It seems most folks are looking to get more or better quality sleep these days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 3 Americans doesn’t get enough sleep each night. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, and many people who struggle with this exhausting condition regularly may be reaching for sleeping pills and other pharmacological interventions to get a good night’s rest.
But such medications can cause potentially dangerous side effects in some patients. The good news is, however, that you may not need a prescription sleep aid to get better rest. Instead, for mild or occasional cases of insomnia, adhering to a basic sleep hygiene protocol and increasing your intake of magnesium might be enough to help you get the shuteye you need.
What Is Magnesium?
“Magnesium is a mineral found in our bones, muscles, soft tissue and body fluids,” says Amber Ingram, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Magnesium plays a role in a number of important processes in the body including:
— Building proteins.
— Building bone.
— Building DNA.
— Regulating muscle and nerve function.
— Regulating blood sugars.
— Regulating blood pressure.
— Regulating the circadian rhythm, or our natural sleep-wake cycle.
How Magnesium Impacts Sleep
” Studies have shown that magnesium is important for regulating our circadian rhythm and sleep cycles as well as help us to relax into our rest and digest mode,” says Marysa Cardwell, a nutrition therapist and contributing dietitian to Lose It!, a free calorie-counting app.
Magnesium can activate the parasympathetic nervous system — which helps you calm down and relax. It activates this system by regulating neurotransmitters in the brain and nervous system and the production of the hormone melatonin — a key component of the sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin is often sold as a sleep aid supplement.
How Much Magnesium Do I Need?
The Institute of Medicine’s Recommended Dietary Allowances table states that daily magnesium needs vary based on age and sex:
— Women aged 19 to 30: 310 milligrams.
— Women aged 31 and older: 320 milligrams
— Men aged 19 to 30: 400 milligrams
— Men aged 31 and older: 420 milligrams.
Children have lower magnesium needs, ranging from 30 milligrams in the first 6 months of life to 240 milligrams daily between years 9 and 13. Teens need more magnesium, with boys aged 14 to 18 needing 410 milligrams daily and girls 14 to 18 years old requiring 360 milligrams daily.
“Magnesium needs also change during pregnancy and lactation,” Cardwell says, so if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, talk with your doctor or midwife about your magnesium needs. She also notes that “your needs may be higher if you have chronic stress, consume higher levels of alcohol or are on a medication that makes you lose magnesium.”
If you’re not getting enough magnesium, this may interfere with your ability to fall asleep or stay asleep. Ingram recommends adding more of the following foods to your diet to help increase the amount of magnesium you consume:
— Whole grains.
— Fortified foods, such as cereals.
Dr. Caroline J. Cederquist, co-founder of bistroMD, a meal delivery company, notes that the other foods you’re eating can also impact how much magnesium your body is able to extract and use. “Magnesium absorption is impaired by diets high in processed foods and diets that are higher in calcium.” Choosing whole foods over processed items can help you get more magnesium, but Cederquist adds that “even those who have diets high in these healthy foods may be at risk because, over the years, magnesium content of foods has declined due to farming practices that don’t return magnesium to the soil.”
[See: Steps to Fall Asleep Fast.]
Supplementing Magnesium for Better Sleep
While most dietitians and doctors agree that it’s best to get your necessary vitamins and minerals from the foods in your diet rather than from supplements, sometimes adding a magnesium supplement makes sense. Cardwell notes that according to the 2013-16 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, “48% of Americans were not meeting their magnesium needs through food. That’s almost half the population not meeting the minimum needs for this essential nutrient.”
This may mean that it’s time to think about adding a dietary supplement. If you’re considering doing so, talk with your doctor first to make sure such an addition is safe for you.
“I have used magnesium supplements with many of my patients and it has been helpful with sleep, especially when paired with other good sleep hygiene habits,” Cardwell says. She drinks a glass of water with a magnesium citrate powder mix into it as part of her nightly winding-down for sleep routine.
Before you start supplementing, though, Cardwell recommends doing a little homework when it comes to selecting the right product. “The problem with supplements is that you need to find the most bio-available source,” she explains, meaning a form of magnesium that your body can digest and use easily. “Magnesium aspartate, citrate, lactate and chloride are the better-absorbed forms of magnesium.”
Any supplements that dissolve well in liquid are more absorbable by the gut, so any that don’t dissolve would be less optimal. Supplements that also contain high doses of zinc may impede magnesium absorption, so skip those as well.
And it’s also important to make sure that the company making the product is reputable. “Since dietary supplements are less regulated than food or medicine, please pick a supplement from a good company,” Cardwell adds.
The FDA recommends contacting the manufacturer of any supplement you’re considering buying to get more information about how the product is formulated and whether the contents of the product match what’s been used in studies that have shown a benefit of magnesium supplementation. Ask if the company will share information about any tests its done to guarantee the product contains a certain level of magnesium, and check with the Better Business Bureau to see whether there have been any complaints filed against the company.
Establishing Better Sleep Hygiene
One of the best ways to improve sleep and reduce insomnia is to develop better sleep hygiene, a pattern of habits and routines that help signal your body when it’s time to sleep and time to wake up. Our sleep-wake cycle craves consistency, so try making the following adjustments to help you get more restorative sleep:
— Establish set sleep and wake times. Go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning. This can help your body habituate to when it’s supposed to be asleep and when it’s supposed to be awake.
— Skip caffeine after noon. Caffeine is a stimulant found in coffee, energy drinks, black and green tea and chocolate. Consuming caffeine later in the day can keep you awake all night, so reach for the decaffeinated variety if you like having a cup of coffee after dinner.
— Get some sunlight every day. Sunlight is a powerful moderator of melatonin levels in the body, and making sure you get some time outdoors in the light every day can help regulate your melatonin levels. Getting even just a few minutes of sunlight, especially if you get outside soon after waking up, can help cue your body to being awake and ready to start the day.
— Create a consistent bedtime ritual. For many people, taking a hot bath shortly before bedtime and help you relax and feel ready to sleep.
— Turn off electronics. The blue light that emanates from most electronic screens can interfere with melatonin production and cause insomnia. So, shut off all your electronic devices (including the television) at least 30 minutes prior to bedtime to help ready your brain for sleep.
— Reserve your bed for sleep and sex. It might be tempting to watch television or read a book in bed, or worse, endlessly scroll through social medial feeds while lying down, but all of these activities can disassociate sleep from your bed and make it more difficult to fall asleep when it’s time. Instead, reserve your bed for only sleep and sex and banish all electronics from the bedroom.
— Keep your bedroom cool, dark and quiet. We sleep better when it’s cool, comfortable, dark and quiet in the bedroom. Black-out curtains and a white noise machine can help you make the room darker and block outside sounds, particularly if you work nights and have to sleep during the day.
— Consume more magnesium. Boosting your intake of magnesium and establishing a consistent sleep routine may provide the one-two punch you need for better sleep tonight, and a better day tomorrow.
— See a sleep specialist. If you’ve made all these changes and are still having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, it might be time to talk with a sleep medicine specialist for testing and treatment.
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