In the pecking order of natural sleep aids, magnesium seems to be steadily making its way to the top. This essential mineral plays multiple roles in the body, but what does it do for sleep? There is some evidence, both clinical and anecdotal, that magnesium may be helpful for better sleep, but details are still murky. To get a better idea of how exactly magnesium and sleep could be connected, we spoke with a certified sleep expert and a registered nutritionist.
What Is Magnesium?
“Magnesium is a mineral we need in our diet to stay healthy,” explains Dr. Chelsie Rohrscheib, a neuroscientist and the head sleep expert at Wesper. It’s classified as an electrolyte and involved in over 300 enzymatic processes in the body, including supporting bone health, regulating muscle function, and promoting energy production.
The body doesn’t make its own magnesium, which means we need to source sufficient amounts from the foods we eat or the supplements we take. The mineral is present in nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains. Still, a 2018 review found that an estimated 50 percent of Americans may be deficient. While it’s not necessarily life threatening, a magnesium deficiency can have unpleasant symptoms, such as muscle cramps, tremors and twitches — none of which make it easy to fall or stay asleep.
How Does Magnesium Affect Sleep?
Susan Schachter, MSRDN, calls magnesium a smooth muscle relaxer, which means it can help calm the nervous system. “It has been shown to increase levels of the neurotransmitter GABA, which helps calm the brain and reduce anxiety,” she explains. “Because of this, research has suggested that magnesium may help improve sleep quality, reduce insomnia, and increase sleep time in people with some sleep disorders.”
In fact, it’s often recommended to people who struggle with muscle cramps at night or those with restless legs syndrome, says Rohrscheib. But that’s not all.
“In addition to its involvement in reducing anxiety, relaxing muscle and increasing levels of GABA, magnesium helps to regulate the body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that’s important for sleep-wake cycles,” says Schachter.
While several small studies show a positive association between magnesium and improved sleep quality and duration, research about the actual impact of magnesium on sleep is still quite limited. What’s more, findings are mixed. A 2021 review of magnesium supplementation for insomnia in older adults found that sleep latency and total sleep time improved, but researchers called the results statistically insignificant and noted that outcomes were supported with poor quality of evidence.
How to Take Magnesium
As a potential sleep aid, magnesium can be taken as an oral supplement about 30 minutes to an hour before bed. It comes in several forms, including magnesium oxide, magnesium citrate and magnesium chloride, and absorption can vary based on the type used in a given supplement. Some studies have found that citrate and chloride forms of magnesium are more bioavailable than oxide — that means the body is able to more readily absorb those forms, which could mean greater efficacy.
Magnesium is also available in topical form, including lotions, sprays, and bath salts. While research is still needed to confirm the efficacy of topical magnesium as a sleep remedy, the application of a soothing magnesium lotion or a calming soak in a warm tub could still be a good addition to a bedtime routine.
How Much Magnesium Should I Take for Sleep?
Keep in mind that we get magnesium in our diets, and it’s an essential mineral for various bodily functions. The National Institutes of Health recommends that adults supplement with no more than 350 mg per day. That’s slightly at odds with dosages used in clinical studies of magnesium for sleep. “Some studies have shown that taking 200-400 mg before bed may help improve sleep quality and quantity, particularly in people who have difficulty falling asleep,” says Schachter.
Still, it’s best to err on the side of caution. “When supplementing one needs to be careful with dosing, as a high dose can cause diarrhea (because the intestines are smooth muscle) and/or upset stomach,” Schachter says.
Magnesium and Anxiety
There is research that suggests magnesium could be a viable treatment for anxiety, possibly because of the way it regulates neurotransmitters and brain function. Specifically, magnesium interacts with stress mediators like the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that manages stress and anxiety, by inhibiting the stress response. However, like magnesium as a sleep aid, more research is needed to clarify how exactly magnesium can help with anxiety.
How Can I Raise My Magnesium Levels Naturally?
Generally, you can increase magnesium levels through diet alone, because it’s present in a fairly wide range of foods. The federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans outlines a healthy diet as one that includes a mix of vegetables, fat and low-fat dairy, beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds, all of which include magnesium.
Foods High In Magnesium
Schachter says that the amount of magnesium in specific foods can vary depending on how they’re processed and prepared, but the following are great sources:
- Dark leafy greens: spinach, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds
- Legumes: black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils
- Whole grains: brown rice, quinoa (actually a seed but used like a grain), whole wheat products
- Fish: halibut, salmon, mackerel
- Dairy products: milk, yogurt, cheese
- Soy Products: soy milk, soy beans
- Dark chocolate
Is Magnesium Better Than Melatonin?
Magnesium is inherently different from melatonin. One is an essential mineral that we need to source from the foods we eat, while the other is a hormone that we produce naturally. Schachter says they can both potentially help with sleep, and the two substances share a deeper connection as well. “Magnesium has the benefit of helping with melatonin production, as well as decreasing anxiety and relaxing muscles,” she says.
It isn’t that one is necessarily better than the other, but rather that they offer different benefits. Melatonin supplements help jumpstart your natural melatonin production, which can make it easier to fall asleep in certain scenarios, like if you’re dealing with jet lag, trying to sleep in a new environment, or navigating short-term insomnia. Magnesium can be a better option if you need to shut down an anxious mind so that your body can relax into sleep.
The Last Word from Sleepopolis
Magnesium rivals melatonin as a popular natural sleep aid, and there is promising research to support its role in better sleep. However, more studies are needed to pinpoint exactly how magnesium supports sleep. If you’re considering this supplement to help you get a better night’s sleep, make sure to speak with your doctor first. “It’s always important to check with a healthcare professional to be sure magnesium is safe for you if you have any health conditions or are taking medication,” says Schachter.