Some Foods You're Eating Naturally Help You Sleep Better, Experts Say

high angle view vie of woman sleeping on bed
Should You Start Using Magnesium For Sleep?Adam Kuylenstierna / EyeEm - Getty Images


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When it comes to sleep aids, you may be most familiar with melatonin, a.k.a. the supplement form of your body's sleep hormone, that can help you doze off. But now more and more people are using magnesium for sleep.

It's no wonder products that advertise better shut-eye are buzzy right now. More than one-third of adults in the National Sleep Foundation’s 2020 Sleep in America Poll said they were not getting the recommended amount of sleep and feel sleepy during the day for at least half the week or more. And more than 35 percent of all adults in the U.S. report sleeping on average for less than seven hours per night while adults between the ages of 18 and 64 should really be clocking at least seven to nine hours of sleep per night, according to the CDC.

Lack of sleep affects your mental sharpness, mood, and productivity. In fact, people in the National Sleep Foundation survey said feeling tired negatively impacts their ability to exercise and work performance. Not resting enough at night even strains their relationships with family and friends.

Okay, so many of you probably need more sleep, but what's the deal with magnesium and can it really help you catch those ever-elusive Z's?

Meet the experts: W. Christopher Winter, MD, is a sleep medicine and neurology expert. He is the author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How To Fix It.

Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist, author and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet, and addiction.

What is Magnesium?

Magnesium is a mineral that assists more than 300 enzymes to carry out various chemical reactions in the body, including:

  • Blood glucose control

  • Blood pressure regulation

  • Energy production

  • Glycolysis

  • Muscle and nerve function

  • Oxidative phosphorylation

  • Protein synthesis

Magnesium also acts an electrical conductor that contracts muscles and makes the heart beat steadily, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Wait, can magnesium really help you sleep?

Yes, according to some evidence, says W. Christopher Winter, MD, the author of The Sleep Solution and a board-certified sleep specialist at Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine in Virginia.

For one, magnesium is an important player in many of the steps that allow you to take protein and convert it into the chemicals that help you feel sleepy, explains Dr. Winter. It also helps calm the nervous system down, helping it work more efficiently.

Magnesium also plays a role in muscle relaxation and nerve function. That's why magnesium is often a supplement docs use to help people with managing symptoms of restless leg syndrome, adds Dr. Winter.

This mineral also helps the body maintain levels of GABA (or gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter that is responsible for "turning off" wakefulness.

What are the other health benefits of magnesium?

Magnesium can also help the body's dopamine levels rise, which can improve your mood, says Dr. Winter. And if migraines are keeping you up, well, it can help alleviate those too, according to the American Migraine Foundation.

Overall, magnesium can have a calming effect on the body. “It can help relax muscles, and because it can increase the function of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, that adds to its ability to help reduce anxiety,” says Nicole Avena, PhD, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University. Magnesium has the potential to improve anxiety symptoms in anxiety-prone people, as well as PMS-related anxiety in women, according to 2017 research published in the journal Nutrients.

“The link between magnesium’s effect on GABA is also related to depression,” Avena adds. “Chronically low levels of GABA have been shown to be a factor in depression, so taking a magnesium supplement can boost GABA, which could help reduce depression in some cases,” she explains. A 2017 study of 126 people with symptoms of depression suggested magnesium was an effective supplement for treating mild to moderate depression. Sixty-one percent of study participants also reported that they'd continue using magnesium for depression symptoms in the future.

What can make you deficient in magnesium?

“Magnesium is pretty easy to get from your diet,” Avena says. “However, if you are not getting enough magnesium in your diet, you are at risk for a deficiency.” People who have a poor, imbalanced diet in general, anyone who has an inability to absorb magnesium due to certain bowel diseases or overuse of laxatives, or folks who have kidney issues or diabetes may be more at risk for a magnesium deficit, according to research.

Having a serious magnesium deficiency is pretty rare though, Avena says. But plenty of people don't meet the daily recommended magnesium intake (a Scientifica study estimates that this could be the case with over 56 percent of people). FYI, the Recommended Dietary Allowance for adults 19-51+ years is 310-320 mg for women and 350-360 mg for those who are pregnant.

Lack of magnesium could lead to symptoms including muscle twitches, cramping, depression, fatigue, and even high blood pressure, per Avena.

What foods are high in magnesium?

You can (and should) try to get a solid amount of magnesium from your diet. So you don't have to turn to a supplement unless you do have a diagnosed deficiency, says Dr. Winter.

That means adding more foods like almonds, spinach, soy milk, peanut butter, and avocado, which are all good sources of magnesium, to your meals. It's also commonly found in dairy products like eggs, milk and yogurt, Avena adds, along with bananas.

If your diet is low in dairy or plant foods such as almonds, bananas, and spinach, it might be worth talking to your doctor about taking a supplement.

So, magnesium is safe to take for sleep?

In essence, yes. A good, moderate dose of magnesium is about 100 to 350 milligrams daily, says Dr. Winter. That dose should be void of any side effects.

Avena reiterates that the best form of magnesium for the body’s absorption comes from food, but there are many supplement options available. You can try it in pill, powder, or gummy form; it’s really up to personal preference. But it’s probably easiest to take a gummy, Avena says.

Magnesium is not classified as a sleep aid, she points out, so you don’t need to worry about what time to take it before bed. Basically, it’s not going to knock you out, “but it can help to calm and relax you if taken one hour or so before you settle in for the evening,” says Avena.

What are the side effects of taking too much magnesium?

If you go above that 350-milligram threshold, you’ll likely notice some diarrhea. In fact, milk of magnesia can be loaded in magnesium (one tablespoon might have 500 milligrams)—hence why it’s used as a laxative.

And very large doses of magnesium—like upwards of 5,000 milligrams a day—can lead to magnesium toxicity, which can cause heartbeat irregularities, impaired kidney function, or even cardiac arrest, according to Oregon State University research. But again, that’s in extremely high doses and isn't something to worry about if you take any amount within the daily recommended intake.

Is magnesium better for sleep than melatonin?

Actually, magnesium and melatonin are addressing two different things in regard to sleep. “Magnesium can help with relaxing and calming your body, while melatonin will directly lead to hormonal changes that can cause you to fall asleep,” says Avena.

Melatonin will more directly affect your sleep and likely have a stronger affect on sleep habits compared to magnesium, which will mainly just help relax you before bed. “It may be best to try magnesium first to help calm you before you rest at night,” Avena says. “And if you find that it doesn't do the trick, then consider trying melatonin.”

The bottom line: Magnesium supplement may help you relax if you're having a hard time calming down at bedtime, says Dr. Winter, but you can get enough via your diet. And if falling asleep at night is a chronic issue, it's time to check in with your doc.

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