Fibromyalgia is a debilitating chronic pain condition that is still very poorly understood. For many sufferers who struggle to find effective treatments, magnesium has become a popular option. But can magnesium help with fibromyalgia? Let’s find out…
What is fibromyalgia?
According to the CDC, fibromyalgia affects around 2% of US adults. It’s a syndrome or a collection of signs and symptoms that typically occur together but have no definite cause. And because we don’t know exactly what causes it, fibromyalgia is notoriously hard to treat.
The main symptom of fibromyalgia is widespread chronic pain, usually with tender spots all over the body. Some people also experience:
- Hypersensitivity to pain.
- Sensitivity to things that wouldn’t normally be painful, e.g. light touch.
- Muscle stiffness.
- Extreme fatigue.
- Difficulties with cognitive functions like memory or attention, often referred to as “fibro fog”.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Headaches or migraines.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
The toll of dealing with chronic pain, fatigue, and other fibromyalgia symptoms can also leave some people struggling with depression and anxiety.
There is no cure for fibromyalgia, so treatment focuses on relieving the symptoms and making them easier to live with. People are usually offered some combination of:
- Medication, e.g. antidepressants and painkillers.
- Therapy, e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and counseling.
- Lifestyle advise, e.g. exercise and relaxation techniques.
Unfortunately, the side effects of commonly prescribed fibromyalgia medications often bring their own problems. For example, certain drugs can cause weight gain, which can further aggravate pain, or irritate the digestive system, which can worsen IBS symptoms. And while exercise has proven to be very helpful, that’s not always feasible for people who are exhausted, sleep-deprived, and aching all over!
Given the impact of fibromyalgia and the drawbacks of these few limited treatment options, fibro sufferers often turn to natural supplements like magnesium for relief. But does magnesium help fibromyalgia?
What is magnesium and can it help fibromyalgia?
Magnesium is an essential mineral involved in hundreds of your body’s most important processes. These include brain function, energy metabolism, emotional regulation, sleep, and muscle function.
You might notice that this lines up with a lot of the functions that are impaired by fibromyalgia. There are in fact a lot of crossovers between the symptoms of magnesium deficiency and fibromyalgia, leading some to speculate that magnesium deficiency might actually play a part in the development of fibromyalgia.
In this Psychology Today article, evolutionary psychiatrist Dr. Emily Deans MD talks about a study in which researchers looked at the relationship between fibromyalgia and magnesium levels in the body. They found that in women with fibromyalgia, magnesium levels were generally much lower. Not only that, lower magnesium levels were associated with worse fibromyalgia symptoms, like tender points, depression, anxiety, headaches, numbness, sleep problems, and fatigue. Further, taking magnesium citrate supplements seemed to help.
This is just one of a few theories at this stage, but the relationship between fibromyalgia and magnesium deficiency seems to be supported by other research. For example, Korean researchers found that women with fibromyalgia had significantly lower levels of magnesium than healthy women.
We can’t yet say for certain that magnesium deficiency contributes to fibromyalgia, or that taking magnesium supplements definitely eases symptoms. However, a lot of people do swear by magnesium supplements to help relieve their symptoms. Let’s take a look at how magnesium may help and why…
So how can magnesium supplements help with fibromyalgia?
1. Extreme sensitivity
A hallmark of fibromyalgia is extreme sensitivity to pain. That might include feeling the pain more intensely or feeling pain in response to things that wouldn’t normally be painful, like touch or a light bump. This is thought to happen because of certain neurological changes that alter pain perception.
One example is a receptor called NMDA. To keep it simple, this receptor is activated when there is some kind of painful stimulus. For unknown reasons, it becomes hyper-excitable in people with fibromyalgia. It then responds to pain in an exaggerated way, and may even misinterpret other physical sensations as pain, too.
Magnesium is known to block the NMDA receptor, essentially calming down the exaggerated pain response. This study and this study both demonstrate that magnesium can be used to successfully relieve this type of pain by blocking NMDA receptors. (It’s worth noting that the magnesium was given by IV, though, not by a supplement.)
Another example is a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. In people suffering from fibromyalgia, there is sometimes an excessive release of this chemical, which causes painful knots and trigger points around the body. Again, magnesium is able to block the release of acetylcholine, which may help to relieve the discomfort at the source.
2. Muscle pain
Fibromyalgia can cause muscle pain, stiffness, and spasms, where the muscles contract (squeeze) tightly and can’t be relaxed. This is also a very common sign of magnesium deficiency, as one of magnesium’s most important jobs is to help the muscles to relax after a contraction.
According to the Psychology Today article we mentioned earlier, there’s a theory that when magnesium levels are too low, the body will dump its magnesium stores into the blood to make sure enough magnesium is available for the heart. But that means the muscles, which also need magnesium, are starved of this essential mineral, leaving them vulnerable to spasms and pain.
Whatever the underlying mechanism, magnesium does in fact seem to help with fibromyalgia muscle pain. Magnesium malate was shown in one study to significantly improve fibro pain symptoms. In another, patients reported that magnesium malate improved their muscle pain and said that they had fewer tender spots around the body. Another type, magnesium chloride, has also been shown to reduce muscle pain in conditions like fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia can cause extreme physical fatigue. For some people, this can be triggered by even just mild exertion and can leave them exhausted and bed-bound for days. And if you’ve experienced this yourself, you’ll know that it can make work, exercise, and daily tasks feel impossible.
One possible explanation for this is a lack of ATP, the molecule that powers every single cell in your body. People with fibromyalgia have been found to have low levels of ATP in their muscles, which could explain feelings of physical exhaustion.
Interestingly, you need adequate levels of magnesium to support the process of making ATP. You also need magnesium to bind to ATP and keep it stable, otherwise, it will be broken down into other compounds instead of being stored or used for energy. This lends further support to the idea that fibromyalgia and magnesium deficiency are linked.
Two types of magnesium are thought to be especially good for fatigue: magnesium citrate, with citric acid, and magnesium malate, with malic acid. Citric acid and malic acid are both essential ingredients in the Krebs cycle, the process your body uses to create ATP. Citric acid activates and maintains the cycle, and malic acid acts as a catalyst to maximize ATP production.
4. Brain fog
Your brain uses around 20% of the ATP in your body, which may also explain another common fibromyalgia symptom. Brain fog, or “fibro fog”, often causes problems with cognitive functions like memory, learning, attention, and speech. Some people describe feeling “zoned out” or “spacey” and might find it difficult to concentrate on tasks or remember important things.
As well as supporting ATP production, magnesium is generally believed to promote brain health and cognitive function by helping your neurons (brain cells) to communicate with each other effectively. There’s a particular type that stands out.
Magnesium L-threonate, made with threonic acid, was designed by MIT scientists to cross the blood-brain barrier with maximum efficiency. If you think of the blood-brain barrier as a bouncer that controls what gets in and out of the brain, then L-threonate makes sure that as much magnesium as possible gets past the door. This makes for impressive evidence-backed benefits.
In a landmark human study, magnesium L-threonate not only significantly improved people’s cognitive abilities, it actually reversed cognitive aging. At the beginning of the trial, participants had an average age of 57, but due to cognitive decline, they had an average “functional brain age” of almost 70. By the end of the study, the average functional brain age was 60.6 — more than nine years younger!
One possible explanation for the cognitive benefits is that magnesium L-threonate increases the number of stem cells in key brain regions. These stem cells are vital for the renewal and recovery of brain cells, so the more the better!
Fibromyalgia is commonly associated with depression and anxiety. You might not be surprised by now to hear that magnesium deficiency is related to mood disorders, too! In an analysis of over 8,800 people, those with the lowest magnesium intake were found to have a 22% higher risk of depression.
Magnesium is involved in lots of biochemical reactions in the brain and, as we mentioned earlier, helps neurons to communicate with each other. It’s especially important for creating serotonin, an important neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood, mental health, and sleep.
People with mood disorders, including those who suffer from fibromyalgia too, report that magnesium supplements help them to keep their mood balanced. There’s lots of evidence to support this, with one group of researchers claiming that magnesium is a promising treatment option for clinical depression and might even reverse stress-induced damage in the brain.
One study found that supplementing with magnesium actually improved the effectiveness of antidepressant medications. Magnesium chloride specifically has been shown to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety when used alongside other treatments, and it’s been shown to be as effective as a common antidepressant for improving depression symptoms. In another study, magnesium glycinate was shown to improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
Note that in most cases, magnesium seems to work best as part of a wider treatment plan, rather than a substitute for professional treatment. If you’re being treated for depression or anxiety, be sure to discuss magnesium with your primary doctor before adding it to your treatment plan.
Fibromyalgia can keep you up at night, which only makes pain, fatigue, and low mood worse. Even if you do manage to get a decent amount of sleep, fibromyalgia can stop you from getting the deep, quality sleep you need to feel restored the next day.
When it comes to sleep, it seems that fibromyalgia and magnesium deficiency create something of a vicious cycle. When fibromyalgia keeps you awake, sleep deprivation can cause your magnesium levels to drop. In turn, low magnesium levels cause insomnia by disturbing pretty much every aspect of your sleep cycle:
- The body clock tells you when it’s time to sleep.
- The hormone that makes you feel sleepy.
- The relaxed nervous system state helps you drift off and stay asleep.
The good news is that a magnesium supplement can help to restore these functions and break the cycle. Magnesium glycinate, made with an amino acid called glycine, is especially good for this.
We already know that glycine on its own can calm the brain and improve sleep quality in insomniacs. People also say that it reduces mental fatigue and sluggishness the next day and helps them to feel more lively and clear-headed.
When you take glycine with magnesium, as magnesium glycinate, the results are even better. Research shows that this combo improves:
- Sleep time.
- Sleep onset latency, or how quickly you fall asleep.
- Sleep efficiency, or the proportion of your time in bed that you spend asleep.
Learn more about magnesium for sleep.
Unfortunately, fibromyalgia and migraines often come as a package deal. It’s not clear why, but it could be something to do with the way fibromyalgia alters neurological activity and causes overexcitement in certain parts of the nervous system. In addition to migraine pain, this could also explain common migraine symptoms like noise sensitivity and visual disturbances.
There are several types in particular that are strongly backed by research. A 2021 study found magnesium oxide to be as effective as valproate sodium, a common migraine medication, at preventing migraine attacks. When given to children with migraines, magnesium oxide led to fewer “headache days” with less intensity. Another type, magnesium citrate, has been shown in various studies to reduce the frequency of migraine attacks by as much as 41.6%.
Which magnesium supplement is best for fibromyalgia?
There are lots of different types of magnesium supplements that may help with fibromyalgia symptoms, but the best one for you depends on which particular symptoms you’re trying to target. To summarise:
- Extreme sensitivity — any, but choose a well-absorbed type like magnesium malate or magnesium glycinate.
- Muscle pain — magnesium malate or magnesium glycinate.
- Fatigue — magnesium malate or magnesium citrate (but magnesium malate is better absorbed and tolerated).
- Brain fog — magnesium L-threonate.
- Mood and sleep — magnesium glycinate.
- Migraines — magnesium citrate or magnesium oxide (magnesium citrate is better absorbed and tolerated).
How much magnesium should I take for fibromyalgia?
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 fibromyalgia?
Magnesium supplements are generally well-tolerated and safe for most people. However, if you’re taking medications for your fibromyalgia symptoms, you should be aware that magnesium can affect how some medications work. Common fibro-related medications like antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, sleep medications, muscle relaxers and pain medications can all interact with magnesium, so it’s important to speak to your doctor about how to take magnesium safely.
Note that some medical conditions can also affect how magnesium is absorbed and used in your body. For example, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is common in people with fibromyalgia and can limit magnesium absorption. Other conditions like kidney disease, on the other hand, can prevent you from getting rid of excess magnesium and cause a potentially harmful build-up. It’s always best to speak to your doctor first to be on the safe side.