Magnesium is often touted as an antidote to poor sleep. But while some doctors say it’s okay to take it in a supplemental form for certain sleep disorders, such as those caused by restless legs syndrome, the evidence of its sleep-inducing benefits is thin.
Magnesium, an abundant mineral in the body, plays a crucial role in many physiological functions. It supports the health of the immune system, blood sugar regulation and nerve and muscle function. Some scientists suggest that magnesium deficiency may contribute to poor sleep by disrupting nerve signals and changing levels of sleep-inducing hormones like melatonin.
Most people, however, have adequate magnesium levels because the mineral is easy to come by with a relatively healthy diet. It’s found in a wide variety of plant and animal foods such as nuts, vegetables, seeds, beans, yogurt, and fish. And while many people fall short of the federal government’s recommended daily allowance, true magnesium deficiencies are rare.
Over the years, studies have looked at whether supplementing the mineral can improve sleep. Most of the studies were small or poorly designed, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions. A systematic review published in April examined three clinical trials investigating magnesium supplementation for insomnia in 151 older adults and concluded that they generally provided “low to very low quality evidence”.
In a study published in 2012, researchers recruited 46 older adults with chronic insomnia and divided them into two groups. One was to take 500 milligrams of magnesium daily for eight weeks, the other was given a placebo. At the end of the study, the researchers found that those taking magnesium were more likely to report improvements in “subjective” measures of insomnia, such as how quickly they fell asleep each night and how often they fell asleep, compared to the placebo group to wake up early in the morning. However, those who took magnesium showed no difference in their total sleep time, the researchers reported.
In general, magnesium appears to have minimal side effects, and taking low doses is unlikely to do much harm. According to the Institute of Medicine, healthy adults can safely take up to 350 milligrams of additional magnesium daily. Anything at or below this level is unlikely to cause any adverse health effects. But in higher doses, magnesium can cause gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea, said Dr. Colleen Lance, the medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Cleveland Clinic Hillcrest Hospital in Ohio. Dr. Lance said that while the evidence that magnesium can help with insomnia is weak, it doesn’t necessarily stop people from trying it.
“I tell patients that you can try it and see if it helps,” she said. “It can’t help, but it probably won’t hurt.”
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An example of where she recommends magnesium is for patients with restless legs syndrome, a nervous system disorder that causes people to have an irresistible urge to move their limbs, usually at night, which can be very disruptive to sleep. Dr. Lance said magnesium could theoretically make a difference as it helps the nerves conduct electrical signals properly, although the evidence of its restless leg benefits is still limited and mixed and it may not work for everyone.
At least one small study from 1998 found that people who suffered from the disorder had less trouble sleeping after taking magnesium. However, a recent systematic review of studies concluded that it was “not clear” whether magnesium could alleviate restless legs syndrome. More research is needed, but Dr. Lance said she tells patients with RLS it might be worth trying to see if it makes a difference. “We tell patients that they can try some magnesium in the evenings to see if that calms things down,” added Dr. Lance added.
However, chronic insomnia cannot usually be cured with a pill. When Dr. When Lance meets patients complaining of insomnia, she usually does an examination to find out the causes of their sleepless nights. She often finds that a patient is having difficulty falling or staying asleep due to an undiagnosed sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome. Many women have menopausal-related sleep problems. Some people cannot sleep soundly because their surroundings are too noisy – for example, they might have a snoring spouse or a dog that barks at night. Others may have difficulty falling asleep due to anxiety related to the pandemic, their work, their finances, or some other stressful situation in their life.
One of the most effective treatments for insomnia is cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT, which helps people address the underlying behaviors that are disrupting their sleep. Therapies like continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP can help people with sleep apnea. Medications, including supplements like melatonin, can also help in some cases, but a pill alone won’t cure insomnia, said Dr. Lance.
“We see a lot of people who have an underlying problem and are still looking for a pill to oversleep the problem,” she said. “Instead, we try to find the underlying problem and address it.”