For thousands of years in Eastern medicine, the idea of Yin and Yang have been used as a valuable tool to perceive and judge the nature of the universe. In a nutshell, Yin is the calming, passive, creative, feminine force. It is relaxation, sleep, nighttime. Yang is the energizing, active, destructive, masculine force. It is labor, activity, and daylight. The general idea is that these two opposing forces in the universe cannot exist without each other. They are codependent and an excess of one or the other eventually precipitates into its opposite. Day is necessarily followed by night. Sleep is necessarily followed by wakefulness. Labor is necessarily followed by rest. Life is necessarily followed by death. Or in the words of Isaac Newton, “what goes up, must come down.” Seems profound when coming from a scientist that transformed mathematics and physics, but that’s day one of preschool for a Taoist. It’s a very intricate philosophical perspective and I don’t mean to oversimplify it, I just wanted to give a brief explanation for those who are not very familiar.
Modern western lifestyle is generally very Yang. We are constantly expending large amounts of energy, money, and time so that we can live the American Dream/Nightmare. We often give inadequate treatment to rest, rejuvenation and other Yin qualities. As a result, our bodies and minds suffer. We don’t get enough sleep, stay up too late, consume large amounts of caffeine, sugar, and other stimulants, and generally live an imbalanced lifestyle. We write checks with our diet and lifestyle that our body cannot cash. This oftentimes leads into illness and a forced period of rest, rejuvenation, and Yin. Or in the words of James Chappell, M.D. “Those who fail to take the time to be healthy will ultimately have to take the time to be sick.”
With that framework in mind, I want to call attention to magnesium – a powerful Yin nutrient that has profound implications for health, wellness, and performance.
Some interesting tidbits about magnesium, the nervous system, and the stress response:
- Magnesium is a potent stimulator of the parasympathetic nervous system and encourages muscular relaxation, “rest-and-digest,” and “feed-and-breed” (contrasted with the sympathetic nervous system, muscular contraction, and the “fight, flight, or freeze” impulse).
- Magnesium encourages a deeper, more restful sleep, reduces anxiety, fosters detoxification and recovery, and reduces the perception of stress.
- Chronic stress exacerbates the symptoms of every disease known to man.
- Any source of stress can deplete magnesium levels at an accelerated pace. This can include exposure to loud sounds (often a problem in musicians, construction workers, heavy machine operators, etc), physical stress (including athletic training), psychological stress, chemical or drug exposure, or lack of sleep.
- The long list of the clinical impacts of magnesium deficiency includes: Anxiety and panic attacks, asthma, blood clots, bowel disease, cystitis, depression, detoxification, diabetes, fatigue, heart disease, hypertension, hypoglycemia, insomnia, kidney disease, migraine, musculoskeletal conditions, nerve problems, obstetrical and gynecological problems, osteoporosis, Raynaud’s syndrome, and tooth decay.
- Commonly used drugs such as birth control pills, insulin, common diuretics, cocaine, nicotine, and some prescription drugs can create magnesium deficiencies.
For these reasons (among others that I discuss in this article), I think everyone should be taking individual targeted supplementation, determined by a blood test and overseen by a qualified functional medicine doctor. Of course, there is no substitute for quality whole foods, and avoiding any products that are excessively processed or refined. Nonetheless, I believe supplements are also an important component of overall health, wellness, and performance.
It’s also worth mentioning that the human body is a complex, nonlinear system with a dynamic interplay of all nutrients and biological processes. Modern science has limited understanding of these processes, but magnesium deficiency is often a weak link in that system for the Westerner, or anyone who eats (or drinks) refined products. Chronic, long term deficiency can take as long as 6-12 months before optimal levels are restored, although benefits will probably be noticed within 1-2 weeks.
Some practical tips regarding magnesium testing and supplementation:
1. The red blood cell magnesium test is much more accurate than the total serum magnesium test, which is commonly used.
2. Magnesium oxide is a very common form of magnesium but has poor bioavailability and is not efficiently absorbed into the bloodstream. It also has more of a laxative effect than many other forms. Likewise, magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt) and magnesium citrate are generally not well absorbed.
3. Topical magnesium oil (magnesium chloride) is a terrific way to increase magnesium levels throughout the body.
4. The most readily absorbed oral magnesium forms are magnesium glycinate, magnesium taurate, and magnesium orotate. Since different forms of magnesium replenish intracellular magnesium levels at different rates, it’s a good idea to use a combination of different oral and topical forms.
So what have we discovered? Most people expend too much, and recuperate too little. Too much Yang, not enough Yin. Turns out you can literally take a chill pill.
Disclaimer: Because my primary goal is to bring awareness, I will not specifically cite my sources for now. I am not writing a scientific paper, I just want to encourage people to consider these issues for themselves and provide some basic action-steps. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. For a more rigorous and thorough scientific treatment of this issue you can find recommended further reading below.