Over 30 years ago in the early 1990’s, when I was a former ICU nurse, every now and again, there would be a call to go and help-out the busy nurses in the Coronary Care Unit. At the time, I didn’t give a thought to how many of the patients lying in beds hooked up to cardiac monitors were women who had just arrived in menopause or post-menopause. But they were – and now that I’m in post-menopause myself and with my women’s healthy ageing studies leading me down the rabbit-hole about how the effect declining oestrogen has on other organs around the body, including cardiac muscle and blood vessels, these memories make sense.
Women in their menopause transition and those already in post-menopause are at increased risk for changing heart health as they age. Whilst both weight gain and poor sleep patterns affect post-menopause heart health too, new research reports why magnesium exerts a powerful influence on our heart health.
At the time that I was helping out my colleagues in the CCU all those years ago, over 153,000 post-menopausal women in America were entering one of the largest women’s health studies to be undertaken. Today I thank them.
As participants in the Women’s Health Initiative Study they were recruited between 1993 and 1998 and their magnesium intake at the time, was assessed using a validated food frequency questionnaire. It is well known that magnesium plays an important role in cardiac physiology, helping the heart to contract. Over the next decade, coronary heart disease was measured in this cohort as well as sudden death. Earlier this year, a brand new women’s health study has gone back to this original research, reminding us that as we move into our post-menopause years, [when our periods have stopped for a year or more], having adequate dietary magnesium (not supplements) matters.
When I take my Masterclass on Menopause seminars, I often ask women if they are taking lots of supplements. Most are. When I used to follow this query up by enquiring if they know if they work, most aren’t sure. This was my curiosity too. . [Read my article on menopause supplements here].
When so many of the menopause-related supplements I was taking didn’t seem to be addressing the source of my isomnia, hot flushes, sore joints and energy levels, weight gain, nor my rapid and ‘bounding’ heart rate, I realised that many of the supplements marketed to us, don’t contain magnesium. But the more I followed the heart health research, the more I also realised that we need real food that our gut recognises – this is because minerals in other supplements or poor gut health, also affects the absorption and uptake of magnesium.
Dietary factors which impair Magnesium uptake include high doses of other minerals, non-fermentable fibres (e.g., cellulose, lignin), phytates and oxalates which are often present in certain green vegies and nuts. On the other hand, the messages for women to get off resistant starches such as brown rice or bananas is equally disturbing, because the presence of resistant starch in the intestines help to enhance Magnesium uptake. [Schuchardt & Hahn, 2017].
Magnesium is just one type of supplement that is heavily marketed to women in menopause. Often we don’t understand why, but as oestrogen declines, this has a negative effect on our blood vessels and blood pressure as well as our sleep. Studies have shown that when magnesium levels are low, this can contribute to over-stimulation of the brain nerve-transmitters as well as high blood pressure. But there’s another reason that low magnesium can be problematic for women in post-menopause, and this is because this fabulous mineral plays an important role in cardiac electro-physiology – it helps in the conduction of your heart beat and it helps to regulate your blood pressure.
High blood pressure is known as hypertension and according to Google, it was the highest searched health term in 2019. If many of these ‘searches’ were conducted by women in menopause, I’m not surprised. High blood pressure found it’s way to me in peri-menopause as well.
Getting our blood pressure checked in mid-life is as important as brushing our teeth. As I hope many of you do too, I get my BP checked every year, especially now that I’m post-menopausal. It’s crucial that you do this, because for women moving towards post-menopause, heart disease remains the number 1 health concern as they age in New Zealand, Australia, America and the UK. [WHO, 2017].
[Image Source: Researchgate]
I often talk about blood pressure and magnesium in my private coaching community. If we don’t manage our nutrition, blood pressure and turn around our sleep as we move through menopause, then anxiety increases, hot flushes run rampant and yes, many of you find that your joints and muscles ache more too.
When I learnt that heart disease in post-menopause remains the highest health risk for women as they age in most western countries, my curiosity was ‘why’?
Yes, menopause itself puts up into higher risk for changing heart health, but there are other factors that aren’t related to your genetics or your family history and according to the World Health Organisation these are:
- a diet high in processed foods and sugar with lower intake of fruits and vegetables.
- physical inactivity and/or excessive exercise.
- over-consumption of alcohol.
The effects of these risk factors may show up as raised blood pressure, raised blood glucose, raised blood lipids, and becoming overweight and obese. But to me, there is a part of the puzzle missing – and that’s the risk posed by not sleeping in menopause and not having the correct nutrition so that we obtain the specific nutrients that our body needs at this time of life.
Women’s health and ageing research is replete with cardiovascular disease studies. The declining health of our mother’s generation have paved the way for this type of research in older women. How people are ageing is also gaining more interest from policy makers and medical and healthy ageing researchers are discovering more about heart disease every year. For many women, menopause is the start of their changing heart health … but here’s the thing that our mother’s generation didn’t know – it doesn’t have to be this way.
High blood pressure and heart disease don’t have to become the inevitable pathway into older age and MyMT™ women who join me are discovering this too.
Menopause is the time of our lives when we are most at risk of high blood pressure and changing heart health and researchers now understand that our mid-life years are the time to change how we look after ourselves.
With women’s death rate from heart disease in America nearly eight times higher than death rates from cancer and New Zealand, Australia and the UK leading the world in heart disease incidence, increasing evidence indicates that hormonal changes in menopause may also be involved.
There are many factors that may be being left out in the conversations about our menopause transition, including,
- Menopause related insomnia – when we don’t sleep our cardiac muscle and immune system can’t heal and recover overnight. This is particularly concerning for women who are avid exercisers. As the first generation of women to go into menopause in the context of doing lots of exercise, if they aren’t sleeping then they aren’t improving their immune health overnight, nor are they burning fat. Being overweight in post-menopause increases risk for changing heart health.
2. Stress – both emotional stress and oxidative stress. The research connecting these two types of stress to heart disease is well evidenced but not conclusive. Other issues that aren’t often taken into account are the connections between not sleeping, both high or low levels of physical activity and inflammation in joints, muscles (including cardiac muscle) and tissues that has been building up for decades. As we move through menopause, this leads to what is known as ‘oxidative stress’, especially in the beautiful mitochondrial cells, which store our precious oxygen. When inflammation is high in the body, blood pressure can change too.
3. Vascular stiffness in blood vessels.
Menopause is the gateway to our biological ageing. As such, there are changes to our blood vessels and other organs. In an age whereby media and pharmaceutical companies focus on marketing botox and other external products to promote anti-ageing, the salient point of our internal cellular ageing gets forgotten. When menopause arrives, there are numerous structural changes that occur in our body, not just changes to our oestrogen and progesterone levels. This is an important point for all women, not only those who are regular exercisers. As we lose oestrogen, our blood vessels are ageing and this leads to vascular or arterial stiffness. The loss of elasticity in blood vessels and lymphatic vessels, means that we may may feel more bloated, our legs may feel heavy, restless and aching (especially for exercisers) and our blood pressure and heat regulation may get out of balance too. When we have busy, active lives, the vascular stiffness leaves us feeling exhausted.
These internal changes going on ‘inside’ our body are important for all of us to understand.With vascular stiffness arriving in mid-life and beyond, the risk of cardiac disease as we age increases. As such, one of the strategies that I promote in the MyMT™ programmes is to get women thinking about the magic of magnesium.
Australia’s women’s health expert, Dr Sandra Cabot, values it as important too,
“To have a mineral found in nature, a mineral your body needs, a mineral that is easily and cheaply available (in pill or powder form) and known to be useful in treating or preventing dozens of medical conditions – to me, that sounds like a dream come true.” [Cabot, S. (2004). Magnesium the Miracle Mineral. SCB International Inc.
Why you may need Magnesium in Menopause:
Magnesium supplements have sky-rocketed over the past decade or so as they are heavily marketed to women in their menopause transition as the panacea for hot flushes, night sweats and other aches and pains. But there is another important role for magnesium in menopause too. And that is to help reduce our risk of heart disease and to regulate our blood pressure.
New research indicates that for women during menopause, magnesium is an important co-factor (helper) mineral for a number of enzyme functions that work specifically in cardiac mitochondria. And with my eye on our cardiac health as we age and go into post-menopause, there’s never been a better reason than menopause, to have a little re-think and focus on magnesium!
Magnesium is important for healing and so too, is it’s opposing partner, calcium. The two help to balance and restore muscle and nerve function in the body and help in a heap of other reactions in the body during menopause as well. Crucial for women who are busy and active, either as regular exercisers, or like Barbara who is a farmer, have active lives on a day to day basis.
We need around 320mg to 400mg daily of magnesium and preferably from our diet. As an ‘essential mineral’ this means that our body doesn’t make it. With magnesium involved in more than 300 enzymatic reactions involving energy metabolism and blood pressure regulation, it is pretty important to our health and energy. For us girls going through menopause, it is also important for:
- helping hormones to bind to receptor cells
- the prevention of too much calcium getting into cells
- muscle contraction and nerve activity (along with calcium)
- control of blood vessel dilation and tone
- helping nerve impulses to pass through cardiac muscle.
But perhaps the most important issue, is that magnesium deficiency has been shown to play a role in inflammation and when our body is stressed (as it is when we aren’t sleeping in menopause), then magnesium deficiency also leads to an exaggerated response to even more stress, especially in our cells and tissues, through our nerve-hormonal pathways. This type of stress is called oxidative stress and makes our hot flushes, muscle and joint pain and weight gain become worse during menopause.
Why might we become low in magnesium?
Several factors can cause low magnesium. Top of my list, would be an unhealthy liver or gut. If we have inflammation in these organs, then any magnesium that we do have in our diet, cannot be absorbed properly.
Many women don’t have ideal gut health to absorb as much magnesium as their body needs and it’s why I include a GUT HEALTH REJUVENATION GUIDE to those women who join me.
Next on my list is too much exercise or every-day stress and rushing around. When this occurs and we are always in ‘fight or flight’ mode, then our lovely long vagus nerve is always stimulated. This increases gut motility or movement, and when this happens, again, the food passes through our gut too quickly, so absorption time is delayed. Studies have also shown that the quality of our food and food processing means that magnesium can be deficient in our diet, but alcohol can decrease magnesium uptake as can osteoporosis medication as well as poor water levels of magnesium.
The significance of magnesium and its relationship to the origin of life has been traced by researchers interested in the body’s dependence on it. In their 1999 review article on magnesium, Fawcett, Haxby & Male contend,
“The importance of magnesium is derived from the composition of the earth’s crust (rich in iron–magnesium silicate) and the primeval ocean rich in magnesium, to the formation of chlorophyll with magnesium at the centre of the molecule, and finally to its incorporation into the animal cell containing adenosine triphosphate (ATP) with its dependence on magnesium.”
When magnesium levels get low, then we can experience leg cramps, increased muscle twitching and cardiac palpitations. With these all noted symptoms of menopause hormonal changes, then yes, maybe we do need to look at our magnesium levels every so often.
There are some great ways we can improve magnesium uptake during menopause:
1. Epsom Salts: Magnesium has been used as a therapeutic agent for hundreds of years and well before pharmaceutical companies sold magnesium to us in bottles! Magnesium-rich waters of Epsom Spa Town have been known to be beneficial ever since the 16th Century (this is where Epsom Salts were discovered). But there is also caution, because Epsom was also the site of our early knowledge about the dangers of too much magnesium, when in 1891, 4 ounces of Epsom Salts caused magnesium poisoning and complete muscular paralysis in a 35 year old woman.
2. Food Sources: If you want to use your diet to increase magnesium rather than supplements, then get more beans, nuts and whole grains into you. For my amazing women on the MyMT programmes, I get them to increase their intake of organic brown rice, green leafy vegetables and they can also have bananas, dark chocolate and of course, a black coffee – all foods and drinks which are rich sources of magnesium and other healthy nutrients. If they have gut health problems, then they also work through the MyMT™ GUT REHAB plans which are included in the programme for women who need them.
3. Artesian Water: When I was in Switzerland last year (how long ago that feels after all that’s been going on in the world!), I couldn’t believe how nice the water tasted in the small village I was visiting. Everywhere in the village were wells brimming over with glacial water coming down from the Swiss Alps. I discovered that the ‘magic’ of these waters lay in two minerals – calcium and magnesium. Further investigation and local knowledge, led me to discover that just 1 litre of this beautiful alpine water delivers around 50% of the daily requirements of calcium and magnesium to drinkers. No wonder I was told that many locals live to a ripe old age! Women from around the world who are in my coaching groups get all this fabulous knowledge as well.
Magnesium is a vital tool in our dietary tool-box as we transition through menopause as are most minerals and vitamins. But if we aren’t absorbing these nutrients then the priority is to turn around the gut, liver and cardiac inflammation that prevents magnificent magnesium from doing its job. I cover how to do this in my 12 week programmes.
Sometimes we do need a boost from supplements, but other times we can get adequate amounts from improving our focus on the right foods at different life stages.
As I say to each and every one of the MyMT™ Community,
“When it comes to our menopause transition, you don’t need a lot of food, just the right food. That includes the right food for your heart health as you transition menopause – this aspect of our nutrition as we age is being forgotten in a world of unhealthy and not-so-well evidenced dietary claims, many of which don’t focus on women going through menopause.”
I designed the two different MyMT™ 12 week online programmes for women going through menopause, or those of you who are now in post-menopause. These programmes were created for the reduction of my own symptoms, including turning around my blood pressure and sleep, when endless supplements and hormone therapies didn’t work (Read my Story HERE),
For more information then you can also watch my VIDEO BELOW.
Wendy Sweet, [PhD/ Women’s Healthy Ageing Researcher and MyMT™ Coach/ Member: Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine].
DiNicolantonio, Liu et al. (2018). Magnesium for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. BMJ
Fawcett, Haxby & Male (1999). Magnesium physiology & pharmacology.
Li, J., Hovey, K. et al. (2020). Association of dietary magnesium intake with fatal coronary heart disease and sudden cardiac death. Journal of Women’s Health, 29(1), 1-6.
Schuchardt, J. P., & Hahn, A. (2017). Intestinal Absorption and Factors Influencing Bioavailability of Magnesium-An Update. Current nutrition and food science, 13(4), 260–278. https://doi.org/10.2174/1573401313666170427162740