When I was trying to get pregnant, my natural therapies GP (she was an actual doctor too) put me on a bucketload of supplements, magnesium one of them. “Take two before bed to relax your body,” she said. Desperate, I downed that magnesium for months. Did it work? Who knows? That’s the thing with supplements, do you ever know if they’re working?
A few years later I’m at a masseuse who feels the tight muscles in my back and tells me I should take magnesium, “to help stop the calcification of my muscles.” Huh? “When you’re lacking magnesium your muscles can get hard and almost calcifed.” Riiiiiight.
“You should try magnesium,” says a friend when I complain about how long it takes me to fall asleep, “it’s the only thing I’ve found to help with my anxiety and actually sleep.”
Magnesium is the new health buzzword, popping up in everything from sleep tonics to superfood powders and body lotions. It’s one supplement that both doctors and natural therapists can agree on.
Known as the “female mineral” it’s said to help relax muscles, and this is not a new thing - Epsom salts are made from magnesium sulphate and we’ve been bathing in it for years.
So why the sudden cure-all?
“Magnesium gets used up when we’re stressed,” says Anthia Koullourous who’s been a naturopath for 24 years and is the creator of Ovvio Organic teas, “we become deficient because of our high stress levels and our requirements of the mineral increase. Magnesium has a calming effect on our nervous system and adrenals, preventing excessive cortisol levels.”
So that would explain why I was prescribed it while aiming for a baby - one of the biggest factors while trying to conceive is lowering your stress levels (tricky when you’re super stressed out because you can’t get pregnant!).
“It’s also a great sleep promoter,” says Koullouros, “it’s a muscle relaxant and is anti-spasmodic, so it’s good for muscle cramping yes, but it also induces sleep hormones to encourage you to drift off.”
Which is what my friend was referring to when he said he takes it for his anxiety. Different levels of anxiety of course, need different treatments and I’m sure magnesium is not going to be enough for every single person.
“It’s particularly good to help with female reproductive hormones,” says Koullouros, “If someone comes to see me with painful periods or menstrual migraines - those awful ones you get around that time of the month - that’s when you prescribe magnesium. It also regulates blood sugar levels and normalises insulin. You get pure sugar cravings if you’re lacking magnesium in a PMS phase.”
Dr Joanna Hartnett, a lecturer in complementary medicines at the University of Technology says, “There is åevidence - small trials of a whole range of conditions like PMS and migraines that indicate it can be beneficial,” says Dr Hartnett, “There is softer evidence for it to help people sleep. But it could potentially play a role because it’s involved in so many functions that we’re not yet aware of.”
In the medical setting, magnesium is used to treat women with high blood pressure in pregnancy, “in aggressive and high doses,” says Dr Hartnett, “It’s involved in over 300 chemical processes at a cellular and tissue level. It’s a very important mineral, a low intake has been associated with chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.”
But what about the lotions that are now hitting stores, do they actually do anything to help your body?
“Magnesium is transdermally absorbed,” says Koullouros. Which means it sinks into the skin, so yes, you can take it orally or topically. But there have been no large randomised controlled trials to support the fact it helps with muscle cramps, so there’s no hard evidence to support that, “however that is one of the most common things it’s used for,” says Dr Hartnett, “There’s anecdotal evidence to support it.”
Do we need a supplement? “The number of Australians eating foods high in magnesium is low,” says Dr Hartnett, “but it’s better to eat these foods rather than take a supplement because in food, it comes in a matrix with other important nutrients which help the body use the mineral.”
We get magnesium from green leafy vegetables, almonds, bone broth, dairy and chocolate. “Real chocolate,” clarifies Koullourous. “So the next time you’ve got PMS or a rip roarer of a headache, try a cup of hot cacao milk.” That’ll give you a magnesium shot and also sounds deliciously comforting. Isn’t that what we’ve been wanting to hear all our lives?