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What you need to know before buying a magnesium supplement


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Magnesium is all the rage right now, and for good reason. Nutritionist Adrienne Dowd, RD, of Parsley Health explains, “In general, magnesium is a mineral that is an essential nutrient, meaning we cannot make it ourselves and must get it from food or supplements. It’s important for bone health and energy production, among other things. Most people don’t get enough magnesium in their diet and are, therefore, deficient.” To make matters worse,  magnesium is also depleted by common health enemy No. 1: stress.

Low levels, Dowd warns, can be ruinous to your health. “Chronically low intakes of magnesium can induce changes in biochemical pathways that can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and migraine headaches.” Luckily, it can be replenished via foods rich in magnesium—pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, halibut, tuna, quinoa, buckwheat, spinach, and certain beans, according to Dowd—or, more efficiently, via supplement.

Before you “add to cart” (or toss in your actual cart at the vitamin store), however, it’s important to understand the various types of magnesium, and what each is meant to accomplish. Surprisingly, there is great diversity among them, and a wide range of maladies—from heartburn to insomnia to acne, and more—can be treated with the proper supplement application. 

Dowd decodes the different types of magnesium supplements below.

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Magnesium supplement types
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Magnesium citrate

Feeling a little…backed up? “This type of magnesium is bound to citric acid, which allows for an easier absorption and has a gentle laxative effect,” Dowd says.

Magnesium glycinate

“Magnesium Glycinate is bound to the amino acid glycine,” Dowd says. “It has increased bioavailability and has a calming effect. It can be used for relaxation, increased sleep quality, and stress relief.”

Magnesium oxide

“Magnesium Oxide is less bioavailable and when bound with water to make magnesium hydroxide, it is generally used to alleviate heartburn and constipation—for example, Milk of Magnesia,” Dowd says. She explains that Milk of Magnesia provides 500 mg of magnesium hydroxide (magnesium oxide, plus water) per tablespoon. “The directions recommend taking up to 4 tablespoons per day,” Dowd says. “Although such a dose of magnesium is well above the safe upper level, some of the magnesium is not absorbed because of the medication’s laxative effect.”

Magnesium chloride

Not all magnesium supplements come in pill form: Magnesium chloride can be applied topically to be absorbed through the skin in a couple different ways. “Magnesium oil is actually magnesium chloride flakes mixed with water,” Dowd explains. “Magnesium lotion is typically magnesium chloride in a base of coconut or shea butter. Both are great for muscle spasms or cramps and are also used for dermatitis, eczema, and acne.”

Magnesium sulfate

You might have some of this variety in your pantry already and not know it. “Magnesium Sulfate is more commonly known as epsom salts,” Dowd says. “Epsom salt baths are great for muscle soreness, tightness, aches, and pains.  Magnesium sulfate can also be taken orally and causes a laxative effect.”

Additional types of magnesium

Dowd says she’s less familiar with other types of magnesium, such as lactate (which is used as a food additive) and phosphate (the form of magnesium found in teeth and bones), and urges you to use magnesium aspartate and glutamate with caution. “[They’re] considered ‘excitatory neurotransmitters’ and excess amounts can cause ‘excitotoxicity’ and lead to death,” she says. A great reminder that you should check with your doc before adding any supplements to your regimen. 

Want to know more about which supplements are right for you? If a bloated belly is your issue, here are your 7 best bets. If you’d like stronger, healthier nails, these 6 supplements will do the trick.

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