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Magnesium is vital for the immune defense and for fighting cancer

Magnesium is vital for the immune defense and for fighting cancerLevels of magnesium in the blood are determining for the immune system’s ability to attack pathogens and cancer cells, according to a new study from the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel. The scientists have discovered that the T cells of the immune system need magnesium in order to carry out proper attacks. According to the scientists, these results are extremely important because magnesium has a potential role in new immunotherapies targeted at cancer patients. It is generally important to get plenty of magnesium because this nutrient is vital for the body’s calcium distribution and for supporting hundreds of enzyme processes.

The immune system is designed to carry out swift and effective attacks o pathogens and toxins. Also, it is designed to attack abnormal cells and cancer cells that pose a threat to our health. Here, the so-called T cells play the most important role. Cancer is a blanket term for different diseases characterized by uncontrollable cell growth, in some cases growths that are malignant. Although cancer therapies have improved the rate of cancer continues to rise and it comes with a huge human and socioeconomic price tag. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy is often associated with side effects so science is looking for other therapies that can fight cancer naturally.
According to the Swizz scientists, lack of magnesium is often linked to a host of diseases, including infections and cancer. Earlier studies of mice with cancer have already shown that cancer tumors grow faster if the mice are fed a magnesium-depleted diet. Also, they are more susceptible towards viral infections such as influenza. So far, however, the number of studies of magnesium’s specific impact on the immune system is very limited.

The T cells of the immune system

  • The T cells mainly target virus-infected cells, abnormal cells, and cancer cells
  • Helper T cells (CD4+) are like “officers” that give instructions
  • Helper T cells (CD8+) carry out chemical attacks
  • Regulatory T cells harness the killer T cells once the mission is completed

The study shows that magnesium primes T cells for their attack

The science team, headed by Professor Christoph Hess, found that the killer T cells (CD8+) are only able to attack and eliminate infected cells and abnormal cells such as cancer cells if there is enough magnesium present. Magnesium is essential for the functioning of a certain protein (LFA-1) on the surface of killer T cells. The scientists observed that killer T cells attach to infected cells and abnormal cells via the LFA-1 protein on the surface. However, the killer T cells are not activated before magnesium also attaches to the LFA-1 protein, and that is why it is vital that there is enough magnesium in the affected tissue. After magnesium has attached to LFA-1, the killer T cells can carry out “chemical warfare” by using cell toxins such as perforin and granulysin that dissolve the cells or cause them to carry out programmed self-destruction – also called apoptosis.

Magnesium’s potential in cancer therapy

Because of magnesium’s essential role in helping T cells function properly, the scientists assume that magnesium may have a potential in future immunotherapies targeted at cancer patients. These therapies can mobilize the immune defense and the killer T cells in particular. Experimental animal studies have already demonstrated that increasing the magnesium concentration in tumor tissue strengthens the killer T cells’ attacks on cancer cells.
The researchers want to carry out new clinical studies where they increase magnesium levels in tumors to see if this confirms their previous observations. They have also looked at data from earlier studies that show how immunotherapies used on cancer patients became less effective if there was too little magnesium in the blood.
Based on the existing data, the scientists still do not know if consuming larger quantities of magnesium lowers the risk of cancer but they plan to carry out more studies to learn about magnesium’s role in the immune system. The new study is published in the science journal Cell.

Facts about magnesium

  • Magnesium is one of the minerals we need in the largest quantities
  • Around half the body’s magnesium reserves are stored in bone tissue. The rest is found in muscles and other soft tissues.
  • Magnesium is important for the body’s calcium distribution. This keeps bones healthy and prevents calcium ions from flooding cells in the soft tissues.
  • If cells in soft tissues are flooded by calcium, they become stressed
  • Magnesium supports well over 300 different enzyme processes
  • Magnesium helps activate vitamin D
  • Magnesium activates killer T cells

Magnesium requirements and supplementation

Before the industrialization, the average daily intake of magnesium was around 500 mg and was obtained by eating coarse greens. Today, most people in Western countries get less than the recommended daily intake of magnesium (in Denmark, it is 375 mg/day).
When supplementing with magnesium, preferably choose sources like magnesium carbonate, magnesium acetate, or magnesium citrate. They are readily absorbable magnesium compounds and have the right quality. Magnesium oxide that is found in some supplements and in Magnesia (against constipation) has very poor absorption. It primarily has a local effect in the intestine.


Jonas Lötscher et al. Magnesium sensing via LFA-1 regulates CD8+T cell effector function. Cell, 19 January 2022

University of Basel. Magnesium is essential for the Immune System - Important in the Fight against Cancer. January 20, 2022

Megan Ware. Why do we need magnesium? Medical News Today. 2020

Gerry K. Schwalfenberg and Stephen J. Genuis. The Importance of Magnesium in Clinical Healthcare. Scientifica (Carro) 2017

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