According to the National Institute of Mental Health, up to 19.1% of adults in the United States had been affected by an anxiety disorder in 2020. And, in England, six out of every 100 people are diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder every single week.
The most common treatments are anti-anxiety medications and counseling, but the former comes with a long list of side effects, and the latter comes with an even longer waiting list. Many people prefer to look for natural solutions instead, including magnesium. So in this article, we’ll find out if magnesium really can help with anxiety.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, uneasiness, or worry. It’s a perfectly normal response to stressful circumstances, like having to make a major decision, attending a job interview, or giving a speech in front of a big crowd. However, for some people, anxiety can take on a life of its own.
Anxiety is part of your body’s stress response, also known as the fight-or-flight response. This involves lots of changes that get you ready to either escape or deal with a threat, such as a faster heart rate, faster breathing, and tense muscles. Non-urgent functions like digestion also grind to a halt. At the same time, your brain races to sharpen your focus, assess the threat and formulate a plan.
That last part is what you might experience as anxiety — fixating on the problem, playing out different scenarios, worrying about what might go wrong, and so on. And while you’re doing that, you’re often experiencing those physical sensations, too, like a racing heartbeat or “butterflies” in your stomach. These are often described as symptoms of anxiety because they occur at the same time, but they’re all actually symptoms of stress, anxiety included.
Here’s the problem: stress is intended to be a short-lived response to get you out of danger. Back when predators were all we had to worry about, it was a useful tool for dealing with the occasional life-or-death situation. Now, in our relatively safe but complex lives, all kinds of things can stress us out. If they happen often enough, or last long enough, they can put the nervous system into a near-constant state of stress that it just wasn’t designed for.
In this state, you might experience anxiety more often, more easily, more intensely, or in response to things that wouldn’t normally cause you to feel anxious. You might still feel anxious long after the problem has passed, and in some cases, you might not even know why you feel anxious in the first place. Your anxiety might feel constant, come in waves, or appear as intense panic attacks.
However you experience anxiety and whatever the cause, it’s not an easy condition to deal with. Common treatments include anti-anxiety medications, counseling, and relaxation techniques, but many people often look for natural remedies like supplements, too. Lots of people swear by magnesium for their anxiety, but can it help? Research suggests it can!
What is magnesium and can it help anxiety?
Magnesium is an essential mineral that’s involved in hundreds of critical processes in your body, including things like stress, anxiety, and mood regulation. Unfortunately, many of us are deficient in this important mineral, and stress and anxiety seem to be among the many side effects of a deficiency. In fact, magnesium appears to play such an important role in managing stress that researchers were able to induce anxiety in healthy rats simply by depriving them of magnesium.
For people with chronic stress or anxiety disorders, there’s also the potential for a “vicious cycle” scenario. As we’ll explain later, magnesium is crucial for regulating your body’s stress response, and you burn through lots of magnesium as your body tries to manage stress and anxiety. For that reason, stress and anxiety can put you at a higher risk of magnesium deficiency. And then of course, low levels can make you even more vulnerable to stress and anxiety, which further depletes your magnesium levels…
On that basis, it makes sense that people believe magnesium helps with stress and anxiety. In fact, some even refer to it as “nature’s valium”, and there’s research to support it. Here are some examples of studies that suggest magnesium might in fact be nature’s own chill pill!
- Study 1: Magnesium significantly improved anxiety and depression symptoms in adults over six weeks. Most patients experienced few or no side effects and reported that they would continue to use magnesium to treat their symptoms.
- Study 2: In these case studies, patients experienced rapid recovery from major depression after being given magnesium twice a day. Anxiety levels also improved, along with symptoms like headaches, irritability, insomnia and substance abuse.
- Study 3: In this 2017 review, researchers found evidence that magnesium supplementation improved feelings of anxiety for those experiencing anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, and anxiety associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
- Study 4: 3 out of 4 patients in this study reported that their anxiety had improved significantly or very significantly after taking a supplement with magnesium and vitamin B6. They experienced very mild side effects if any at all.
- Study 5: This one’s an animal study, but it found that supplementing water with magnesium for 30 days significantly improved signs of anxiety in rats.
The relationship between magnesium and anxiety
So how exactly can magnesium help with stress and anxiety? Based on what we know about how magnesium behaves in the brain, there are a few possible explanations for its calming effects.
Nervous system regulation
We mentioned the stress response earlier on. To understand how magnesium helps, let’s go into that in a bit more detail.
All of your involuntary functions are controlled by a branch of your nervous system called the autonomic nervous system, which has two branches of its own. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is known as the “rest and digest” state when everything is calm. But when you’re stressed or anxious, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) takes over and your fight-or-flight response kicks into gear.
When the SNS takes over, it triggers a cascade of hormonal signals to get your body ready for action. The two main hormones are cortisol and adrenaline, which are responsible for speeding up your heart rate and breathing, among other things. So what does that have to do with magnesium?
Magnesium actually helps to regulate the part of your brain that triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline. It prevents it from producing too much cortisol during the stress response, and then afterward, it helps the hormonal cascade to subside so that your body can return to the calm parasympathetic nervous system state. This can help you to cope with stress and anxiety better at the moment and then recover more easily afterward, reducing the risk of them becoming chronic and harmful.
Magnesium also influences neurotransmitters, or “chemical messengers”, in the brain. One of them is glutamate, an “excitatory” neurotransmitter that stimulates neurons (brain cells). To do this, it finds sites on the neuron called NMDA receptors and binds to them. The more sites it binds to, the more it stimulates the neuron.
Too much glutamate stimulation can damage the neurons, which is believed to lead to anxiety, depression, and some serious neurological conditions. Magnesium helps to prevent this by binding to some of the NMDA receptors, limiting how much glutamate can bind to the neuron and preventing overstimulation.
GABA has the opposite effect as glutamate. It’s an “inhibitory” neurotransmitter, so when it binds to receptors on a neuron, it calms them down instead. Many popular anti-anxiety medications (and some recreational drugs) actually work by binding to GABA’s receptors to mimic its calming, relaxing effects. And guess what? So does magnesium!
Other benefits of magnesium for anxiety
Unfortunately, many people who suffer from chronic stress and anxiety are also affected by depression. It’s often the case that the cause of depression also causes a great deal of stress or anxiety, e.g. a serious illness or a past trauma. And in the throes of a depressive episode, many people find that they have a much lower threshold for stress and anxiety. Situations they may otherwise be able to cope with and recover from can feel overwhelming and unmanageable.
We mentioned that excessive glutamate activity contributes to anxiety, and it’s also involved in depression. By reducing glutamate activity and promoting calming GABA, magnesium can help to ease the symptoms of depression. Magnesium is also needed to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter that’s so important for regulating your mood that it’s known as “the happy hormone”. Many antidepressants work by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain, and magnesium can have a similar effect.
Learn more about magnesium for depression.
If you’re in a state of stress or anxiety, your cortisol levels are high. And when your cortisol levels are high, it’s hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. What then usually happens is you wake up exhausted the next morning, setting the scene for another stressful day — and another sleepless night.
Magnesium can help to break this cycle in a number of ways:
- Magnesium helps to regulate the body clock that controls your sleep-wake cycle. This can make it easier to get back into a good sleep routine.
- The hormone that makes you sleepy at night is called melatonin, and it works in direct opposition to cortisol. You need serotonin to make melatonin and, as we mentioned earlier, you need magnesium to make serotonin. Therefore, taking magnesium supplements can help to reduce cortisol and ensure you’re producing the melatonin to replace it.
- We talked about how magnesium eases you back into the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system and acts on GABA receptors to calm your body and mind. This is not just helpful for anxiety; it’s also the ideal state to be in when you want to drift off into a peaceful sleep. In fact, just like some anxiety medications do, certain sleep medications also work by binding to GABA receptors.
Learn more about magnesium for sleep.
Which magnesium supplement is best for anxiety?
You’ll find there are many types of magnesium supplements, but if you’re dealing with stress and anxiety, you may find magnesium glycinate most helpful. It contains glycine, an amino acid also known to calm the brain.
We also recommend magnesium glycinate because anxiety and sleep problems so often go hand in hand, and glycine happens to be great for improving your sleep, too. On its own, it’s been shown to improve sleep quality in people with insomnia, reduce mental fatigue and sluggishness, and make people feel more lively and clear-headed. Together with magnesium, as magnesium glycinate, it improves:
- Sleep time (how long you sleep).
- Sleep onset latency (how quickly you fall asleep).
- Sleep efficiency (the proportion of your time in bed that you spend asleep).
How much magnesium should I take for anxiety?
The recommended magnesium dosage and intake vary depending on your age and sex. The table below shows the adequate intake (AI) and recommended dietary allowance (RDA) from the National Institute of Health:
|Birth to 6 months||30 mg*||30 mg*|
|7–12 months||75 mg*||75 mg*|
|1–3 years||80 mg||80 mg|
|4–8 years||130 mg||130 mg|
|9–13 years||240 mg||240 mg|
|14–18 years||410 mg||360 mg|
|19–30 years||400 mg||310 mg|
|31–50 years||420 mg||320 mg|
|51+ years||420 mg||320 mg|
*Adequate Intake (AI)
Are magnesium supplements safe for people with anxiety?
Magnesium supplements are safe for most healthy people, but higher doses can lead to digestive side effects like bloating, cramps, or diarrhea. You can avoid this by sticking to the recommended dosage or lowering your dose. It can also be helpful to take a better-tolerated type like magnesium glycinate.
Magnesium supplements may not be suitable for people with certain health conditions, such as kidney disease. They can also interact with medications that you may be taking for anxiety, depression, insomnia, or other health conditions. If you have a health condition or you take medications, it’s best to check with your doctor before taking magnesium supplements.
Finally, remember that magnesium supplements are not a substitute for professional mental health care. Magnesium can help to manage stress and anxiety, but if you’re finding it hard to cope, the best thing to do is to see your doctor and discuss your treatment options. If you want to make natural supplements like magnesium a part of your treatment plan, your doctor can help you to do it safely.