Magnesium is a mineral that plays a role in more than 300 systems that regulate the human body, helping with everything from protein synthesis and muscle function to blood pressure. Wow, right? Who knew one little mineral could do so much in the body? The bad news is that chances are, you’re not getting nearly enough of it.
A 2012 review found that almost half (48%) of Americans consumed less than the required amount of magnesium. And low levels of magnesium can have some serious consequences, linked to a host of conditions including insomnia, anxiety, and diabetes.
So why aren’t we getting enough magnesium, if it’s so vital? Magnesium is relatively easy to find from foods, present in everything from leafy greens to whole grains. But the standard American diet means many of us aren’t consuming enough from food sources. Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, a physician, naturopath, and author of The Magnesium Miracle, adds that the increasing stress in our lives, combined with a reliance on caffeine and alcohol, can rapidly deplete magnesium in our bodies. Even issues that are of little concern to most of us, like sweating a lot, eating large amounts of salt, or consuming soft drinks, can lower the magnesium in your body. If you have gastrointestinal issues or type 2 diabetes, you have a higher risk of magnesium deficiency overall.
Don’t panic, though, as your magnesium levels likely aren’t at a critical level of low, as full-on deficiency is pretty rare in generally healthy people. But that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from getting more.
You might have used magnesium in some form in the past as a laxative or a general calming aid. The main benefit of the soothing box of Epsom salts chilling in your bathroom cabinet, after all, is that they’re made of magnesium (the sulfate form, hence the salt). But using magnesium on the regular can be a literal game-changer for your health, helping you sleep better, have less anxiety, and even have easier periods.
Dr. Dean says, “Women actually need more magnesium than men. Cramping during your period can be a straight up magnesium issue, but magnesium is also linked to the hormones of the cycle, helping you produce estrogen and progesterone. Plus, as women, we multitask so much. We’re stressing our systems and our adrenals. Women get hypothyroidism often — the thyroid releases hormones and requires magnesium, too.”
Dr. Lara Briden, a naturopathic doctor who focuses on women’s health, also recommends magnesium for a host of hormonal and health ills. Unfortunately, Dr. Dean says there’s not a really good blood test for magnesium levels, because “There’s only 1% of total body magnesium in the bloodstream (most of it is in the tissues, with some in the bones).” But even if you can’t get an accurate read on your magnesium levels, it’s probably fine to go ahead and start supplementing via your diet or other forms, according to Dr. Dean: “Magnesium is the safest nutrient. It’ll never build up in your body. If you get too much, the body excretes it.”
Think you’re covered on magnesium in your daily multivitamin? Not so fast, says Dr. Dean. Most multivitamins will have magnesium oxide, she says, which usually doesn’t have much of an effect. You can test different ways of administering magnesium (daily Epsom baths, an oral supplement, even a spray or an oil) and see what works for you.
Dr. Dean recommends beginning with daily Epsom salt baths as an easy, low-risk way to try it out, but moving to other ways of supplementation if you don’t feel much of an effect. Oral tablets are harder for the body to break down and use than magnesium that’s administered through the skin, she advises, but adds that drinkable water-soluble magnesium (like Natural Calm, which comes in multiple flavors) is a good option, too. This is because dissolvable forms of magnesium are more easily absorbed in the gut. “The ideal dosage will be different from person to person,” she says — the NIH recommends most adult women get around 310 milligrams daily, but you may find you feel better with more or less than that.
“Magnesium is absolutely necessary to feel good in dozens of ways,” says Dr. Dean. “When people become educated about the role magnesium might be playing in their health, they’re often amazed.”