Magnesium-rich foods like avocados, spinach can boost ability to fight cancer

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BASEL, Switzerland — If you love loading your nachos with guacamole and spinach dip, scientists have good news — the popular appetizers may help keep cancer at bay. Researchers from University of Basel find that foods rich with magnesium — including avocados, spinach, bananas, and beans — all help to boost the immune system.

Study authors say magnesium levels are an important factor in the body’s ability to stave off tumors and infections. The new study, published in the journal Cell, could have important implications for cancer patients.

Infection-killing T cells are the body’s main weapon that the immune system uses to destroy cancer cells directly. However, lab experiments reveal they are only effective in a magnesium-rich environment. Specifically, the nutrient triggers a protein called LFA-1 that acts as a docking site on the surface of cells.

“However, in the inactive state this docking site is in a bent conformation and thus cannot efficiently bind to infected or abnormal cells,” says co-author Professor Christoph Hess in a university release.

“This is where magnesium comes into play. If magnesium is present in sufficient quantities in the vicinity of the T cells, it binds to LFA-1 and ensures that it remains in an extended – and therefore active – position.”

Immunofluorescent image depicting T cells (blue) attacking tumor
Immunofluorescent image depicting T cells (blue) attacking tumor cells (white) by forming an immune synapse with LFA-1 (open headpiece conformation labeled in red). A new study identified extracellular magnesium as a critical immune modulator of CD8+ T cells.

Being low in magnesium increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, osteoporosis, and even Alzheimer’s. Animal studies have shown cancerous growths spread faster and flu viruses are harder to overcome among people deficient in magnesium.

Magnesium may play a greater role in future cancer treatments

Discovering magnesium is essential for T cells opens the door to improving modern cancer immunotherapies. These treatments focus on fighting the disease by mobilizing T cells into action. In tests, the immune response against tumors was strengthened by an increase in local magnesium concentrations.

“In order to verify this observation clinically, we’re now looking for ways to increase the concentration of magnesium in tumors in a targeted manner,” Prof. Hess reports.

Study authors confirmed their promising results by analyzing data on actual cancer patients. Their review found immunotherapies were less effective in those with insufficient levels of magnesium in their blood.

Lead author Dr. Jonas Lötscher says whether a regular intake of magnesium also reduces the risk of developing cancer needs further investigation.

“As a next step, we’re planning prospective studies to test the clinical effect of magnesium as a catalyst for the immune system,” Lötscher concludes.

The mineral also improves muscle and nerve function and makes proteins, bone, and DNA. Other healthy foods high in magnesium includes lentils, almonds, cashews, tofu, seeds, oily fish, and dark chocolate.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.