According to the National Institute of Mental Health, up to 21 million adults in the United States had been affected by a major depressive order in 2020. Common treatments include antidepressants, which can come with a host of unpleasant side effects, and counseling, which comes with long waiting lists. It’s no surprise, then, that people look for quick, natural solutions to get them through periods of low mood. Magnesium is a popular option, so in this article, we’re going to answer the question: does magnesium help with depression?
What is depression?
We all experience periods of low mood from time to time. It’s entirely normal to go through phases of sadness, especially in response to certain difficult life circumstances like bereavement or illness.
For some people, though, low mood can last for weeks or months, sometimes with no obvious cause. The NHS explains that this may be clinical depression, a state of persistent sadness that can have emotional and physical symptoms.
Emotional symptoms of depression include feelings of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and hopelessness. You might find yourself feeling tearful, irritated, or angry more than usual, and you might lose interest in things you used to enjoy.
Physically, depression can interfere with your sleep and cause you to feel unusually tired or lethargic. Some people also experience aches and pains, changes in appetite, or reduced sex drive.
Whether your symptoms are mild or severe, depression can be tough to live with. Common treatments include antidepressant medications and counseling, but some people also look for more natural solutions. Magnesium is one of them, and research suggests that it can in fact be a helpful option for some people with low mood or depression.
What is magnesium and can it help depression?
Magnesium is an essential mineral that’s involved in hundreds of critical processes in your body, lots of which relate to mood, stress, anxiety, and sleep. Unfortunately, many of us don’t get enough of this important mineral, and low mood is just one of the many potential consequences of magnesium deficiency. An analysis of over 8,800 people found that those with the lowest magnesium intake had a 22% higher depression risk.
So can magnesium help with depression? While it’s not a cure for depression, magnesium does seem to be effective at helping to ease some of the symptoms and may lift your mood as a result. Here are just a couple of examples from the growing list of studies showing magnesium’s mood-boosting benefits…
- Study 1: Magnesium significantly improved depression and anxiety symptoms in adults who were being treated for mild-to-moderate depression over six weeks. Most patients reported that the supplements were well-tolerated (mild or no side effects) and many said they would use magnesium in the future.
- Study 2: In a review of four case histories, patients with major depression experienced rapid recovery after being given magnesium twice a day (one patient famously recovered in just seven days). Symptoms like headaches, suicidal thoughts, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, and substance abuse eased during this time.
- Study 3: This study found that supplementing with magnesium can improve the effectiveness of certain antidepressant medications.
- Study 4: In this study, magnesium was compared to a common antidepressant medication and was found to be equally effective.
- Study 5: A treatment that included magnesium was shown to encourage the brain to produce new connections between neurons and reverse some of the neural damage caused by long periods of stress.
The relationship between magnesium and depression
There are a few possible explanations as to how magnesium improves your mood, all involving “chemical messengers” in the brain called neurotransmitters.
If you’ve heard of serotonin, you might have heard it referred to as “the happy hormone”. That’s because this neurotransmitter plays a major role in mood regulation. Low serotonin levels are associated with mood disorders like depression, and lots of common antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), actually work by making more serotonin available in the brain.
To make serotonin, you need magnesium. It makes sense, then, that if more magnesium equals more serotonin, then it also equals a happier, more balanced mood.
Another neurotransmitter called glutamate may also play a part. This is an excitatory neurotransmitter, which means that it stimulates brain cells called neurons. It does this by binding to sites on the cells called NMDA receptors. The more sites it binds to, the stronger the stimulation.
Under normal conditions, magnesium blocks some of the NMDA receptors so that glutamate can’t overexcite the cells. If you’re deficient in magnesium, though, that leaves lots more receptors open to glutamate, which can then overstimulate and damage the cells. This is thought to lead to depression, anxiety, and a host of other serious neurological disorders.
While glutamate excites the cells, inhibitory neurotransmitters like GABA calm them down. In addition to blocking glutamate receptors, magnesium also binds to receptors for GABA, mimicking its relaxing and peaceful effects.
Other benefits of magnesium for depression
Anxiety and stress
Depression often goes hand in hand with other mood disturbances like chronic stress and anxiety. If your stress and anxiety feel unmanageable or overwhelming, or it starts to have a serious impact on your life, it’s easy to see how this could contribute to a low mood. And if you already suffer from depression, anxiety, and stress can make it even more difficult to cope with or manage your condition.
That excessive glutamate activity we talked about above also contributes to anxiety. So by reducing glutamate and promoting calming GABA instead, magnesium may help to put you at ease when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Magnesium also helps to regulate the part of your brain involved in stress, control levels of cortisol (“the stress hormone”), and restore your nervous system to a calm, relaxed state during times of stress or anxiety.
You can find out more in our article magnesium for anxiety.
If you suffer from depression, you’re probably no stranger to sleepless nights. You’ll also know that insomnia can leave you feeling even worse the next day. Magnesium is best known for its ability to promote great sleep, so taking a supplement may help you to get the rest you need to tackle your low mood.
Magnesium improves your sleep in a number of ways:
- You need serotonin to make melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy. And as we mentioned earlier, you need magnesium to make serotonin.
- Magnesium helps to regulate the body clock that controls the sleep-wake cycle, helping you to get into a good sleep routine.
- Magnesium is needed to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, also known as your “rest and digest” state. As the nickname suggests, this is the state you need to be in to drift off peacefully.
- Those GABA receptors we talked about earlier? When magnesium binds to them, it helps to calm down your body and mind, preparing you for a restful night’s sleep. In fact, lots of sleep medications (and anxiety medications) work by binding to these same receptors.
You can find out more in our article magnesium for sleep.
Which magnesium supplement is best for depression?
You can get the benefits of magnesium from any type of magnesium supplement, but some are more effective than others for low mood. There are two that often show particularly strong results in clinical trials for depression: magnesium chloride and magnesium glycinate.
Both are well-tolerated, but magnesium glycinate comes with a host of other benefits thanks to the other ingredient, an amino acid called glycine. Research has shown glycine to have a calming effect on the brain, which is especially beneficial if you suffer from anxiety and/or insomnia too. It improves sleep quality, and people say that it reduces mental fatigue and sluggishness and makes them feel more lively and clear-headed. It makes sense that combining glycine and magnesium would have extra-calming effects, with research showing that magnesium glycinate 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 depression?
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)
If you’re taking magnesium to help you wind down or sleep, try to take it 60-90 minutes before bedtime for the best results.
Are magnesium supplements safe for people with depression?
Magnesium supplements are generally safe for most healthy people. The higher your dose, the more likely you are to experience digestive side effects like bloating, cramps, or diarrhea. However, these are usually mild, and you can avoid them by lowering your dose or taking a well-tolerated type like magnesium glycinate.
Magnesium supplements may not be suitable for people with certain health conditions, particularly kidney disease. Magnesium can also interact with lots of medications and affect how they behave in your body. That includes medications you might be taking to manage depression, anxiety, insomnia, and various other conditions. If you have a pre-existing health condition, even if you don’t take medication for it, it’s best to discuss magnesium with your doctor before taking any supplements.
Finally, keep in mind that magnesium supplements are not a substitute for professional mental health care. Magnesium can help to manage low mood, but if depression is seriously impacting your life or you’re finding it hard to cope, the most important thing to do is see your doctor. Together, you can come up with an effective plan to get you feeling great again. And if you want magnesium and other natural supplements to be a part of that plan, your doctor can help you to do that in the safest possible way.