Can Magnesium Help the Immune System Fight Cancer?

Magnesium plays a vital role in many processes in the body. This includes regulating blood sugar levels, the formation of proteins, regulating the nervous system and blood pressure. It has known therapeutic benefits as well such as helping reduce anxiety, improving sleep and boosting exercise performance.

Recent research from the University of Basel, Switzerland, has shown that magnesium also has a potential benefit to help the immune system tackle cancer. Since it’s essential for the immune system in providing it with the strength and ability to attack pathogens, it may have important implications for cancer patients. Pathogens are any microorganisms, such as viruses or bacteria, that can cause disease. Keep reading to find out more about these associated outcomes in cancer treatment and research.


What does magnesium do in the body?

Magnesium is a cofactor for over 300 enzyme systems. It helps regulate processes in the body such as blood pressure and sugar levels, muscle and nerve function and energy production. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an adult’s body contains 25mg of magnesium, of which 50%-60% is found in the bones and tissues. 

It’s important to maintain healthy levels of magnesium in the body in order to reduce the risk of illnesses over time and to improve quality of life. 

What foods contain magnesium?

A good way to increase your intake of magnesium is to ensure that you include the mineral in your daily diet. Food that are a rich source of magnesium include:

  • A variety of nuts like cashews, walnuts, peanuts, almonds
  • Spinach 
  • Chia seeds
  • Black beans
  • Avocado
  • Salmon
  • Halibut 


How does the immune system respond to cancer?

The immune system provides the body with a general defence against pathogens and threats of infection. It can learn how to respond when exposed to foreign bodies, including destroying harmful cells, in order to protect the body. There are different types of cells in the immune system that perform different functions depending on the threat. 

When it comes to cancer, the cells responsible for protecting the body are:

  • CD8+ killer T cells – these cells directly target and destroy cancer cells
  • Dendritic cells – these digest cancerous cells and deposit them on their surfaces so that other cells in the immune system can recognise them as harmful and destroy them
  • Macrophages – just like dendritic cells, these also digest harmful cells so that other cells in the immune system can detect and destroy them

Cancer cells can arise on a daily basis, depending on environmental factors and genetic predisposition. But the immune system eliminates them. In some cases, the cells are able to disguise themselves and go undetected by the immune system. When this happens, the immune system may not be able to detect and destroy them. 

There are many therapies that are being developed and researched that intend to boost the immune system’s response and better mobilise it to fight cancer. 


What benefits of magnesium intake does cancer research show?

The research, published in Cell, studies a type of immune cell called a cytotoxic cell or killer-T cell. It was found that this cell could only eliminate cancer cells in the presence of a magnesium-rich environment. The researchers noted that magnesium was important for the functioning of a T cell surface protein known as Lymphocyte Function Associated Antigen 1, or LFA-1

When proteins bind, they follow what is known as a docking process. This helps one molecule decide what its most appropriate orientation should be, based on the orientation of the molecule it needs to bind to, so that they can fit into each other effortlessly. The LFA-1 surface protein acts as a docking site and is responsible for the activation of T cells. 

In an inactive state, the LFA-1 protein is bent, and as a result, binding to infected or abnormal cells becomes less effective. However, the researchers found that magnesium plays an important role in increasing the efficiency of the docking process. In sufficient amounts, magnesium ensures that the LFA-1 protein and T cells bind and remain in an extended position, i.e. not bent, so that they are active. 

The next step in the research is to find ways to increase concentration levels of magnesium in tumour cells. This could assist cancer treatments such as immunotherapy. In a test using mice, the researchers found that magnesium could be successfully transported in small parcels of fats, and coated in antibodies. They are still looking into whether supplements, in the form of pills or injections, given to cancer patients can also help improve the results of immunotherapy. 

Separate studies have also shown that the intake of magnesium may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer (CRC), pancreatic cancer and breast cancer respectively. The Cancer Therapy Advisor reports studies that indicated that cancer patients who were treated with magnesium infused pre hydration saw a lower chance of experiencing any risks during their traditional cancer treatments. In a study published by Nature, researchers studied the effect of dietary intake of magnesium on the risk of breast cancer patients. Their results demonstrated that a higher dietary magnesium intake was associated with a lower breast cancer risk. They also concluded that a magnesium deficiency could be involved with both the risk and prognosis of breast cancer and other cancers. 

All studies mention that it’s recommended that magnesium should be in relatively high concentrations in order to be effective. 

Final thoughts

Magnesium is an important mineral that helps ensure many bodily functions are performed well. The research conducted by the scientists at Basel University concludes that magnesium plays a key role in the immune system’s response to cancer. It makes an impact by regulating T cell activity during the docking process of the LFA-1 protein. Although these results are promising, there is still a need for further research and clinical trials to be done. It is still to be determined how these results can be effectively applied to cancer treatments such as immunotherapy. 



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