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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Nutrition tames a killer
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By Forrest H. Nielsen

Inflammation is the redness, heat, swelling and pain that occurs when the body is killing invading organisms or removing damaged tissue while healing wounds.

The inflammatory response is a blessing when needed for a short time to overcome a mild infection or injury. The inflammatory response can be a curse if it is not properly controlled or switched on when not needed because it can damage healthy parts of the body. A long-term or chronic, low-grade inflammatory response can lead to heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes and mental problems. An unneeded inflammatory response can be caused by a number of things including key nutrient deficiencies, obesity and even lack of sleep.

Magnesium is one of the key nutrients needed for proper control of the inflammatory response. Magnesium regulates a signal starting a cascade of events that produces molecules called inflammatory cytokines, or cell (cyto) activators (kines). These cytokines tell attack cells to destroy invaders or damaged tissue. The cells use oxygen to breakdown damaged or harmful materials by a process called oxidation. A person not getting enough magnesium in the diet will produce more cytokines than needed. This will cause too much oxidation often called oxidative stress that causes harmful changes in healthy tissue. A poorly controlled inflammatory response is thought to be the reason that a magnesium deficiency increases the risk for heart attack, osteoporosis and diabetes.

Obesity is another nutrition-related problem that is associated with chronic low-grade inflammation. The cause of this inflammation may be an increase in inflammatory cytokines made by fat tissue in an attempt by the body to limit obesity. Another cause of chronic low-grade inflammation in obesity may be a poor magnesium status. Recent studies show that obesity is associated with low dietary intakes — and decreased blood levels — of magnesium. Regardless of the cause, inflammatory stress may be a major factor for the finding that obese people have an increased risk for atherosclerosis, blocked blood vessels resulting in heart attacks and diabetes.

Lack of sleep also can cause an increase in inflammatory cytokines. This may be why sleep loss is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. Magnesium could be involved in this association. Magnesium plays a key role in the regulation of sleep by controlling the entry of a chemical into brain cells. This is the same chemical controlled by magnesium to start the inflammatory response in nerve cells. Persons experiencing long-term lack of sleep, or abnormal brain waves during deep sleep, often have low amounts of magnesium in their blood.

We are conducting an experiment at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center to see whether magnesium improves sleep behavior and the inflammatory response in people older than 50. This age group is more likely to have sleep problems and a low magnesium status. If you are not getting enough sleep and are interested in joining this study, please call (701) 795-8396 for more information.

Obesity, poor sleep (especially among older people), and low magnesium intakes are major health concerns. About 30 percent of adults in the United States are obese. More than 50 percent of people 65 years or older have sleep problems. A U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, analysis of 2001-2002 national nutrition survey results found that more than one-half of the adult U.S. population had inadequate intakes of magnesium from food. Thus, many Americans would benefit by increasing their intake of magnesium.

The adult recommended dietary allowance for magnesium is 310 milligrams for women and 420 milligrams for men. Foods that are rich in magnesium include whole grains, nuts, legumes, green leafy vegetables and low-fat milk products. Examples of specific foods high in magnesium are flaxseed, oatmeal, wheat bran, almonds, cashews, peanuts, peanut butter, soybeans, lentils, beans, spinach and yogurt.


Last Modified: 7/2/2008