  

In addition to her work presented in peer-reviewed journals and at scientific conferences, Dr. Rosanoff isinterested in explaining health aspects of nutritional magnesium to the general public. She co-authored with the late Mildred S. Seelig, M.D., a book entitled, The Magnesium Factor (published in 2003), which discusses scientific literature through 2002 on nutritional magnesium’s impact on risk factors for cardiovascular disease. She wrote, produced and narrated an animated two-minute video entitled, Balancing Calcium and Magnesium in 2008, which can be viewed at her Web site ( Through the Center for Magnesium Education & Research, Dr. Rosanoff continues to foster knowledge of magnesium research; with IAPN the Center sponsors International Symposia bringing together magnesium researchers from all over the world to discuss and present research on magnesium in agriculture and its connection to human nutrition. The Center is also spearheading a group to apply to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a health claim for magnesium in hypertension plus a second effort to reevaluate the serum magnesium reference range.

Passwater: As I mentioned last month, my first realization of the importance of magnesium to health was its major role in heart health. An additional awareness of magnesium’s importance came while my wife, Barbara, and I were raising our children. Magnesium is extremely important to mental function and tranquility, especially in children. I thank my education along these lines to Lendon Smith, M.D., the famous nutritional pediatrician and author. Lendon and I appeared together on many platforms including national TV broadcasts. Barbara and I are very grateful for his sharing of his wisdom on magnesium and behavior. Dr. Rosanoff, why is magnesium important to mental and nerve function?

Rosanoff: I’m not sure that anyone can precisely answer that question either physiologically or biochemically—yet. But, I know that scientists are working on this question and more is being learned every day, building on older research that points to magnesium being very important in nervous system health.

Original magnesium deficiency research on rats showed animals died of convulsions after all their muscles tensed up and nerves continually fired (1). And, magnesium’s association with mental and emotional health in humans has long been known. As early as 1969, Maurice E. Shils found the primary symptoms of human magnesium depletion were all neurologic signs such as Trousseau sign, personality change, tremors and fasciculation (ticks) (2). He also reported anorexia and apathy. Such direct studies where humans are purposefully depleted of a nutrient are no longer allowed in the research world as they are dangerous and unethical.

But, there is more and more research coming in on the association of magnesium status and/or diet and emotional health where researchers follow people for several years and compare the dietary magnesium or serum magnesium in those that develop symptoms against those that do not develop the symptoms. This work is giving us lots of information on the importance of magnesium in emotional health, but it is not a “slam dunk” by any means. For example, there seems to be a general association of low dietary magnesium intake (less than 184 Mg/day in a U.S. study) and depression, especially in young adults and people under age 65 (3). In one well-done study, however, low dietary magnesium was associated with less depression in those above age 65. That was a surprise, especially since another study had shown the odds of developing depression were significantly lower with higher magnesium intakes in women over 65 who had type-2 diabetes (4).

Plus, there was an earlier excellent study in elderly depressed women with type-2 diabetes and low serum magnesium where oral magnesium therapy worked as well on their depressive symptoms as did the antidepressant imipramine, but without the side effects (5). Some studies have found no association of dietary magnesium and risk of depression (e.g., see Derom et al., [6]), but when taken overall, studies of this type show this association between low dietary magnesium and depression more often than not, and that the incidence of depression is increasing globally (6). This rise in global depression goes along with other conditions known to be tied to low magnesium status (e.g., diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension) (7, 8).

Interpreting trends and associations in such research can be difficult, but lack of definitive outcome is understandable especially considering that several of the essential nutrients, including magnesium, are associated with various forms of mental and emotional health. I have seen papers and/or reports on low iodine, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, zinc, manganese, copper as well as amino acid imbalance having influence on mood, for example. So when a researcher goes after the role of magnesium alone in the diet and mood outcome, which is often assessed by questionnaire, one should not expect really clear-cut results one way or the other. Considering these limitations, it is not amiss to consider that the recent, fairly consistent magnesium research in this area represents something we should be paying attention to.

Passwater: Is magnesium related to emotional health as well as general health?

Rosanoff: A couple of years ago, I remember mentioning a few magnesium and emotional health papers in a manuscript that a reviewer felt was not worth considering in the assessment of the human requirement for magnesium. The idea was that emotional state, as long as it was considered “healthy,” could not be expected to have much bearing on the amount of daily magnesium that a person would need. This view is in total contrast to that of my mentor, Mildred Seelig, M.D., who insisted that the human requirement for magnesium went high, drastically so, during times of stress—and that intake of magnesium during stressful times needed to go up by a factor as high as seven to 10 (9, 10). Of course, this might be said for other essential nutrients too: stress raises the need for essential vitamins and minerals, and we all know that our lives can be pretty stressful nowadays (11).

Passwater: But let’s look at some specifics of magnesium’s possible role in human emotional health. What research is available to us?

Rosanoff: I expect to see more research on magnesium and depression, anxiety and cognition. But there is indirect evidence also, that I believe is telling.

There has been a pretty big wall between psychological research and biological research for a long time, but that wall is being breached more and more. In psychobiological research, cardiac “events” are often the measured outcome. These can be atrial fibrillation, heart attacks and such. These cardiac events, when they occur in response to an emotional or mental trigger, provide researchers with an actual biological/physiological measurement that denotes the impact of the emotional or mental trigger.

Now, we know that low magnesium is quite highly related to such cardiac events. There is much research on this association and has been for some time (12). So, when we look at some of this psychobiological research, we see that psychological and emotional events and/or stresses bring on cardiac events in some people, but not others. This leads me to hypothesize that these events mark a low magnesium state in that human, and the “trigger,” although emotional rather than physical, drew upon that low magnesium state, which was lacking, and thus the physical event became manifest.

For example, during the World Trade Center attacks, heart patients with implanted monitors of their heart rhythms showed twice the ventricular arrhythmias than normal for 30 days after the attack (13). This response was found even in patients living in Florida, 1,000 miles from the actual physical danger, showing that just the knowledge of the attacks was a stress that showed up in a measurable way in physical heart function (14). Could this stressed, afraid mental state be altering magnesium status just enough in these heart patients to bring on atrial fibrillation? I think it is not absurd to consider. Of course, people without heart disease and without such implants, would also be experiencing fear, stress or anxiety that surely drew upon their body’s store of magnesium also, but if they were adequate in their magnesium status, their hearts would not go into atrial fibrillation as do those of the heart patients who are quite probably low in their magnesium stores and status.

Passwater: What about the research on death by sudden psychological stress?

Rosanoff: We know that sudden cardiac death is associated with low magnesium status and is higher in areas where water and soil magnesium are low (12). Well, there is research showing death rate increases in response to the sudden psychological stresses of earthquake and sporting events.

For earthquakes, drastic rises in sudden cardiac death on the day of the quake, compared to the month past, were found in the Northridge quake in Los Angeles in 1994 (16), as well as in earthquakes in Japan in 1995, Australia in 1989 and Athens in 1981. My hypothesis: these earthquake victims were not physically harmed by a falling building or moving furniture, but from the psychological stress of sudden fear in the face of a low magnesium status.

Passwater: How about sporting events?

Rosanoff: In the 1996 quarter-final of the European football championship there was a penalty shootout—very exciting. Dutch men, whose team lost, had 1.5 times the usual number of acute death by myocardial infarction (MI) or stroke on the day of that event compared with the 10 days surrounding it. England had higher acute MI admissions after the World Cup of 1998 against Argentina when there was an exciting penalty shootout in which England lost. Other international events with no penalty shootout (and less excitement) show no such rise in MI admissions, but five years of English football showed a slight rise in MI and stroke on days when “the team” lost.

Looks to me like great excitement plus sudden disappointment can bring on a low magnesium crisis in people already low in their magnesium status. Is this too farfetched? I think not. Phobic anxiety has been shown to be a heart disease risk factor as has psychological states including money worries, work stress, social isolation and loneliness (17–20). These findings have been shown across country, continent, age, gender and race in 52 countries of the Interheart study (21). Clearly, these psychological/emotional stresses are heart disease risk factors, just as high total cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes and smoking are heart disease risk factors. The common link to the physical ones are low magnesium (12), and it is not out of the question that these strong emotional/psychological states are also linked with low or imbalanced magnesium status.

Passwater: Readers can find further discussion of the interaction of adrenaline release and magnesium shortage in Dr. Rosanoff’s book (12) and Web site ( Let’s take a break here and meet again next month to discuss some more interesting facts about magnesium and health. Thanks, Dr. Rosanoff, for once again sharing your knowledge about magnesium with us. WF

Dr. Richard Passwater is the author of more than 45 books and 500 articles on nutrition. Dr. Passwater has been WholeFoods Magazine’s science editor and author of this column since 1984. More information is available on his Web site,

This editorial series is sponsored by Natural Vitality.


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Published in WholeFoods Magazine, July 2015