Can't Turn Off Your Brain To Fall Asleep At Night? Magnesium Supplements Might Help

Cassie Shortsleeve, Mara Santilli
Photo credit: Adam Kuylenstierna / EyeEm - Getty Images
Photo credit: Adam Kuylenstierna / EyeEm - Getty Images

From Women's Health

If you’ve ever had problems falling (or staying) asleep, you're likely familiar with using melatonin—a.k.a., the supplement form of your body's sleep hormone—to help you doze off. But here's something you might not know: There’s actually *another* supplement out there that could also help you get some sleep—in fact, your body might even be deficient in it already: magnesium.

The mineral plays an important role in tons of bodily functions: metabolism, blood sugar regulation, bone health, and nerve and muscle function, among other things. And, no surprise, it plays a crucial role in sleep, too. Here, a sleep doctor weighs in on what you need to know about magnesium, and why you might want to start using it to wind down at night.

Wait, can magnesium really help you sleep?

According to some evidence, yes, says W. Christopher Winter, MD, 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, he says. (That's why magnesium is often a supplement docs use to help people with managing symptoms of restless leg syndrome, adds Dr. Winter.)

Magnesium also helps the body maintain levels of GABA (or gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter that Dr. Winter notes 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 to 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, 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 to reduce depression in some cases,” she explains. Another 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 (the Scientifica study estimates that this could be the case with over 56 percent of people). Lack of magnesium could lead to symptoms including muscle twitches, cramping, depression, fatigue, and even high blood pressure, says 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, says Dr. Winter. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for magnesium when used for sleep or general health is 310 milligrams a day, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Office on Dietary Supplements. Dr. Winter backs this up by saying that a good, moderate dose of magnesium is about 100 to 350 milligrams daily. 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 form, powder form, 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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