4 Magnesium Mistakes Most People Don’t Know They’re Making

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Magnesium is an essential element for human health, and chances are that you're not getting enough. It was estimated in 2016 that half of U.S. adults might not get enough magnesium, and that could be having widespread effects on health and wellbeing, from sleep to mental health. Magnesium has been popular lately as a sleep aid. Research does show that magnesium is tied to the function of the body's internal clock, the cycle of chemicals and hormones that controls how much we sleep and when we wake up, and that increasing your levels might influence your sleep patterns. However, it's more complex than just 'add magnesium, get better ZZZs' — and there are other interactions and consequences you should know about, too.

Most of us get our magnesium intake from food; the Food and Drug Association explains that green leafy vegetables — in particular "spinach, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains" — are great for magnesium intake, but also cautions that refined grains often have a lot of magnesium content removed in processing. If you're taking magnesium supplements to boost your natural levels of the mineral, for sleep or some other purpose, you might be making some errors — and these guidelines are here to help you avoid them.

1. Hoping It Will Cure Underlying Sleep Issues

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It's definitely true that magnesium may help sleep in some people. "People with low magnesium often experience restless sleep, waking frequently during the night," Dr. Michael Breus, the Sleep Doctor, in 2017. If you have healthy magnesium levels, he noted, that likely helps you sleep. "Magnesium plays a role in supporting deep, restorative sleep by maintaining healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep. Research indicates supplemental magnesium can improve sleep quality, especially in people with poor sleep."

However, it's not clear if magnesium can help everybody with their sleep, particularly if they have underlying issues that are making sleep more difficult. A 2012 study on magnesium's effects on sleep only focused on the elderly, and while it found that the mineral can help with restless-leg syndrome, there have only been very limited studies on how it affects other issues, like sleep apnea or stress-induced insomnia. It's also unclear if it helps recovery from jet lag. "The research," wrote Colleen de Bellefonds for VICE in 2018, "is not enough to lead most psychiatrists to recommend it to their patients."

If you're struggling with sleep because of environmental issues like stress, shift work, or poor sleep hygiene, magnesium might not be able to help very much.

2. Taking Magnesium With Antibiotics Or Other Medications With Potential Interactions

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While magnesium is a supplement and is naturally found in a lot of foods, it's not completely problem-free when combined with other medications in high doses. Pharmacist Stacy Wiegman wrote that people who take "digoxin, Promacta (eltrombopag), licorice, mycophenolate mofetil, or Myfortic (mycophenolic acid)" need to be particularly careful if they want to add magnesium to their supplements.

However, there are many other categories of drug that have 'moderate' interactions with magnesium supplements. (Interactions are rated as mild, moderate or severe.) On the list are antacids, three classes of antibiotic (aminoglycoside, quinolone and tetracycline), diabetes medication, medication for high blood pressure or blood-clotting, diuretics and muscle relaxants. If you're on any of these medications, you should consult a doctor before picking up extra magnesium tablets.

3. Thinking It Will Automatically Boost Your Mood

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Experts disagree on whether magnesium supplements can make an active difference in your mental health. A 2006 study theorized that magnesium deficiency might actually lie behind some cases of depression, and Emily Deans MD wrote in Psychology Today in 2011 that there are interesting links between magnesium, depression and anxiety.

However, it remains unclear whether taking magnesium supplements is necessary for people with anxiety or depression, or if high levels of magnesium in your diet are sufficient. The National Health Service reviewed a study in 2017 that attempted to find whether magnesium is a potential treatment for depression, and found flaws in its results. "The lack of a placebo group in the study means we cannot be sure whether magnesium is a useful treatment for depression," they wrote. "We know that the placebo effect is real, and that it can bias results of clinical trials if not tested for by a placebo group in the study [...]. It's entirely possible that the results shown with magnesium pills are due to the placebo effect, and that they would have worn off with a longer study period."

The evidence doesn't support taking magnesium for anxiety either. Scientists wrote in a review of research in 2017, "Existing evidence is suggestive of a beneficial effect of magnesium on subjective anxiety in anxiety vulnerable samples. However, the quality of the existing evidence is poor." There needs to be a lot more work on magnesium's effects on anxiety and depression before its particular benefits become clear.

4. Taking Too Much

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Not everybody has a magnesium deficiency. Healthline estimates that "less than two percent of Americans have been estimated to experience magnesium deficiency," which is very different to failing to get the recommended intake every day. The symptoms of magnesium deficiency are often pretty serious. If you don't have them but are concerned your magnesium levels are low, it's not a great idea to overload on supplements.

"Individual dosing will vary, and can vary widely depending on an individual’s magnesium levels," Dr. Breus said. " In general, it is recommended that users begin with the lowest suggested dose, and gradually increase as needed." He notes that general recommendations can vary between 100 and 350mg per day, which is a big jump.

"The risk of ever experiencing a magnesium overdose is extremely low for a typically healthy person. Still, it’s possible to have too much in certain cases," Healthline wrote. Overdose symptoms are drastic, and can include diarrhea, nausea and damaged kidney function. Slightly too much magnesium will make your kidneys work hard to rid your body of the excess mineral, so if you have a history of kidney problems, overdoing the magnesium isn't a good idea.

Even though magnesium is available over the counter, it's still a good idea to talk to a doctor before you start taking it. Check on dosages, note all the medications you're currently taking, and have a conversation about what you'd like magnesium to achieve. Hopefully you'll avoid pitfalls and get the most out of this essential mineral.