People often think that anything related to chemistry or chemicals is inherently bad or artificial. This belief is certainly not true, as we and everything around us is made out of chemicals. Our bodies are very delicate and sophisticated biochemical machines. The way our bodies work can be described through all the chemical components and the processes they go through.
Understanding the biochemistry behind all of it is very important for many reasons. This understanding gives us the knowledge to assess a medical problem when something goes wrong. Through science and research, we have expanded our knowledge greatly and managed to use it to the benefit of humankind. This may sound overwhelming, but you can see how all of this works with the example of the importance of magnesium to human life.
Inorganic chemistry of magnesium
Magnesium is a metal belonging to group two of elements in the third period. In its elemental state, it is a shiny grey solid that is very light but very strong. The oxidation number it usually takes is +2, as the electrons from its 3s orbitals are the ones that react. Because it belongs in the third period, it means that it has a 3d orbital that can be populated with electrons. This property will very soon prove why that is important.
The way we, and other life forms, take in magnesium is not in its elemental state. We can only use magnesium as a salt. That is why when you need to take magnesium, you do not take metallic magnesium but use the supplement in which it is a salt. There are many types of magnesium salts that are usually taken, and each one has different properties. The most important property is its bioavailability to the organism. Some salts are better absorbed by the body, and some are not dependent on which anion is used to make the salt.
Magnesium interactions with organic molecules
Remember the 3d orbital that is available to magnesium? This is where this orbital shines and plays a vital role. The 3d orbital allows organic molecules that have carbonyl, amino, phosphate, or any electron-donating groups to make coordination compounds with it. This property allows magnesium to be bound as a cofactor to many proteins and enzymes in the body.
Proteins and enzymes are what do all the heavy work in our bodies. If a protein or an enzyme has a cofactor, that means that it is heavily dependent on that cofactor to perform its job. Not only is magnesium bound to proteins and enzymes, magnesium is also bound to adenosine triphosphate (most commonly known as ATP). These molecules contain energy-rich phosphate bonds, and when hydrolysed, they also increase the entropy of the system. This makes many otherwise not favourable reactions possible. It not only makes them possible but also makes them happen at much faster rates. This is very important to every life form, as every one of us depends on these reactions to happen and to happen at these accelerated rates.
Magnesium has an important role in muscle contraction
Our muscles are connected to our nervous system and are very dependent on it. When a muscle moves, the signal to do so first comes from your neurons (nerve cells). This whole process involves a whole cascade of reactions, but one of the key steps is the release of calcium ions that make the contraction possible.
When the contraction is done, the muscle must be put back in its relaxed state. In order to do so, magnesium ions bind to the receptors where the calcium ions attach. This prevents the binding of more calcium, so the muscle is relaxed. If you have a magnesium deficiency, you are more likely to experience cramps and muscle spasms as the muscles can’t relax properly after a contraction. This problem may be solved with the right diet, or if that is insufficient, through the use of magnesium supplements. If you do take magnesium supplements, look for the ones that use citrate as the anion. This salt is more efficiently absorbed by the body.
Magnesium is important to the rest of the nervous system
Muscle contraction is not the only important process that depends on magnesium. Your whole brain is very dependent on this one chemical. Magnesium binds to many receptors, be it for regulating the membrane potential of a neuron or for triggering another cascade of nerve impulses. Having lower levels of magnesium can lead to a number of problems.
Magnesium and energy production
Remember earlier when we talked about magnesium ions binding to ATP? You can’t exaggerate how important this molecule is for your body. ATP can only be available to use if it is bound to magnesium. Without magnesium, even if you have plentiful reserves of this energy-rich molecule (ATP), you will experience fatigue and tiredness.
Effects on the heart
Membrane potential is not only important for the nervous system, it is also very important for the proper function of your cardiovascular system. The health of your cardiovascular system is extremely important, as it is responsible for delivering all the needed nutrients to the rest of your body. In addition to transporting nutrients, your bloodstream also transports hormones. Hormones are commonly associated with their effects on the reproductive system and mood, and while it is true that they are responsible for that system, hormones also have an effect on all the biochemical processes that go on in your body. As such, magnesium plays a role in bone formation, regulating blood pressure, blood sugar control and more.
Given how important magnesium is for the human body, you would be forgiven for thinking that you need to glut yourself on it, but this is far from the truth. Like many chemicals essential for the proper functioning of the body, excess levels of magnesium do not bring added benefit and may in fact cause harm. Al magnesium overdose is rare and is typically only seen in people with reduced kidney function, as the kidneys help the body eliminate excess magnesium. Symptoms of a magnesium overdose include diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, muscle weakness, low blood pressure, respiratory distress and even cardiac arrest.
For most people, a regular healthy diet can give you all the magnesium you need to keep your body functioning properly. Foods high in magnesium include almonds, spinach, wheat cereal or bread, soy milk and black beans. A diet rich in leafy greens, nuts, legumes and whole grains should provide all the magnesium your body needs.
If you think you may be low on magnesium or are thinking of taking supplements, you should first consult with your doctor to make sure that a supplement is right for you and isn’t contraindicated for any medications or conditions you may have. The fastest and easiest way to search for and schedule an appointment with a doctor is to do it online with MyHealth1st.
Robert Haynes did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in mental health and well-being.