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Can Magnesium Help Improve Sleep?

By Melissa Anzelone, ND

In this article:


Sleep is vital to your physiological needs, cognitive function, and mood. Without long, satisfying sleep, many of your body's processes are disturbed, including performance at work and reaction time. We sleep about one-third of our lives, but up to 48% of people report poor sleep. 

Many correlations exist between nutrients, vitamins, and minerals and the effect and benefits they have on healthy sleep. One of these important minerals is magnesium.

‌‌‌‌What is Magnesium?

Magnesium is an essential element and the fourth most common mineral in the body. This element is found in your body's cells, connective tissues, including bone, muscle, and serum. Magnesium is a required substance for many different processes in the body, including over 300 enzymatic reactions.

Research has shown magnesium may be involved in energy production, muscle contraction, nerve function, and blood sugar control, which can all impact your ability to fall and stay asleep comfortably. Magnesium is also associated with hormone receptor binding, blood pressure regulation, cardiac excitability, and gating of calcium channels, which is a key requirement for many other cellular functions. 

Natural sources of magnesium include nuts and seeds, whole grains, fish, seafood, beans, and dark green leafy vegetables.

‌‌‌‌Why Do We Need Magnesium Support?

The recommended guidelines for magnesium intake range from 310 mg to 420 mg. Younger women require less magnesium, while older women and men of all ages require more of this essential mineral. 

Various theories exist as to why most of the population is deficient in magnesium. One possible theory centers on diet choices. Meats, sugar, and white flour—foods that are naturally low in magnesium—are staples in diets throughout the world. Low levels of magnesium are also found in processed foods, another large part of most diets. The way we cook and boil certain foods—for example, steaming spinach—may contribute to a decrease in magnesium content in foods.

The widespread use of monoculture agriculture (planting only a single crop at a time) may also be to blame for decreased magnesium in produce. Decreased levels of magnesium have also been found in produce typically high in magnesium, such as dark leafy vegetables, possibly due to pesticides. Pesticide use may chelate magnesium from soil, preventing the plants from absorbing the magnesium and incorporating it in their leaves. To avoid pesticide-treated produce, try shopping for natural and organic fruits and vegetables.

Low vitamin D levels, antibiotics, antacids, diabetes, and even natural aging may decrease your body's absorption of magnesium. Smoking cigarettes and alcohol use have been shown to decrease levels of magnesium as well. 

Rates of low magnesium may also be correlated with various conditions that have chronic inflammatory components. For example, poor sleep, or insomnia, can promote inflammatory and oxidative stress in the body, leading to magnesium deficiency. This relationship is bidirectional, meaning magnesium deficiency may be to blame for your disrupted sleep. Before we get into how sleep and magnesium are related, let’s talk about how sleep cycles work normally.

‌‌‌‌The Ins and Outs of Sleep

There are two main regulators of sleep: the circadian process, which regulates the daily rhythms of the body and brain, and homeostatic regulators.

A section of the hypothalamus provides direction that drives the sleep-wake activity and endocrine secretions. This part of the brain is affected by light and dark patterns and temperature.

The application of light to the retinas (your eyes) signals the brain in the morning and synchronizes individuals to a 24-hour rhythm also known as the circadian rhythm. 

If you experience a lack of deep sleep or duration of sleep, the body works to ensure that the next time you sleep, your sleep depth and duration will increase.

‌‌‌‌What Happens If Sleep Is Poor?

Poor sleep is usually quantified as an unsatisfactory quantity or quality of sleep that persists for a considerable amount of time. It can include difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking before you are ready. 

The prevalence of poor sleep increases with age. Some age-related sleep changes include decreased sleep duration, decreased sleep efficiency (the percentage of time you actually spend sleeping after going to bed), and decreased short-wave sleep (the deepest level of sleep).

Poor sleep and insomnia are distressing for most people and can negatively impact quality of life, as well as work performance. The consequences of poor or disturbed sleep include memory weakness, increased reaction time, short-term memory problems, decreased quality of general health, increased health costs, stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms.

Sleep changes and depressive symptoms influence each other. Disturbed sleep can be a symptom of depressive moods, but depriving someone of sleep can lead to depressive moods. Certain breathing disorders, such as sleep apnea, have a strong association with sleep-depressive behaviors. Sleep apnea is associated with an impairment in cognitive function and daytime sleepiness.

Chronic sleep deprivation (longer than a week) has been shown to alter neurotransmitter receptor systems, specifically those managing serotonin and cortisol. These are the same systems that are altered when depressive symptoms are reported. Chronic sleep deprivation may lead to depressive symptoms, which can be attributed to neurochemical changes that occur in the brain.

Disorders of the circadian rhythm can also lead to depressive symptoms. Additionally, melatonin, a hormone made by the pineal gland, which helps regulate the sleep/wake cycle/circadian rhythm, can decrease, leading to abnormal circadian rhythms and depressive symptoms, especially in the elderly. 

‌‌‌‌How Does Magnesium Support Healthy Sleep?

Many interventions can manage poor sleep, including using magnesium supplements as a natural and healthy option. Clinical evidence generally supports the safety and efficacy of magnesium supplementation as it relates to sleep support.

The effect of magnesium on neural functions and sleep behaviors is not fully understood, but we do know that magnesium plays an essential role as a natural antagonist of the NMDA (N- Methyl-D-aspartic acid) receptors of the brain, normally an excitatory pathway.

Magnesium is also an agonist of the neurotransmitter GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid), which plays a key role in sleep regulation and helps calm your body's nerve activity. 

Basically, magnesium provides benefits by supporting the healthy function of your central nervous system, and these pathways may account for magnesium’s mood supporting benefits.

Magnesium supplements have also been shown to support healthy cortisol levels in the first half of sleep. Emotional, physical, or environmental stressors, and cortisol increases may leave us tossing and turning, unable to fall asleep at night. So maintaining balanced cortisol levels can be your first step to restful sleep.

One reason for magnesium's cortisol reducing effect may lie in the mineral's NMDA antagonist property, which supports healthy levels of secretion of adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) from the anterior pituitary gland. ACTH supports healthy cortisol secretion from the adrenal cortex by preventing the conversion of cholesterol to pregnenolone, the rate-limiting step in creating cortisol.

With acute or short-term stress, an increase in plasma magnesium levels has been seen, along with an increase in urinary magnesium excretion. The body actually moves the magnesium from the intracellular to the extracellular space, with the goal having magnesium play a protective role to offset the negative physiological effects of stress.

High levels of cortisol can change levels of serotonin in various parts of the brain. With chronic or long-term stress, magnesium deficiency is seen, and low levels of magnesium have been associated with raised brain noradrenaline, to increased sensitivity to stress.

Feeling stressed can make it difficult to fall asleep, and can impact your ability to fall back asleep if you wake up in the middle of the night. Supplementing your diet with magnesium may help encourage your body to feel more relaxed. According to research, magnesium can act as a cofactor and support the effect of serotonin receptor transmission. 

Serotonin release has an impact on calming oxytocin and other hormonal activity. The decrease of serotonin that is often caused by chronic stress may be one of the contributing factors to depressive and anxiety-like symptoms.

‌‌‌‌Can Magnesium Help Support Healthy Hormone Levels?

Magnesium may also boost the protective effects of estrogens, a group of hormones known to promote healthy sleep. Estrogens cause a shift in magnesium from the plasma to the cells, allowing it to function efficiently in its role of ATP production. Estrogens can also decrease responses to stressors, leading to decreased cortisol production. 

Magnesium can also help maintain healthy levels of prolactin, a hormone that supports your ability to cope with psychological stress. It acts as a positive allosteric modulator for oxytocin, binding to the receptor and thereby acting to minimize stress responses in your body. Studies have also shown that magnesium supplementation has benefits for supporting healthy levels of melatonin concentration, which can positively affect your circadian rhythm’s control of sleep. 

Magnesium plays an essential role in your body's overall health and correlates with healthy sleep patterns. Individuals having difficulty sleeping may want to consider magnesium supplements.

References:

  1. Schwalfenberg GK., Genius SJ.; Importance of Magnesium in Clinical Healthcare. Scientifica, 2017. 2017:4179326.
  2. Nielsen FH., Johnson LK., Zeng H.; Magnesium Supplementation Improves Indicators of Low Magnesium Status and Inflammatory Stress in Adults Older than 51 Years With Poor Quality Sleep. Magnes Res. 2010. 23(4): p. 158-168.
  3. Al-Abri M.; Sleep Deprivation and Depression: A bi-directional association. Sultan Qaboos Univ Med J, 2015. 15(1): p. e4-e6.
  4. Vink R., Nechifor M.; Magnesium in the Central Nervous System. Adelaide (AU): University of Adelaide Press, 2011.
  5. Abbasi B., Kimiagar M., Sadeghniiat K., Shirazi M.; The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. J Res Med Sci, 2012. 17(12): p. 1161-1169

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