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May 24, 2021
7 min read

Magnesium for anxiety: is it proven to help?

Anxiety is among the most common mental health problems, and there are several ways of treating it. Research suggests magnesium could play a role, but there’s no solid evidence.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Magnesium is a vital mineral our bodies need to function well, yet many Americans don’t get enough based on government recommendations. Magnesium deficiency can lead to several health problems, and anxiety may be one of them. For some people, a supplement of the mineral may help reduce anxiety, some studies suggest, but the evidence for its potential calming is far from convincing. The best way to ensure you get enough is to eat a healthy diet. 

What is magnesium and why do we need it?

Magnesium is a very lightweight element that’s common both in Earth’s crust and dissolved in water. Buy a can of seltzer, and not only might the drink hold some magnesium, but the aluminum alloy in the can itself likely contains it (USGS, n.d.).

The body needs magnesium—noted as Mg on the periodic table of elements—for a startling range of vital functions. These include producing energy, regulating biochemical reactions throughout the body, firing muscles, and maintaining proper levels of blood sugar and blood pressure (National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, 2021).

Getting enough magnesium could be important for staving off everything from migraines and chronic pain to depression and, yes, anxiety. Comprehensive reviews of the research always include this important caveat: that more research is needed before scientists have confidence in the possibilities (Kirkland, 2018).

Something that scientists do have confidence in is that the amount of magnesium we need varies by age:

Life Stage Recommended Amount
Birth to 6 months 30 mg
Infants 7–12 months 75 mg
Children 1–3 years 80 mg
Children 4–8 years 130 mg
Children 9–13 years 240 mg
Teen boys 14–18 years 410 mg
Teen girls 14–18 years 360 mg
Men 400–420 mg
Women 310–320 mg
Pregnant teens 400 mg
Pregnant women 350–360 mg
Breastfeeding teens 360 mg
Breastfeeding women 310–320 mg

SOURCE: National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements

Missing your magnesium intake over short periods won’t result in any noticeable symptoms. The body stores the mineral for use as needed. But a prolonged shortfall can lead to loss of appetite, nausea, and fatigue — any of which should trigger a visit to a healthcare provider if they persist (National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, 2021).

You can’t get too much magnesium from food—the kidneys eliminate any excess. But high doses from supplements can cause abdominal cramping, nausea, and diarrhea (Allen, 2021). 

Does magnesium help reduce or cure anxiety?

People diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are typically treated with psychological therapy or prescription medications, or both. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which aims to identify stressors and develop coping mechanisms, is among the most effective approaches. Drugs used to treat anxiety disorders include serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), hydroxyzine, and antidepressants (Bandelow, 2017).

Meanwhile, magnesium is among several non-prescription remedies often suggested for helping with anxiety relief. Though whether it works remains an open question. A review of 18 studies on the topic found some evidence to support magnesium for anxiety. Three of eight studies done on people with mild anxiety—a subjective, self-reported condition not formally diagnosed as a disorder—found magnesium to be effective, but the other five did not.  Some of the 18 studies were relatively old, and several involved a small number of participants or had poor methodology, all factors that undermined many of the positive findings (Boyle, 2017). 

For example, one of the studies found oral magnesium supplements relieved premenstrual mood changes, including anxiety, and could prove to be an effective treatment. But the study involved just 32 women (Facchinetti, 1991). Another one involving university students found no reduction in anxiety before exams among those who had taken 300 mg of magnesium for five days versus those who took a placebo (Gendle, 2015). 

“Existing evidence is suggestive of a beneficial effect of Mg [magnesium] on subjective anxiety,” the study concluded. “However, the quality of the existing evidence is poor” (Boyle, 2017).

A previous review of research reached a similar conclusion: “Magnesium-containing supplements and other herbal combinations may hold promise, but more research is needed before these products can be recommended to patients.” These researchers added that in many studies of supplements aiming to treat anxiety, patients taking a placebo with no medical properties also experience a calming effect (Lakhan, 2010).

Eat it up: Foods with magnesium

Like many nutrients, magnesium is most effective in the body when it comes from real food, not a pill. A healthy diet rich in green leafy vegetables like spinach and legumes, nuts or seeds, perhaps complemented by yogurt or milk or various fortified foods including many kinds of cereal, provides ample amounts of magnesium for most people. But most people in the United States don’t eat well enough to get the recommended amounts of magnesium (National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, 2021). 

Instead, Americans eat too much highly processed, nutrient-poor food rich in sugar and too many products made with refined grains like white bread, whose nutrients have been stripped away (Harvard Health Publishing, 2015).

Low levels of magnesium are most common in teenagers and men aged 70 and older. Type 2 diabetes, alcoholism, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease can contribute to magnesium deficiencies (National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, 2021).

Do I need a magnesium supplement?

If you suspect your diet is low in magnesium, dietary supplements can fill the gap. However, look for the types of magnesium that the body absorbs most easily: magnesium aspartate, magnesium citrate, magnesium lactate, and magnesium chloride (National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, 2021).

If you’re running low on magnesium, you may be missing out on other important nutrients, too. In that case, a multivitamin can help. Seek well-known brands that have been around for a long time and have likely been well tested, and aim for one that contains magnesium, iron, calcium, and D and B vitamins (Harvard Health Publishing, 2015).

It’s important to remember that dietary supplements are not tested or regulated by the federal government, so it’s impossible to be sure exactly what you’re getting with many common vitamin and mineral supplements. A review of research on supplements found most did not cause harm, and only a handful showed health benefits (Kahn, 2019). 

Magnesium supplements can interfere with or react negatively with various medicines, including antibiotics, diuretics, osteoporosis medications, and also zinc supplements. Many health experts advise seeking medical advice before taking any supplements—especially if your goal is to treat anxiety or any other specific condition (National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, 2021).

Do you have anxiety or anxiety disorder?

Before you worry about any possible magnesium deficiency, ask yourself if your anxiety is fleeting (that is, the sort of worries that most people feel now and then) or chronic. Some level of anxiety is part of life, and it’s normal for a little angst to come and go, brought on by challenges at work, problems at home, or any number of life’s stresses (National Institute of Mental Health, 2016).

However, if anxiety causes extreme worry or nervousness and persists day after day, you might have general anxiety disorder. GAD, as it’s called, brings excessive worry over everyday happenings, and you’ll struggle to control those worries even as you sense the concerns are overblown. Symptoms of general anxiety disorder include the following (National Institute of Mental Health, 2016):

  • Difficulty relaxing or concentration
  • Trembling or twitching
  • Sleep problems
  • Irritability

Some 19% of U.S. adults suffer such a diagnosable anxiety disorder each year, while 31% face such one during their lifetime (National Institute of Mental Health, 2017).

Other treatments for anxiety

There are several ways to combat occasional anxiety. Deep, controlled breathing has been shown in many studies to take the edge off (Harvard Health Publishing, 2020). Essential oils have not been scientifically proven to relieve anxiety, but several studies (and countless anecdotes) suggest aromatherapy with essential oils can have a calming effect.

Eating well, staying physically active, and getting ample sleep—each of which can enhance the other in a virtuous circle—are solid approaches to reducing anxiety. However, if anxiety is dogging you daily and making life seem like a constant battle, you may have a treatable anxiety disorder (National Institute of Mental Health, 2016). 

For most people with general anxiety disorder, a combination of prescription drugs and behavioral therapy can “substantially improve quality of life” (Bandelow, 2017).

Whether magnesium should play a role in that treatment, or if you should use it to curb a little anxiety now and then, remains open questions—questions worth asking of your healthcare provider.

References

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