Humans need sleep to function throughout the day: There’s no way around it. Yet nearly half of Americans say that their lack of quality sleep affects their daily activities at least once a week. But thanks to a collaborate effort from research teams at the University of Edinburgh and the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge, United Kingdom, discovered the previously unfounded power magnesium could have on a person’s sleep-wake cycle.

"Internal clocks are fundamental to all living things,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Gerben van Ooijen, a fellow researcher at the University of Edinburgh's School of Biological Sciences, in a statement. “They influence many aspects of health and disease in our own bodies, but equally in crop plants and micro-organisms.”

For the study, published in the journal Nature, researchers measured the activity of each human cell they collected. They found magnesium levels rose and fell with a 24-hour sleep and wake cycle. Throughout the entire course of the day, the amount of magnesium in the cells directly related to how closely a person followed their sleep cycle and how and when they burned energy.

The Complexity of the Clock

Our internal clocks control the ebb and flow of sleep and wakefulness. The heart of the cycle can be traced down to a neurological level right inside a human’s hypothalamus, a section of the brain responsible for regulating thirst, hunger, sleep, mood, sex drive, and other hormonal activity within the body. The hypothalamus is also where the optic nerve connects and communicates to the brain the level of light the eyes are exposed to throughout the day and night.

Located directly above the optic nerve is a tiny region in the hypothalamus known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which controls circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are an organism’s biological pacemakers, which are put in charge of maintaining a healthy wake-sleep cycle. Every cell in an organism has their own internal timer, which is thought to be controlled by their genetic makeup rather than environmental factors. For humans, it’s what determines whether a person is a morning person or a night owl.

Once the SCN is stimulated by the light and transmitted through the eye, the message travels along the optic nerve and ultimately reaches the circadian rhythms and regulates every cell’s natural cycle. The intertwined connections within the hypothalamus play a key role in the relationship between sleep, food consumption and the body’s natural clock.

Magnesium levels also had an impact on metabolism; the higher the magnesium levels, the better the cells followed the natural sleep cycle and the more efficiently the cells were able to process energy. By influencing the clock with magnesium, researchers may be able to improve the way humans and other living organisms convert food into fuel. Researchers repeated their tests and measured how magnesium levels influence algae and fungi cells, and found the same effect.  

"Although the clinical relevance of magnesium in various tissues is beginning to garner more attention, how magnesium regulates our body's internal clock and metabolism has simply not been considered before,” said the study's senior author Dr. John O'Neill, a researcher and PhD candidate at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, in a press release. “The new discovery could lead to a whole range of benefits spanning human health to agricultural productivity."

When it comes to humans, magnesium is readily available in supplement form, however consuming magnesium through the diet provides a wider array of nutritional benefits. Every day, the average adult should consume between 300 to 400 milligrams of magnesium, which can be found in almonds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, bananas, and dark chocolate.

Van Ooijen concluded: “It is now essential to find out how these fundamentally novel observations translate to whole tissue or organisms, to make us better equipped to influence them in complex organisms for future medical and agricultural purposes."

Source: Van Ooijen G, Feeney KA, and Hansen LL, et al. Daily magnesium fluxes regulate cellular timekeeping and energy balance. Nature. 2016.