Understanding the Difference Between the 5 Types of Magnesium Will Help You Reap the Most Benefits

Photo: Stocksy/Luis Velasco

Magnesium is all the rage right now, and for good reason. Adrienne Dowd, RD, a nutrition expert at 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 is 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.”

Food sources of magnesium

Luckily, your magnesium levels can be replenished via foods. According to Down, these are the best magnesium-rich food sources:

  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Brazil nuts
  • Almonds
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Cashews
  • Shredded wheat
  • Soy milk
  • Salmon
  • Halibut
  • Tuna
  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Spinach
  • Black beans
  • Edamame

How much magnesium do I need?

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), or the average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all healthy individuals, for magnesium varies by age, sex, and other factors. The RDA for women who aren't pregnant or breast feeding is 310 mg for ages 19-30, 320 mg for age 31 and older. The RDA for men is 400 mg for ages 19-30, 420 mg for age 31 and older.

If food sources are still not getting you to these numbers, you should consult a physician and/or registered dietitian to see if a supplement might be right for you. Adults, however, should be careful not to exceed the upper limit for magnesium in dietary supplements, which is 350 mg. High intakes of magnesium from dietary supplements and medications can cause diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal cramping. Extremely high intakes of magnesium can lead to irregular heartbeat and cardiac arrest, according to the National Institutes of Health

And before you “add to cart” (or toss in your actual cart at the vitamin store), it’s important to understand the various types of magnesium supplements, 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. 

Below, a nutritionist decodes the different types of magnesium supplements.

1. Magnesium citrateTo improve your digestion

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.

2. Magnesium glycinate: To improve sleep

"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."

3. Magnesium oxide: To treat heartburn

"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.”

4. Magnesium chloride: To soothe skin issues

Not all magnesium supplements come in pill form: Magnesium chloride can 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."

5. Magnesium sulfate: To relieve muscle aches

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."

Other types of magnesium supplements: To use with extreme caution

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 can lead to death," she says. (Basically, this means your nervous system gets overstimulated.)

A great reminder that you should check with your doc before adding any supplements to your regimen—even those that you think are totally safe. 

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