By Kerri-Ann Jennings, MS, RD
Many people have trouble sleeping, and breaking the cycle of insomnia can be hard.
You can try changing your sleep routine and curbing your caffeine intake, but sometimes these lifestyle interventions fall short.
Supplements are another popular option. One supplement that’s gained some attention as a potential sleep aid is magnesium.
This mineral has wide-ranging effects in the body and may influence some of the processes that promote sleep.
Read on to learn the connection between magnesium and a good night’s sleep.
What Is Magnesium?
It’s essential for human health and is used in over 600 cellular reactions throughout your body (3).
In fact, every cell and organ need this mineral to function properly. It contributes to bone health, as well as proper brain, heart and muscle function (3).
In addition, magnesium may help treat sleep problems.
Summary: Magnesium is an important mineral that is necessary for overall health. Benefits of these supplements range from fighting inflammation and lowering blood pressure to possibly improving sleep.
It Can Help Your Body and Brain Relax
In order to fall asleep and stay asleep, your body and brain need to relax.
On a chemical level, magnesium aids this process by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for getting you calm and relaxed (6).
First, magnesium regulates neurotransmitters, which send signals throughout the nervous system and brain.
It also regulates the hormone melatonin, which guides sleep-wake cycles in your body (7).
Second, this mineral binds to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors. GABA is the neurotransmitter responsible for quieting down nerve activity. It is the same neurotransmitter used by sleep drugs like Ambien (8, 9).
By helping to quiet the nervous system, magnesium may help prepare your body and mind for sleep.
Summary: Magnesium helps activate neurotransmitters that are responsible for calming the body and the mind.
Not Having Enough of It Interferes With Sleep
Not having enough magnesium in your system can cause troubled sleep and even insomnia (10).
Studies in mice have shown that optimal levels of this mineral are needed for normal sleep and that both high and low levels can cause sleep problems (11).
Certain groups of people have a higher risk of magnesium deficiency, including (2):
- People with digestive diseases: Issues with your digestive tract can cause your body to not absorb vitamins and minerals properly, resulting in deficiencies.
- People with diabetes: Insulin resistance and diabetes are linked with excess magnesium loss.
- People with alcohol dependence: Deficiency in this mineral is common among those who drink heavily.
- Older adults: Many older adults have less magnesium in their diets than younger adults and may also be less efficient at absorbing it.
If you’re not getting enough magnesium, then you may experience sleep problems.
Summary: Insufficient magnesium intake is linked to sleep problems. Some populations are particularly at risk of deficiency.
It Helps Regulate Sleep Quality
Not only can magnesium help you get to sleep, but it plays a part in helping you achieve deep and restful sleep as well.
In one study, older adults were given 500 mg of magnesium or a placebo. Overall, the magnesium group had better quality of sleep.
This group also exhibited higher levels of renin and melatonin, two hormones that help regulate sleep (12).
These results were bolstered by another study that gave elderly adults with insomnia a supplement containing 225 mg magnesium, 5 mg melatonin and 11.25 mg zinc.
The participants of this second study also had better sleep compared to the placebo group, although it’s hard to attribute the effect to magnesium since the supplement additionally contained zinc and melatonin (13).
Yet another study found that creating a magnesium deficiency in mice resulted in sleep patterns that were light and restless (14).
This is partially due to this mineral’s influence on the nervous system. It blocks more “excitable” molecules from binding to neurons, resulting in a calmer nervous system.
However, since the current research has only studied magnesium supplements among older adults with insomnia, it’s not clear whether younger adults would benefit as well.
Summary: Magnesium acts upon the nervous system and contributes to deep, restful sleep. Several studies have confirmed this effect in older adults.
It May Help Alleviate Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression can both have a negative impact on sleep. Interestingly, magnesium has been shown to help alleviate both of these mood disorders.
This is especially true when there’s a magnesium deficiency, since anxiety, depression and mental confusion are often seen during deficiency (15).
While how this works isn’t fully understood, it seems to be related to magnesium’s ability to stimulate the calming devices of the nervous system (3).
If your insomnia is related to an underlying mood disorder, then magnesium just might help.
Summary: Magnesium may help treat anxiety and depression, two mood disorders that can cause sleep problems.
How to Take Magnesium to Help With Sleep
The Institute of Medicine suggests a daily dietary intake of 310–360 mg of magnesium for adult women and 400–420 mg for adult men (1).
Very few studies have directly tested the effect of magnesium supplements on insomnia, making it hard to recommend specific amounts.
However, the aforementioned clinical trials used amounts in the range of 225–500 mg. The upper limit considered safe from supplements is actually 350 mg per day, so avoid trying this higher dose without medical supervision (2).
Since it’s clear that magnesium deficiency can impair sleep, a good first step is to make sure you’re getting adequate amounts from whole foods.
Summary: There are no specific recommendations about how much magnesium to take to improve sleep. However, getting adequate amounts through diet could help.
What to Consider When Taking Supplements
If you’re having trouble sleeping, consider lifestyle interventions first, such as cutting back on caffeine, establishing a regular bedtime and avoiding screens before bed.
But if you’d like to try magnesium, there are a few things you should know.
First, the upper limit for supplemental magnesium is 350 mg per day (2).
Additionally, keep in mind that taking it in supplement form may cause side effects, including nausea, cramps or diarrhea (17).
Finally, magnesium supplements can interfere with certain medications, including antibiotics, muscle relaxants and blood pressure medications.
If you have a medical condition or take any medication, consult with a doctor before trying this supplement.
Summary: The safe upper level for magnesium supplements is 350 mg per day. It may cause side effects and interact with some medications.
The Bottom Line
Magnesium may improve your sleep. It plays an important role in your nervous system, helping to activate mechanisms that quiet and calm you.
It may also help relieve anxiety and depression, which can interfere with sleep.
Currently, the only research showing that these supplements improve sleep has been done in older adults, so it’s not clear how they affect other populations.
If you’d like to try magnesium for sleep, start off by increasing your intake from whole foods.