Have you ever taken or considered taking a magnesium supplement for symptoms like constipation, muscle cramps or pain, sleep, or migraines? These are some of the things magnesium can help with, but are also linked to mental health challenges like stress, anxiety, and depression. If you have any trace of these issues, read on to find out how magnesium plays a role and what kind may help your symptoms.
Physical symptoms such as these can be indicators that the body is under stress, and needs support. In this post we look at magnesium’s role in our mental health, and explore which types of magnesium are best for different functions to help alleviate symptoms at their root cause.
Magnesium Key to Metabolic Harmony
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in our body and a cofactor for over 300 enzymes needed to help keep our metabolic functions running properly. Some estimates suggest as many as 50-75% of us are deficient in magnesium. The effects of magnesium deficiency range from constipation, muscle cramps, and headaches to osteoporosis, hypertension, and as we have just discussed, depression. To name a few. Some of magnesium’s roles occur on such a small intracellular scale it is hard to appreciate, like in the synthesis of ATP, or energy.
The Role of Stress Hormones: A Magnesium-Depleting Cascade
The body’s response to stress involves the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. While these hormones are essential for the fight-or-flight response, chronic stress can lead to sustained elevated levels of these hormones, creating a cascade of effects that impact magnesium levels.
Stress hormones can increase the demand for magnesium in the body. Magnesium is involved in the regulation of the stress response, acting as a natural calming agent. In times of stress, cells, especially neurons, may require higher levels of magnesium to maintain their normal function and prevent excessive excitability.
However, chronic stress can deplete magnesium reserves. The increased demand for magnesium, combined with potential dietary deficiencies, can result in magnesium ion deficits in neurons. This, in turn, can contribute to neuronal hyperexcitability, a state linked to various mental health challenges, including anxiety and depression.
Low Magnesium Levels Correlated with Depression
Major depression is affecting millions globally, and standard treatment approaches don’t work for as many as 60% of those seeking treatment according to some sources. Underlying contributors to depression can easily go unrecognized as antidepressant drugs, although widely prescribed, aren’t always effective. However, a compelling alternative or complementary treatment with a rich history in treating mental health is magnesium.
In a systematic review article of twelve studies found on pubmed, seven significantly linked low measured magnesium levels to depression. Higher levels were linked to less severe scores for depression. While results varied between studies, one found magnesium intake was low in 88% of depressed patients studied, many of which, unsurprisingly, had low measured levels of magnesium.
Of course, magnesium was not alone in being deficient among depressed individuals. Protein, fat, vitamin D, iron, selenium, and manganese were others found to be low and correlated with depression.
Magnesium Supplements Improve Depression Significantly
But more importantly, improving magnesium intake in those with low levels improved there depression. Magnesium supplements used in various studies in the review included 320 mg Mg-sulfate (no significant difference found), 248 mg of elemental Mg (significant improvements found), and Mg oxide 250 mg and 500 mg (significant improvements found). Study results vary but some measure results after 6-8 weeks of consistent use and find significant improvements.
Magnesium’s Role in Neurotransmitter Regulation
So how can magnesium repletion help with mental health?
One case study was able to resolve major depression in a treatment resistant person with magnesium supplementation. While symtoms like poor sleep and headaches gradually resolved, so did their feelings of anxiety and depression.
Magnesium plays a key role in neurotransmitter regulation and mood stabilization. It is thought that magnesium deficiency can induce a deficiency of magnesium within brain cells, potentially leading to brain cell damage and manifesting as depression. By supplementing with magnesium, deficits are repleted, potentially effectively treating and underlying cause of depression resulting from these deficits.
Nutrients That Are Precursors to Neurotransmitter Production
Many nutrients are required to synthesize neurotransmitters, and deficits in any of them can result in suboptimal levels, leaving you feeling in a funk. Magnesium is a precursor to serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. So are iron, folate, B3, vitamin C, manganese, zinc, pyridoxal-5-phosphate, B6, and NADPH. Not to mention protein/amino acids!
Magnesium’s Effects on Anxiety
Low magnesium levels are associated with anxiety, and research gives us evidence that magnesium supplementation helps to alleviate anxiety. By supporting a healthy balance between excitatory glutamate and chillaxing GABA, magnesium can help regulate these neurotransmitters.
Higher glutamate levels that don’t come down when needed by stimulating a feedback loop that produces GABA when needed may lead to feelings of anxiety. Getting magnesium can ‘feed’ this feedback loop, allowing enough GABA to be made when needed to help us relax.
Common Reasons for Low Magnesium Intake
The prevalence of magnesium insufficiency is exacerbated by today’s common dietary habits. Refined flour, for example, retains just 16% of the magnesium of whole wheat, and many drinking water supplies lack magnesium. Water treatment used today reduces hardness and includes removing much of the magnesium. These are a couple reasons our food supply sets us up for widespread magnesium insufficiency and deficiency.
However, other issues such as soil depletion and acidic soils also play a role. Dairy products, vegetables, and meats have less magnesium than they did in the 60’s, which is a result of changes in soil and fertilization methods.
Furthermore, to get ample magnesium in the diet, a healthy diet made up of whole and minimally processed foods is a must. Given NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) data about what we eat (we being Americans as a whole), many do not meet the estimated average requirement (EAR) for magnesium. Older people are at a higher risk due to decreased absorption, medications that deplete magnesium, diseases, and decreased intake.
On top of dietary deficiencies of magnesium, excessive dietary calcium and stress hormones can induce magnesium ion deficits in neurons, further contributing to mental health challenges.
Excessive Dietary Calcium
While calcium is essential for various bodily functions, an imbalance in the calcium-magnesium ratio can pose problems. Excessive dietary calcium, especially when not balanced with sufficient magnesium intake, can disrupt the intricate balance that these two minerals maintain in the body.
Competing for Absorption
Calcium and magnesium share common absorption pathways in the intestines. When there is an excess of calcium and insufficient magnesium, the absorption of magnesium can be hindered. Additionally, excess calcium can compete with magnesium for binding sites within cells. This competition can lead to reduced magnesium uptake by cells, including neurons, where magnesium plays a crucial role in regulating calcium ion flow.
Supplement Induced Deficiency
Taking a calcium supplement can stimulate metabolic pathways that increase the need for magnesium (and others, such as vitamin K2). So if you’re taking calcium, ideally it’s along with other nutrients to fully support pathways to enhance bone mineralization, for example. Otherwise, you just end up with excess free calcium circulating in your arteries, which is bad news for arterial health.
Calcium in Neurons
In neurons, magnesium acts as a natural calcium channel blocker. It helps regulate the entry of calcium ions into cells, preventing excessive calcium influx. When this regulatory mechanism is compromised due to low magnesium levels, it can result in increased calcium entry into neurons. Excess calcium in neurons can lead to excitotoxicity, a phenomenon where overstimulation by neurotransmitters, particularly glutamate, causes cell damage and, ultimately, cell death.
Medical Conditions That Affect Magnesium
Alcohol abuse, kidney disease, and gastrointestinal disorders that contribute to malabsorption are a few of the major contributors to magnesium deficiency as far as medical conditions go. However, conditions such as metabolic syndrome, a more common condition characterized by having 3 of 5 conditions including abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, high fasting glucose, high triglyceride levels, and low HDL cholesterol levels, is also correlated with magnesium deficiency. This may be due to a decreased metabolic need, or the conditions themselves could be due, in part, to low magnesium levels. Or both!
Drugs Can Deplete Magnesium
Additionally, many pharmaceutical drugs can lower magnesium levels. Diuretics and corticosteroids have magnesium wasting and depleting effects, and unfortunately are not always routinely monitored in patients taking these medications.
Some evidence suggests that even antidepressant medications may influence magnesium levels in the body. This is less definitive and may vary with duration of use and other factors, but taking magnesium at a different time of day than an antidepressant may mitigate concerns about competitive absorption.
Note: In the next section, we’ll get into the specific forms of magnesium and their applications.
Magnesium Forms and Applications
So, are you taking a magnesium supplement? If so, you made have encountered the plethora of forms of magnesium available as supplements and found yourself wondering which one is best for you. It really depends on what you are trying to support.
Different forms of magnesium, such as magnesium citrate, magnesium glycinate, and magnesium oxide, have varying absorption rates and bioavailability. The various forms can lend themselves to different uses, and you may benefit from choosing one over another depending on what you are experiencing.
Earlier in this post, we discussed magnesium’s role as a precursor for neurotransmitters that impact our mood. But why would one form of magnesium be better than another in repleting magnesium in neurons?
The types of magnesium that are most effective for repleading the depleted levels of magnesium within brain cells are either very easy for the body to absorb in the first place, or end or are able to cross the blood brain barrier.
Bioavailability, which is how easily nutrients are absorbed into the body, is a major factor here.
For example, magnesium oxide is not well absorbed and can even cause loose bowels. If constipation is a problem, maybe this is something that you were looking for help with. But if you were looking for the rapid repletion of magnesium levels that are insufficient or deficient, it is not your best option.
The ability of magnesium to cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB) can vary depending on its chemical form.
The BBB is a selective barrier that controls the passage of substances between the bloodstream and the brain. Here are some forms of magnesium that are believed to have better penetration of the blood-brain barrier:
- Magnesium L-Threonate:
- Magnesium L-threonate is often touted as one of the forms of magnesium with better BBB penetration. Research suggests that magnesium L-threonate has the ability to increase magnesium levels within the brain, making it a potential choice for cognitive and neurological support.
- Research suggests that magnesium L-threonate may improve memory, learning, and overall cognitive performance. This makes it a compelling choice for those seeking mental clarity and focus.
- Magnesium Taurate:
- Magnesium taurate is a combination of magnesium and the amino acid taurine. Taurine itself is known to have neuroprotective effects, is involved in the regulation of neurotransmitters, and may enhance the ability of magnesium to cross the BBB.
- This form is also used for its antihypertensive (high blood pressure) benefits for heart health.
- Magnesium Citrate:
- While not typically known for its ability to cross the BBB, magnesium citrate is still absorbed relatively well in the body and can indirectly support brain health by addressing magnesium deficiency. It may not have the same direct impact on brain magnesium levels as the forms mentioned above.
- This is a good option for restoring overall magnesium levels.
The ability of magnesium to cross the BBB is a complex process, and research is ongoing in this area. Factors such as the chemical form of magnesium, its concentration, and individual variations can influence its effectiveness in reaching the brain.
We detailed magnesium’s role as a precursor to neurotransmitter production. In addition to its many roles integral to brain chemistry, magnesium plays roles in numerous systems that are impacted by depression.
Some cases of depression have been alleviated in as little as 7 days using 125-300 mg of magnesium (as glycinate and taurinate) with each meal and at bedtime. Other research has found as little as 2 weeks is all that is needed for mild to moderate cases.. In these cases, magnesium may have been the main factor contributing to depression. But we are all different and it could be one of many issues for you. It’s best and recommended to discuss with your doctor to have the best insight into your situation. Don’t expect magnesium alone to be a first line treatment option, particularly if you are in need of serious help.
- Magnesium Taurinate:
- As mentioned above, taurine itself plays a role in serotonin production. This in addition to being able to cross the blood brain barrier make it effective for supporting neurotransmitters that may. be off in depression.
Stress, Anxiety, or Sleep Disturbances
Need some help chilling out? Magnesium glycinate may be for you.
- Magnesium Glycinate: Calming the Mind & Body
- Magnesium glycinate is often recommended for its calming properties. This form of magnesium is bound to the amino acid glycine, known for its relaxing effects on the nervous system. As a result, magnesium glycinate may be particularly beneficial for individuals dealing with stress, anxiety, or sleep disturbances. Its calming influence on the mind makes it a popular choice for those looking to promote relaxation and better sleep quality.
- Because both glycine and magnesium are involved in relaxation neurotransmitter functions, you get a powerful duo with this form.
- We talked about GABA in the brain. Well, for what GABA is to the brain, glycinate is to the peripheral parts of the body. They both slow down glutamate, a more excitatory neurotransmitter, in both the central an peripheral nervous system (brain and body).
Magnesium Citrate vs Glycinate
In the context of aiming to address stress, anxiety, and poor quality sleep, I think magnesium glycinate is a bit better. I say this because of the added benefit of its ‘GABA like’ effects in relaxing the body.
Additionally, if it is more depression type concerns related to neurotransmitter support you are after, magnesium glycinate may be a little better as it can cross the BBB.
Magnesium citrate is a more bioavailable form of magnesium compared to the commonly used magnesium oxide. It can be good for support bowel movements in a non-urgent way and repleting magnesium levels. It may have effects on symtoms that are more closely associated with mental health, such as anxiety, in a less direct way.
- Magnesium Orotate: Energizing the Brain
- Magnesium orotate is a compound of magnesium and orotic acid. This form of magnesium is often praised for its potential to support energy production within the cells, including those in the brain. Improved energy metabolism in brain cells may contribute to better mental clarity, focus, and mood. Individuals looking for a magnesium supplement with potential cognitive and mood-enhancing benefits may find magnesium orotate to be a valuable addition to their routine.
General Guidelines for Taking Magnesium
Check with your healthcare provider to see what is safe for you. Keep in mind upper limits and divided doses in addition to starting low and increasing gradually to avoid any troublesome symptoms.
- Magnesium may not be a good option for you if you have kidney disease, diarrhea, or atrioventricular block.
- Typical dosing: 100-600 mg/day, in divided doses up to 3-4x/day (totalling 600 mg all together)
- Side effects: While magnesium is generally well tolerated, it can cause loose stool for some, particularly magnesium oxide, hydroxide, or chloride. But maybe you want this if you’re constipated.
- Epsom Salts: These salts can be added to a hot bath or foot bath (and now you have a great excuse to take a bath or foot bath!). Yes, you will absorb some magnesium through the skin, and this can be great for muscle pain!
Magnesium Could Be Part of Your Mental Health Puzzle
Now we know we are living in a world with less magnesium than was found in food, water, and soil in the previous century. So even optimizing dietary sources may not pack the punch needed to turn things around.
Incorporating magnesium supplements into your daily regimen may offer a natural and holistic approach to supporting mental health. While the types mentioned here show promise in various aspects of cognitive function and emotional well-being, it’s essential to remember that individual responses can vary. Consultation with a healthcare professional is crucial to determine the most suitable form and dosage of magnesium for your specific needs.
By nurturing your body and mind with the right nutrients, including magnesium, you can take proactive steps toward achieving optimal mental well-being.
Interested in Food Sources of Magnesium?
Feeling pumped to get more high magnesium foods in your diet? Need help making a grocery list and coming up with meal ideas? Check my post with a list of high magnesium foods in various food categories and meal ideas to get you started!
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Anne Marie Berggren RDN, MS, CDN, CNSC is a Registered Dietitian with a Master's Degree in Nutrition, training in integrative and functional nutrition, nutrition for mental health, obesity and weight management, is a board certified nutrition support clinician, and an adjunct professor for the Stony Brook Graduate Nutrition Program teaching advanced clinical nutrition.