When you think of vitamin and mineral supplements, iron and vitamin C are probably two of the first things that come to mind. Magnesium? Probably not so much. Turns out, this micronutrient is having a moment with capsules all over the supplement aisle claiming to help with things like muscle relaxation, sleep trouble, and migraines.
What is magnesium?
Believe it or not, this little micronutrient is an essential part of more bodily functions than you may realize. "Magnesium plays a critical role in maintaining normal muscle, heart, and nerve function, promoting a healthy immune system, and maintaining the strength and health of your bones," says Erin Palinski-Wade, R.D., author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet. Most adults have about 25 grams of magnesium in their body at any given time, with half stored in their bones and half in their tissue.
Are you getting enough magnesium?
Most women need 310 to 320 milligrams of magnesium daily. The tricky part is that because magnesium is present in the bones and tissue, it's difficult to assess magnesium status with a simple blood test. Basically, the only way to really know if you're getting enough magnesium is to look at what you eat.
Research has found that about half of Americans don't get enough magnesium in their diet. "Magnesium deficiency in the short term can cause sleep disturbances, muscle cramps, and a loss of energy," says Palinski-Wade. "Long term, it may cause blood pressure to rise and weaken bones, increasing the risk of developing osteoporosis."
And there are more serious consequences, such as an increased risk of death by heart disease, according to one study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Getting the right amount can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by 9 percent.
Eat foods that are high in magnesium.
If magnesium deficiency is the problem, the solution is simple—eat more magnesium-rich foods. Luckily, there are plenty of them.
Pumpkin seeds: "With 168 milligrams per ounce, they're one of the richest food sources of magnesium," says Palinski-Wade. Sprinkle a handful of pumpkin seeds on top of a salad or add to roasted root veggies for some nice crunch.
Prunes: If the thought of prunes conjures up images of your grandma, it's time to reimagine the nutritious fruit. "One cup of pitted prunes provides 71 milligrams of magnesium or 23 percent of your daily needs," she says.
Leafy greens: Not only are dark leafy greens loaded with antioxidants and vitamin C, but many of them provide a much-needed magnesium boost. One cup of raw spinach has about 24 milligrams of magnesium. (Related: 10 Super Greens to Add to Your Smoothies and Juices)
White beans: Another underrated food, white beans are a magnesium-rich addition to soups, stews, dips, and purées. "With 134 milligrams per cup, white beans provide a good source of magnesium, fiber, and plant-based protein," says Palinski-Wade.
Should you take a magnesium supplement?
Supplements were created to do exactly what the name describes—supplement your diet if you aren't getting enough of something. "Most people can absolutely meet their daily magnesium needs from diet alone," says Palinski-Wade. She also adds that magnesium supplements can often have laxative effects in high doses—not exactly a side effect you want to deal with.
So if the need for extra magnesium is questionable, what about the claims that supplements can relieve symptoms for things like migraines, muscle tension, trouble sleeping, and constipation? Let's see if the research measures up:
Migraines: Unfortunately, research both backs up and refutes this one. Still, for anyone who suffers from these devastating headaches, it might be worth bringing up to your doctor. (Read more on natural headache remedies that really work.)
Muscle relaxation: If you've ever taken an Epsom salt bath in an effort to relax your muscles (or your mind), what you're really doing is sitting in warm water mixed with magnesium sulfate. The theory is that the magnesium seeps through the skin and helps ease aching muscles. Sorry to say, you can't detox from an Epsom salt bath. But taking a bath, in general, is relaxing, so there's no harm in soaking in the tub.
Sleep: Research on how sleep may be improved from magnesium is still new, but one study that looked at the elderly who suffer from insomnia suggests that supplementing with magnesium may increase sleep time and reduce early morning waking. If you have trouble sleeping and have tried other remedies, see what your doctor says about adding magnesium to your diet.
Constipation: Magnesium's laxative effects may help people with constipation. In fact, many over-the-counter medicines for constipation are actually made with magnesium citrate.