How does magnesium help with sleep?

If you suffer from getting to sleep or don't feel like you are getting the deep, restful sleep you need, you may have been advised to take magnesium. If so, have you wondered what magnesium actually does for your body and why it affects your sleep? What is its relationship with melatonin, your sleep hormone? Should you take it as a supplement or can you get enough magnesium from natural sources and which ones are the best?

Read on to learn how magnesium has a direct relationship with sleep, how it can help increase your melatonin levels, and which foods are best to get adequate daily amounts of this vital mineral. 

Magnesium is a mineral, but what does it do in our bodies?

Not only is magnesium one of the most abundant minerals on earth, it is also extremely important for your health. It’s involved in hundreds of chemical reactions throughout your body - regulating muscle and nerve function, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, along with helping to make protein, strengthen bones, and repair and build DNA. 

And when it comes to sleep, magnesium is a key ingredient to activating your sleep cycle. Exactly how it operates is not clear, but studies have shown it provides assistance in falling asleep faster and also reaching the deeper sleep we need for rejuvenation and restoration.

But the serious health issue is that many people aren’t getting their daily requirement, with close to half of the US population consuming less than the required amount of magnesium from food.

How much do we need?

Our body can’t make magnesium so it needs to be provided by our diet. And because it isn’t stored by the body, either being eliminated through sweat or urine, we need to replenish our stores daily. This quantity needed depends on age and sex, and for a comprehensive look at the average daily amounts by group, refer to the NIH (National Institutes of Health) for all age groups. 

On average, men need 400-420mg per day, and women need 310-320mg daily. The high point is during the teen years (13-19) when our requirements are at their maximum, a challenging time to get this independent minded age group to consume foods that aren’t processed… Luckily there is some teen-friendly food, such as almonds and dark chocolate, or a smoothie combining a few from the list below, they may consider acceptable.

How does it relate to melatonin?

The production of melatonin is a multi-step process.

It starts with the intake of tryptophan (found in many protein foods like poultry but also salmon, eggs, tofu, whole-grain oats, chickpeas, and leafy greens). Tryptophan converts to serotonin, and then eventually to melatonin. For more information on this conversion pathway, check out a previous article

The conversion of serotonin to melatonin could be where magnesium plays a starring role. A number of studies have found a significant association between very low magnesium intake and depression, which could be caused by corresponding low levels of serotonin. It’s possible to conclude then that low magnesium intake, leading to low serotonin levels, also has a lowering effect on melatonin production, with consequential poor sleep. 

How do you know if you’re not getting enough magnesium?

In the short-term there aren’t clearly obvious signs you are suffering from a lack of magnesium. It’s over the longer term that the effects manifest themselves, in serious ways. Low magnesium levels have been associated with these long-term health conditions:

  • Cardiovascular disease and stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Migraine headache
  • Asthma
  • Colon cancer

An easy way to get a sense if you are lacking in magnesium is to review your diet. Your body doesn’t produce magnesium; its source is from the food you eat. If your diet is highly-processed and you are eating very few of these magnesium-rich foods listed below, it’s highly likely that you aren’t getting sufficient amounts for your body to function optimally. On the bright side, there is an easy fix. 

What are the best food sources of magnesium?

Magnesium is available in foods that are easy to find and easy to prepare. Research has shown that people who eat a healthy, balanced diet are unlikely to suffer from magnesium deficiency and in fact, it’s possible to hit your daily levels by adding just a couple of magnesium-rich foods to your diet. Limiting your intake of processed foods is important too, as some of these foods strip away nutrients, potentially lowering their  overall magnesium content. 

Top foods with a high magnesium content:

(in brackets - serving size and magnesium content in milligrams):

  • Pumpkin seeds, kernels (1 oz, approx. 85 seeds, cupped handful = 168mg)
  • Almonds (1 oz, approx. 23 almonds, 1 handful = 80mg 
  • Spinach (3 cups raw, ½ cup boiled = 78mg)
  • Cashews (1 oz, approx. 18 cashews, 1 handful = 74mg)
  • Black beans (½ cup = 60mg)
  • Edamame, cooked & shelled (½ cup = 50mg)
  • Dark chocolate 60+% cacao (1 oz, 1 small square = 50mg)
  • Avocado (medium size = 44mg)
  • Banana (medium size = 32mg)
  • Cocoa powder (1 tablespoon = 27mg)
  • Salmon (3 oz, size of your palm = 26mg)
  • Chicken breast (3 oz, size of your palm = 22mg)

For a comprehensive list, check out this article provided by the Cleveland clinic

How much do I need to eat to reach my adequate level of magnesium daily?

To achieve the recommended daily intake, it’s not that challenging. Just by selecting a few foods from this list, in relatively small quantities, you can reach your goal and feel the health benefits of naturally sourced magnesium.

A cupped handful of pumpkin seed kernels - add to lunch/dinner or have as a snack (168mg)

1 handful of almonds - afternoon snack (80mg)

3 cups of raw spinach - as your greens for lunch or dinner (78mg)

1 medium avocado - for breakfast, lunch or dinner (44mg)

3 oz serving of salmon - for lunch or dinner (26mg)

Including these foods in your diet for the day, you would have ingested just under 400mg - from only needing to eat 5 foods!  

For women, that is more than you sufficient, and for men, that is the perfect amount. This just shows how easy it is to achieve your daily intake.

As you can see pumpkin seed kernels are the clear winner! For women, a cupped handful alone provides you with over 50% of your daily requirement. I like to sprinkle them on my salads, to give it crunch and texture or if you love a smoothie, you should give this one a try, as a delicious magnesium booster, combining a few of items on this list - bananas, pumpkin seeds, and almonds. Add cocoa powder for an extra boost! 

Can I get too much magnesium?

Magnesium naturally present in food is not harmful. The kidneys, as your detoxifier, rids excess quantities in the urine. But if you are taking supplementary magnesium, it’s important to not take more than is prescribed for your age and sex, unless recommended by a healthcare provider. High doses of supplemental magnesium can cause gastrointestinal issues, but this is not the case when taken as a naturally occurring substance in foods. 

Conclusion

Magnesium is vital for health and well-being and the great news is, it’s not hard to reach your daily intake naturally. For some people supplementing with magnesium may be necessary, especially if you are dealing with long-term deficiency, but for most of us, it’s a nutrient we can add to our daily diets in an easy and delicious way. Even teenagers who need high levels of magnesium, should be able to find some foods on this list that are acceptable. 

So next time you are at the grocery store, add a few of these natural foods to your shopping cart, rather than dosing yourself with another man-made supplement.

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