WE’VE ALL HAD those nights. You’ve done everything right: you put the phone away, closed the blinds, set the thermostat nice and low. And yet, your body decides it wants nothing to do with sleep.
You toss and turn for what feels like hours before finally settling into some shut eye. You wake up the next morning feeling anything but rested. Falling asleep shouldn’t be this hard, right?
It’s hard to overstate the importance of a healthy amount of sleep, and still—according to the National Institutes of Health, upwards of 19 percent of American adults don’t get the recommended 7 hours of sleep a night. Missing out on those much needed Z’s can cause a slew of other problems—including heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and depression.
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When you find yourself dozing off at your desk the next day, you start to ponder the idea of potential sleep aids. You Google it, and a zillion options pop up: melatonin, CBD, even THC. One of the items on the list rings a bell, but you typically don’t think of it when you think of sleep: magnesium. But, does it really work? We asked the experts.
What Is Magnesium?
Magnesium is a critical mineral that helps your body function. It plays a particularly important role in muscle function, nerve health, and energy production. The mineral creates biochemical reactions that also help with protein synthesis, bone development, immune system support, and blood pressure regulation, says Erin Kenney, R.D.N., of Nutrition Wired.
According to the Mayo Clinic, most Americans are not getting enough magnesium in their diets. The National Dietary Guidelines suggest adult men get between 410 and 420 mg a day, with the amount increasing with age. Even though only 52 percent of Americans are eating into the recommended range, severe magnesium deficiency, called hypomagnesemia, is rare.
Does Magnesium Affect Sleep?
Truth is, we’re not entirely sure what effect magnesium has on sleep.
“It is thought that patients with magnesium deficiency may have neuroendocrine disregulation and disrupted sleep wave[s],” says Tyler Pitre, M.D., resident physician at McMaster University. “This can lead to an altered sleep architecture [and] increase nighttime wakefulness.”
In 2021, Pitre led a comprehensive data review surrounding magnesium supplementation in older adults suffering from insomnia. The review compiled evidence from several previous studies, and found that those who supplemented with magnesium slept longer than those supplemented with a placebo. But the findings weren’t significant enough to produce truly viable evidence that this is an effective option for insomnia problems.
So, the jury is still out. Until more research is done, the answer is this: it might help, or it might not. What we do know is that magnesium itself has some effect on muscle relaxation and nervous system control, which may also be a reason for its potential assistance in sleep.
Are Magnesium Supplements Safe?
Even though the science isn’t fully conclusive on whether magnesium supplementation works for sleep, there are very few negatives to trying it. Pitre’s review notes that magnesium is cheap and widely available, and for that reason, they might not be a bad potential option for those looking for some sleep relief.
“Magnesium is very safe,” says Pitre. “Like anything, toxicity exists when you take above the recommended amount.”
Which Foods Are High in Magnesium?
“Some foods that are rich in magnesium include leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale, and Swiss chard; nuts and seeds, including almonds, cashews, and pumpkin seeds,” Kenney says. Whole grains, such as brown rice and quinoa, and legumes, like black beans, chickpeas, and lentils, are all rich in magnesium as well.
Should You Take Magnesium for Sleep?
There are many different kinds of magnesium supplements that are used for different things, Kenney says. It’s important to get together with healthcare provider to ensure you’re taking the proper kind at the proper dose.
Side effects of these supplements are rare if you follow the guidance of a healthcare professional. Supplements sold over the counter come in approved dosages, and are unlikely to hurt if taken in accordance to the directions on the label. Magnesium can cause diarrhea in some patients, Pitre says; it is commonly used in OTC laxatives. So, needless to say, go for a low dose to start.
It’s important to note that magnesium supplements can interact with some antibiotics and other medications, so be sure to speak to a doctor about what other medications you’re taking before opting for a magnesium supplement. For example, those with kidney problems should be wary of trying it without a doctor’s supervision, says Pitre.
Side Effects of Taking Too Much Magnesium
It’s not likely you’ll get too much magnesium from food alone. Add lots of supplements into the mix, though, and you run into some dangerous territory.
According to the Mayo Clinic, having too much magnesium in the body (otherwise known as hypermagnesemia) can cause nausea, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea. At its most severe, it can cause hypotension, or decreased blood pressure, respiratory paralysis, and cardiac arrest, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Magnesium Verses Melatonin for Sleep
While both magnesium and melatonin are utilized as sleep aids, their mechanisms in the body are quite different. Magnesium is a mineral that we need to ingest, melatonin is a hormone released in our body around nighttime that helps us sleep. Most people produce enough melatonin, but many take a melatonin supplement just before bed to help fall asleep.
Melatonin is not recommended for long-term use, though. It’s advised to be taken to provide short-term relief from insomnia or jet lag. Though the supplement is technically deemed safe to use in the long-term, if used chronically, it’s effectiveness in assisting with sleep may begin to fade, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Deciding between melatonin and magnesium as a sleep aid will depend on each individual and why they’re struggling to sleep. To ensure you’re taking the correct supplement, speak to a doctor or dietician before proceeding.
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.