8 Ways Magnesium Relieves Anxiety and Stress

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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The benefits of magnesium for anxiety and stress are substantial, yet up to 75% of us are deficient. Learn how to boost your magnesium level naturally.

Magnesium is an essential dietary mineral that is so good for anxiety and stress that it’s been called “nature’s Valium” and “the original chill pill.”

Magnesium is necessary for over 600 metabolic functions, yet it is the second most common nutritional deficiency in developed countries. (12)

Over the past 70 years, magnesium intake has plummeted while rates of anxiety have skyrocketed. (3)

This may not be a coincidence.

The correlation between magnesium and anxiety is so strong that researchers can intentionally induce anxiety in lab animals by depriving them of magnesium. (4)

The Many Ways Magnesium Alleviates Anxiety

Magnesium is a near miracle for stress and anxiety.

This mineral works by a surprising number of mechanisms to induce a state of relaxation, calm anxiety, and keep your brain healthy.

1. Magnesium Increases Relaxing GABA

One way magnesium counters stress is by binding to and stimulating GABA receptors in the brain. (5)

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, one that slows brain activity.

When GABA is low, your brain gets stuck in the “on” position and it becomes impossible to relax.

If you are easily overwhelmed, disorganized, always find something new to worry about, or lay awake with racing thoughts, you likely have low GABA levels.

Low GABA is associated with numerous stress-related disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, irritable bowel syndrome, and involuntary movement syndromes such as Parkinson’s disease, tardive dyskinesia, and Huntington’s chorea. (6)

2. Magnesium Reduces Stress Hormones

Excess cortisol contributes to anxiety, brain fog, depression, mood swings, memory loss, dementia, concentration problems, insomnia, and mental disorders of all kinds. (7)

Magnesium restricts the release of stress hormones and acts as a filter to prevent them from entering the brain. (8)

Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, author of the perennial bestseller The Magnesium Miracle, has found magnesium deficiency to be a major contributor to anxiety and panic attacks.

She explains that when you are under stress, your body creates stress hormones that cause a cascade of physical effects, all of which consume magnesium.

After studying the effects of magnesium for decades, she has found the link between anxiety and magnesium to be so strong that she emphatically states that to put an end to anxiety, you must boost your magnesium level.

One of the most common signs of magnesium deficiency is muscle tightness and cramping.

Tight muscles don’t just make you feel tense, they actually trigger the flight-or-fight response which, in turn, releases the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol. (9)

Taking magnesium can help your muscles relax and end this downward cycle.

3. Magnesium Is Anti-Inflammatory

Another way magnesium addresses anxiety is via its anti-inflammatory properties. (10)

Chronic inflammation can take hold anywhere in the body, even in your brain.

Brain inflammation has been linked to numerous neurological and psychiatric disorders, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. (111213)

Low magnesium is linked to high levels of pro-inflammatory markers. (14)

Inflammatory immune system messengers called cytokines activate inflammation in the brain, destroy brain tissue, and alter brain function. (15)

Cytokines play a role in anxiety, depression, memory loss, apathy, slowed responses, irritability, inability to focus, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and increased risk of suicide. (161718)

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4. Magnesium May Remove Heavy Metals

Heavy metals like mercury, lead, and aluminum are linked to anxiety, as well as a long list of neurological disorders. (19)

Unfortunately, they can cross your brain’s filter, the blood-brain barrier, and accumulate in the brain. (20)

There’s some evidence that magnesium binds with and removes heavy metals from the body. (21)

This is a good start, but it’s unsure whether magnesium can remove heavy metals from the brain.

Many websites claim that magnesium malate can cross into the brain and remove metals, but I have not found the research to back this up.

5. Magnesium Increases Brain Plasticity

Your brain’s ability to heal itself, create new brain cells, and make new neural connections throughout life is known as neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity.

Magnesium is one of the few nutrients known to increase brain plasticity. (22)

Interestingly, there’s evidence that increasing magnesium intake can enhance the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy when it’s used for treating anxiety disorders. (23)

This may be due to an increased level of brain plasticity, enabling your brain to rewire itself to not be so anxious.

6. Magnesium Lifts Depression

If you experience anxiety, you may also experience depression since these two disorders often go hand in hand.

In fact, 90% of those with an anxiety disorder experience depression and 85% of those with major depressive disorder are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. (24)

Magnesium can help with both. (25)

One study found that magnesium was as effective as antidepressants in treating depression. (26)

Another study found that supplemental magnesium glycinate or magnesium taurinate provided significant relief from general depression and major depressive disorder fast, often within a week. (27)

Magnesium helps depression by raising levels of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin. (28)

Additionally, magnesium supplementation has proven beneficial for ADHD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia which can also occur along with anxiety. (29, 3031)

7. Magnesium Keeps Blood Sugar Stable

Magnesium stabilizes blood sugar levels and that is good news for your brain. (32)

Your brain’s main fuel source is glucose and it needs a steady supply.

When your brain doesn’t get the fuel it needs and your blood sugar drops too low, your adrenal glands kick in to release epinephrine and cortisol.

This causes stored sugar to be released to bring your blood level back to normal. (33)

If you’ve ever experienced a low blood sugar attack, you know how anxious it can make you feel.

The symptoms of a hypoglycemic attack feel amazingly like an anxiety attack — nervousness, shaking, sweating, rapid heartbeat, and dizziness.

If you suspect your anxiety is related to hypoglycemia, it’s critical that you watch your diet.

Limit your intake of refined carbohydrates and eat protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates instead.

And take a magnesium supplement.

Research shows that taking 340 mg per day can prevent blood sugar from dipping too low in people with hypoglycemia. (34)

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8. Magnesium Enhances Overall Mental Well-Being

Addressing a magnesium deficiency can have a profound impact on your life.

You can expect to experience better overall mental well-being — feeling happier, more relaxed, and more resilient to stress, and having improved focus and concentration, increased energy, and better sleep — once you’ve optimized your magnesium intake.

It’s easy to see how making this one change could make you feel less anxious and more in control of your life.

How Modern Life Robs You of Magnesium

So now you know how significantly magnesium impacts your mental health and well-being.

But you might be wondering why deficiency has become so common, and whether you get enough magnesium.

The dietary intake of magnesium has plummeted over the past 100 years.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the average American consumed 500 mg daily.

Now the average daily intake is around 200 mg.

magnesium intake chart
The average American daily magnesium intake has dropped by 50% from 1900 to 2000.

The result is that upwards of 75% of Americans have subpar levels of magnesium. (35)

Here are the main reasons magnesium deficiency has become so prevalent.

We’re eating more refined foods, which contain very little magnesium.

Even the healthiest foods can be low in magnesium since most are grown in mineral-depleted soil. (36)

Many of us live where fluoride is added to our water.

Fluoride binds to magnesium, making it less bioavailable. (37)

Chronic stress is a big magnesium thief.

It causes magnesium to be excreted during urination. (38)

Several demographics are at increased risk for low magnesium including alcoholics, diabetics, and seniors. (39)

Gastrointestinal diseases such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and intestinal flora imbalance prevent magnesium absorption.

Pharmacist Suzy Cohen reveals in her book Drug Muggers: Which Medications Are Robbing Your Body of Essential Nutrients–and Natural Ways to Restore Them that over 200 medications block magnesium absorption.

It’s clear that nearly everyone could benefit from more magnesium.

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The Top Food Sources of Magnesium

According to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the top food sources of magnesium per average serving size are: (40)

  • almonds
  • spinach
  • cashews
  • shredded wheat cereal
  • soy milk
  • black beans
  • edamame
  • peanut butter
  • whole grain bread
  • avocado

The Canadian government’s nutrition website lists sunflower, squash and pumpkin seeds, black-eyed peas, and Brazil nuts to be the richest sources of magnesium per serving. (41)

Note that chocolate — often touted as a top source of magnesium — did not make either list.

This is a big disappointment for us chocoholics who claim we eat it “for the magnesium.”

Paradoxically, eating legumes, seeds, and grains won’t help as much as you’d expect since they also contain naturally occurring compounds called phytates that inhibit the absorption of minerals, including magnesium. (4243)

Drink Magnesium-Rich Mineral Water

Another way to get more magnesium is to drink mineral water from natural springs.

Minerals waters have a long history of promoting health.

People around the world have been soaking in hot springs and drinking these waters for thousands of years.

Popular bottled brands include San Pellegrino, Perrier, Fuji, and Evian.

Gerolsteiner sparkling water from Germany is particularly high in magnesium.

A one-liter bottle contains 348 mg, roughly the United States RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance).

You can compare the magnesium content of hundreds of brands of mineral water using this mineral water calculator.

Drinking these health-promoting waters might seem like an extravagance, but they actually cost less per ounce than many drinks Americans already spend billions on — coffee lattes, soda, bottled teas, and energy drinks.

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The Best Magnesium Supplements for Anxiety

When looking for a magnesium supplement, the kind of magnesium you choose matters a lot.

And the wrong magnesium can actually make you sick.

Choosing a good magnesium supplement can be very confusing since there are so many forms.

Here are some guidelines for picking the best magnesium supplement for you.

The Two Worst Forms of Magnesium: Oxide and Sulfate

First, let me steer you away from the worst forms of magnesium.

Inexpensive magnesium supplements often use magnesium oxide and magnesium sulfate which are well known for their laxative effect.

Magnesium oxide is not good for increasing overall magnesium levels and won’t do a thing for your anxiety.

Only 4% of it is absorbed, the rest simply passes on through and may have you running to the bathroom. (44)

Magnesium sulfate, the kind found in Epsom salts, may ease your anxiety when you add it to a hot bath, but it’s too harsh to take internally.

It can cause dramatic diarrhea and disrupt your electrolyte balance, leading to a potentially serious condition known as hypermagnesemia. (45)

There are reports of magnesium sulfate triggering brain fog, short-term memory loss, amnesia, blackouts, and other kinds of mental distress. (46)

Pick a Magnesium Supplement That’s Best Suited to Your Symptoms

Here are a handful of magnesium supplements and their typical best uses: 

  • magnesium carbonate — used in antacids; strong laxative effect
  • magnesium citrate — most popular all-around magnesium supplement; moderate laxative effects
  • magnesium gluconate — excellent bioavailability; used to treat magnesium deficiency
  • magnesium glycinate — considered ideal for correcting deficiency; calming, good for sleep
  • magnesium hydroxide — found in milk of magnesia; laxative, antacid
  • magnesium malate — fatigue, fibromyalgia, insomnia
  • magnesium taurate — high blood pressure, heart arrhythmia, calming

According to a study that compared the bioavailability of 5 forms of magnesium, taurate, citrate, and malate were the most bioavailable forms, while sulfate and oxide were the least.  (47)

There’s a lot of hype surrounding topical magnesium applied as either as a cream or a spray, but so far there’s no scientific evidence to support that it raises magnesium levels. (48)

Magnesium L-Threonate: The Best Form for the Brain

A little-known form of magnesium that is particularly helpful for the brain is magnesium l-threonate.

Unlike other forms of magnesium, it effectively crosses the blood-brain barrier to enter the brain. (49)

Its unique ability to permeate brain cell membranes and elevate magnesium concentrations in the brain makes it particularly useful for treating anxiety and depression, and for cognitive enhancement. (50)

Look for supplements that contain Magtein, a patented brand of magnesium l-threonate that is a proven cognitive enhancer.

While magnesium l-threonate may be tops for your brain, it’s not the best for addressing an overall magnesium deficiency since it contains relatively little elemental magnesium per dose.

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Magnesium Dosage, Side Effects, and Interactions

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for magnesium depends somewhat on one’s age, but is generally 420 mg for men and 320 mg for women. (51)

However, some people benefit from more, especially initially when their magnesium stores are low.

There is no recognized upper limit on how much magnesium you can safely take, but one analysis of human studies found the maximum intake to be 1400 mg/day. (52, 53)

This amount was safely taken by study participants with no ill effects.

We suggest you start with the RDA and work your way up gradually if you are not getting the results you desire.

You’ll know it’s time to cut back if you experience digestive upset.

Magnesium Side Effects and Interactions

We’ve already covered the most common side effect of magnesium — loose stools.

This is a particular problem when taking poorly absorbed forms like magnesium oxide and magnesium sulfate.

The only reported side effects of magnesium l-threonate are headaches and drowsiness the first week or so.

If you take antibiotics, high blood pressure medications, osteoporosis medications, or muscle relaxants, discuss taking magnesium supplements with your health care provider.

Magnesium can alter the effectiveness of these medications by affecting how much of them gets absorbed. (54)

Should You Get Tested for Magnesium?

Unfortunately, standard blood tests for magnesium aren’t of much help since only 1% of the body’s magnesium stores are in the blood. (55)

According to the National Institutes of Health’s Magnesium Fact Sheet for Professionals, blood levels have little correlation with total body magnesium levels or concentrations in specific tissues like the brain.

They recommend having a clinical assessment based on symptoms, along with laboratory tests.

Magnesium Deficiency Symptoms

Typical signs of low-grade magnesium deficiency include: (56, 57)

  • anxiety or panic attacks
  • brain fog
  • caffeine dependence
  • constipation
  • dark circles under the eyes
  • easily startled
  • feeling “tired but wired”
  • feeling weak and tired after exercise
  • frequent headaches, including migraines
  • heart palpitations
  • inability to handle stress
  • insomnia
  • lack of focus and concentration
  • low blood pressure
  • low blood sugar
  • muscle cramps
  • muscle tightness
  • never feeling rested even after a good night’s sleep
  • restless leg syndrome
  • salt cravings

Magnesium for Anxiety: Take the Next Step

As a natural way to alleviate anxiety and stress, magnesium is a powerhouse.

Eating magnesium-rich foods and drinking mineral water are important, but almost everyone can benefit from supplementation as well.

There are many forms of magnesium supplements, but not all are equally helpful, and no one form of magnesium is ideal for every situation.

Note that it’s perfectly safe, and even desirable, to mix and match magnesium supplements!

Consider taking magnesium l-threonate for anxiety, depression, or cognitive enhancement.

Use magnesium citrate, gluconate, or glycinate to bring up overall magnesium levels.

READ NEXT: Magnesium L-Threonate: Breakthrough Brain Supplement