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Which is better for sleep: Magnesium or melatonin?

Magnesium supplements not only help with sleep, they also come with several other benefits.
Magnesium supplements not only help with sleep, they also come with several other benefits. (Getty Images)

Sleep can be hard to come by sometimes, which is why some people turn to over-the-counter supplements to help them get a good night’s rest. While melatonin is one of the most popular sleep aids, it’s not the only one. Magnesium supplements can also help people sleep, as well as deliver several other benefits.

Magnesium is a mineral that regulates blood sugar and blood pressure, supports muscle and nerve functions and helps build proteins and strong bones — and that’s all in addition to supporting sleep. But when compared to melatonin, is magnesium the better option to grab when scanning the pharmacy aisles for an OTC sleep aid? Here’s what experts have to say.

How does magnesium help with sleep?

Magnesium encourages sleep in a variety of ways. For one, it creates and interacts with GABA, a sleep-related neurotransmitter. “People who have healthy magnesium levels have better availability of GABA for initiating and staying asleep,” Chelsie Rohrscheib, a neuroscientist and the head sleep expert at Wesper, a sleep disorder diagnostics company, tells Yahoo Life.

The mineral also helps calm the body, particularly muscles. “Magnesium is involved in muscle activity and can help our muscles better relax during sleep,” Rohrscheib says, noting that this can be especially helpful for people who get nightly cramps or have restless legs syndrome.

There are mental health benefits as well, since magnesium can help lower anxiety. “Magnesium deficiencies have been found to correlate with stress,” she says, explaining that high levels of chronic stress increase cortisol, aka the stress hormone. “Cortisol is highly energizing and wake-promoting and can lead to poor sleep and insomnia,” she says. Taking magnesium can help reduce stress, helping you feel calmer and sleepier at night. (Bonus: It can help prevent migraines, which can interfere with both sleep and daily life.)

Taking magnesium can also help boost the body’s natural levels of melatonin. “Clinical studies have shown that low magnesium levels reduce the activity of the area of the brain that produces melatonin,” Rohrscheib says. “Thus, ensuring that your magnesium levels are healthy may help to keep melatonin availability high.”

It’s worth noting that magnesium may require some patience when used for sleep problems. “Magnesium has many benefits as well, particularly muscle relaxation and lower cortisol levels, but it can take a bit longer to work as a sleep supplement,” Dan Gartenberg, a psychologist specializing in sleep science and advisor to CPAP.com, tells Yahoo Life. “Some people may notice effects within a couple of hours, while others may not see results for a couple of weeks.”

Magnesium vs. melatonin: What are the side effects?

Both supplements can cause some side effects, and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding or have certain health conditions such as poor renal function should talk to their doctor before taking magnesium or melatonin supplements, notes Gartenberg.

Magnesium can cause stomach upset, which is a sign to lower your dose. “Taking too much magnesium could also cause potentially dangerous symptoms,” says Gartenberg, “including numbness and tingling, low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and muscle weakness,” any of which warrants being seen by a health care provider.

Melatonin can cause daytime grogginess and intense dreams, Rohrscheib says, especially if taken late at night or too close to when it’s time to wake up. The most common side effects include headache, dizziness and nausea, Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a physician specializing in sleep medicine, internal medicine, pulmonary care and critical care, tells Yahoo Life.

Is magnesium or melatonin better for promoting sleep?

While both are effective, in general, magnesium may be the better long-term option for a good night’s rest. “Despite the lack of studies, magnesium is generally considered safe for long-term use when taken as directed, potentially offering a more sustainable solution for sleep issues,” Dr. Chester Wu, a psychiatrist and sleep specialist, tells Yahoo Life. “There may be potentially more beneficial effects of magnesium supplementation on sleep in populations with magnesium deficiency, but more research is needed.”

Dr. Ken Zweig, an internist at Northern Virginia Family Practice, agrees. “While both are quite safe and well tolerated — as long as they are purchased from a reputable manufacturer — magnesium may be slightly better than melatonin,” he tells Yahoo Life. “Neither has been shown to have any long-term side effects, and any side effects one might experience are typically dose-dependent and will resolve quickly with lowering the dose or stopping the medication.”

However, Wu believes that for some individuals, melatonin can be a good option. “I recommend melatonin to patients who might have circadian rhythm disorders or if they are older,” he says.

As far as effectiveness, Zweig doesn’t believe there’s a uniform answer. The difference, he says, pertains more to which sleep struggle a person is experiencing. “Melatonin is typically touted to promote sleep onset, while magnesium may be better for maintaining sleep throughout the night,” he says.

How often a person plans to take the sleep supplement also matters. “I’d say magnesium is better for taking it all the time, while melatonin is good for taking periodically to shift rhythms, on particularly stressful nights or in very small dosages every night,” Gartenberg says.

How to choose the right magnesium supplement for sleep

For those considering taking magnesium, it’s important to note that there are several different types. Gartenberg says that magnesium threonate is the way to go to enhance sleep quality and support memory and learning. For overall relaxation and improved sleep, he recommends magnesium glycinate (also known as bisglycinate), which helps calm the nervous system and stimulates melatonin production. Wu adds that magnesium citrate, magnesium glycinate and magnesium oxide are all effective, easily absorbed by the body and less likely to cause digestive issues.

Although the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of magnesium is typically about 400 to 420 milligrams of magnesium per day for adult men and 310 to 360 milligrams a day for adult women, it’s recommended that people take no more than 350 milligrams of magnesium in supplement form daily to avoid side effects. Keep in mind that you may already be getting some magnesium through what you eat since the mineral is found in green, leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. “Your RDA limits also include any magnesium you get from your diet, not just supplements,” Gartenberg notes. “It can be easy for you to take too much if you add a magnesium supplement on top of your diet.”

Experts say it’s best to take it slow when starting magnesium supplements. “Patients should start on a low dose and increase it gradually to find the best dose that works for them,” Zweig says.