Magnesium and Diabetic Patients: Should You take it?

Over 25 years ago I became somewhat curious about magnesium as companion to carnitine for the treatment of coronary heart disease. As chance would have it, a company approached me with a patented magnesium formulation and asked me to find a company which would develop it- not an easy task in those days, let alone today. But a patented nutraceutical is not common so I agreed to take the job. I reviewed the medical literature on magnesium, and what struck me was its solid potential for the treatment of diabetes as well as heart disease. (For the record, in my early medical days I was an endocrinologist and specialized in diabetes and a couple of other endocrine diseases).

Those of you who have followed my quest to create the first major nutraceutical company will appreciate how excited I was that magnesium could be the dietary supplement to make it a reality. At that time Lady Luck was on my side. My late, close physician friend, Sheldon Gilgore, also an endocrinologist in his young medical career, was the former president of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals and then Chairman of the major pharmaceutical company, G.D. Searle. In the past, we collaborated on clinical studies on the potential beneficial effect of aspirin for the treatment of diabetes. When I made the magnesium proposal to him over dinner at an Italian restaurant in downtown Chicago, what initially struck me was his excitement about magnesium’s potential to help diabetics. How can I say it? He still wore his doctor’s hat! Despite the pervasive reluctance of his executives he overruled them and gave me a grant to further pursue the effort.

To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure what path I should take. One night I was watching a health oriented television show where the host was interviewing the physician and President of the prestigious American Diabetes Association (ADA), Jay Skyler, now Professor of Medicine, Pediatrics and Psychology at the University of Miami. He fearlessly challenged some prevailing beliefs regarding the treatment of diabetes and was open to new avenues of therapy. My type of guy!

I called Dr. Skyler, explained to him the project. He asked for time to review the magnesium literature after which he agreed to meet.  We met and, for reasons of objectivity, we needed the opinion of an independent group of experts, and a consensus conference by the prestigious American Diabetes Association (ADA) would be optimum.

We met with Dr. Richard Kahn, the then Chief Scientific and Medical Officer of the ADA. He was open-minded as well as impressed with the data and agreed to hold the conference. At the conference, I gave an initial presentation on my thoughts and then left the room in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest and also so the participants would be more objective. They concluded that the weight of evidence suggests that magnesium deficiency may play a role in insulin resistance, high blood sugar and hypertension. They also recommended that magnesium should only be given if serum levels are low. The full report was published in the journal, Diabetes Care, in 1992.

Time passed and in 2000, probably the world’s medical expert on the magnesium- diabetes connection and a member of the ADA consensus group, Jerry Nadler, Professor and Chairman of Internal Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School wrote, “Many studies have shown that both mean plasma and intracellular free magnesium levels are lower in patients with diabetes than in the general population. Decreased levels of free intracellular magnesium in erythrocytes (red blood cells) have been reported in the majority of patients with type 2 diabetes. ” In plain English, most diabetics are magnesium deficit, and this should be considered as a potential serious risk factor requiring treatment by supplementation.

Since then other studies have supported the potential benefits of magnesium supplementation reporting that it lowers blood sugar and both in diabetics and the metabolic syndrome, which can be a precursor to diabetes.

Though we don’t have all the answers at this point in time it certainly makes sense, based on clinical studies, for type 2 diabetics to take the “nutraceutical” supplement, magnesium. Regarding type I diabetes, I’ll leave that decision to the experts.

A final note: My mantra over the years is that natural substances work in combination. For example, there’s a compelling argument that the nutraceutical, carnitine, should be taken by diabetics along with magnesium. I’ll address the reasoning supporting this in my next post.

(You may wonder why it takes so long to conduct clinical research on magnesium and other potential nutraceutical dietary supplements let alone to educate physicians and patients about the results. As I mentioned before, unlike pharmaceuticals, they lack sufficient patent protection for educational as well as product development costs. That’s why I have pushed Congress to enact the Nutraceutical Research and Education Act (NREA) as well as the Doctornaut Act).

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