Is Magnesium Glycinate a Sleep Game-Changer? Here’s Why a Dietitian Gives This Supplement a Nod

Could magnesium be the most overlooked key for easier, more restorative sleep? Research shows it's possible you're not eating enough of it. Here are a few clever ways to solve that.

Why is magnesium important?

From promoting great heart health to seamless nervous system communication, magnesium is essential to more than 300 processes in our bodies. This super-mineral:

  • keeps your bones stronger, lowering the risk of fractures, according to a 2021 review published in BioMetals.
  • is associated with a lower risk of major heart disease factors, like diabetes and high blood pressure, according to cardiovascular research published in Nutrients.
  • may have a protective effect against anxiety and depression, according to more research in Nutrients. (The same study suggested that “magnesium is a mineral of intense interest for the potential prevention and treatment of neurological disorders,” such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.)

But, there’s a potential problem. As Sally Twellman, a registered dietitian at Heading Health, explains to The Healthy, many of us aren’t getting enough magnesium through our diet. Supporting her point, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that nearly half of Americans are at risk for a magnesium deficiency. Here’s why that may be contributing to our collective pursuit of higher-quality sleep.

Magnesium & sleep

Some good news is that severe magnesium deficiency—which can lead to heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, and even personality changes—is uncommon, according to Oregon State University’s Linus Pauling Institute.

The more common symptoms that people with lower-than-recommended magnesium levels experience are often related to energy, like fatigue, muscle weakness, and sleep. Specifically, a lack of magnesium can disrupt the circadian rhythm (your sleep cycle), as well as the function of the sleep hormone melatonin, and is linked with an increased risk  for sleep disorders like insomnia, according to the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences.

Think you might be low on magnesium? Although you’ll need a blood test to find out for sure, here are 10 common signs of a magnesium deficiency.

Does magnesium help with sleep?

While it’s not necessarily an antidote for insomnia, magnesium plays a key role in bodily processes that can encourage a good night’s rest (or disrupt your sleep if you’re lacking adequate levels).

Here’s how:

Magnesium regulates your sleep cycle

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that we get through foods like animal meat, tofu, dairy products, legumes, nuts, and oats. Magnesium works to turn this dietary tryptophan into serotonin—a calming hormone that regulates your mood, well-being, and feelings of happiness.

But Twellman explains that serotonin does more than keep anxiety at bay. It also helps to induce sleep (as well as wakeup) and is the precursor to the body’s production of melatonin—more commonly known as the sleep hormone. You need melatonin to fall asleep, Twellman explains, along with “its sustained release throughout the night to help us stay in a good sleep cycle,” she says. “And without magnesium, we don’t have that ongoing release.”

Magnesium helps calm your mind

Magnesium is also integral to other neurotransmitters that calm our nervous system at night and maintain that sense of calm as we sleep.

But its effects may go beyond that. While more studies are needed, magnesium deficiencies are linked with greater rates of anxiety and depression, according to research published in Nutrients. Both of these mood disorders are common causes of sleep problems. (Also read Feeling Down? Here’s the Compelling Effect of Your Mental Health on Your Heart Health.)

Magnesium relaxes your body

Magnesium also plays an important role in our musculoskeletal system by keeping our muscles loose and relaxed. It works like this: calcium in our body binds to muscular proteins, causing a muscle to contract. Magnesium competes for these same binding points to ease muscle tension.

That’s why muscle cramps and spasms can be a sign of magnesium deficiency. If you don’t have enough of this mineral in your body, your muscles can’t relax—and that’s enough to keep anyone up tossing, and turning at night.

Magnesium balances your blood sugar

Research from the International Journal of Molecular Sciences highlights how magnesium plays a role in blood sugar management. The mineral helps the body convert sugars we eat into fuel we can use, keeping blood sugar levels stable, so you have fewer energy spikes and dips.

This link is so strong that the research suggests magnesium supplements could help people with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. But Twellman says that optimal magnesium levels can also ensure your blood sugar levels are in check overnight, promoting higher-quality rest. (Yes, please.)

How much magnesium do I need?

Ailing Woman Rests in BedGrace Cary/Getty Images

Convinced you should start paying attention to your magnesium intake? The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for adults over age 19 is 310 to 320 milligrams of magnesium for women, and 400 to 420 milligrams for men. Still, some people may require even higher levels of magnesium in their daily diet.

For example, Twellman explains that people with diabetes may need more magnesium to help regulate their blood sugar. Extra magnesium can also help people under chronic stress modulate their stress response. Athletes and pregnant women also generally have greater magnesium needs to keep up with the demands of their bodies.

What are the best sources of magnesium?

Magnesium is widely found in plant and animal products alike, with the highest concentrations in leafy greens, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) points to top magnesium-containing foods like:

  • Pumpkin seeds at 156 milligrams per ounce

  • Chia seeds at 111 milligrams per ounce

  • Almonds at 80 milligrams per ounce

  • Boiled spinach at 78 milligrams per half-cup

  • Soy milk at 61 milligrams per cup

  • Black beans at 60 milligrams per half-cup

  • Baked potato (with skin) at 43 milligrams per 3.5 ounces

You might be asking: if magnesium is so common in our food, why do many of us fall short of recommended amounts?

The first reasoning behind this trend is the ubiquity of processed foods in today’s modern diet (think: packaged, frozen, canned, and other types of prepared food items). Research published in the peer-reviewed journal Heliyon in 2020 suggested that up to 80 percent of a food’s magnesium content is lost during processing. (If you need more motivation to cut processed foods from your diet, here are 10 more health benefits you can expect.)

Chronic disease rates are also on the rise, according to research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health—and these illnesses are known to contribute to nutrient deficiencies. As examples, the NIH reports that:

  • gastrointestinal diseases limit someone’s ability to absorb the magnesium they eat.

  • people with diabetes are more likely to lose dietary magnesium through their urine.

  • heavy alcohol consumption, smoking, and medication use can all affect the body’s nutrient levels.

Lastly, our food just isn’t as nutritious as it used to be. The Heliyon research explained that the amount of magnesium in farm soil has declined in the past few decades due to factors like unsustainable farming practices, climate change, and the strain of trying to feed a rapidly growing population. “And so the amount of magnesium in our fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans is actually lower than it was 40 or 50 years ago,” Twellman says.

Enter: magnesium glycinate

All this is why some registered dietitians, like Twellman, recommend people take a magnesium supplement like magnesium glycinate. But before adding a new supplement to your routine, always clear it with your doctor first. (And here are 6 other things you should know before taking a magnesium supplement.)

What is magnesium glycinate?

Magnesium glycinate is a supplement that combines the mineral magnesium with glycinate, an amino acid. This combination helps your body absorb the magnesium without some of the negative side effects of other supplement forms, Twellman explains—for example, magnesium citrate can have a laxative effect or cause stomach cramps and nausea.

But even though magnesium glycinate is generally gentler on the stomach, it can still cause mild side effects in some people. Twellman recommends trying an Epsom salt bath, soaking in magnesium flakes, or using a magnesium-containing lotion if you’re sensitive to oral supplements.

Twellman adds that it’s also safe to use magnesium glycinate with other sleep aids, such as a melatonin supplement, valerian root, or chamomile. Just make sure you get the OK from your primary care provider, especially if you’re taking medications like diuretics, antibiotics, or heart medicine. (The mineral may interfere with medication absorption.) People with chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, or kidney disease should also avoid taking a magnesium supplement without medical supervision.

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Leslie Finlay
In addition to The Healthy, Leslie has written for outlets such as WebMd.com, Fodors.com, LiveFit.com, and more, specializing in content related to healthcare, nutrition, mental health and wellness, and environmental conservation and sustainability. She holds a master's degree in Public Policy focused on the intersection between public health and environmental conservation, and an undergraduate degree in journalism. Leslie is based in Thailand, where she is a marine conservation and scuba diving instructor. In her spare time you'll find her up in the air on the flying trapeze or underwater, diving coral reefs.