Last summer, a photographer named Tyler Wesley posted a video on TikTok claiming that he no longer had anxiety after 30 years of being a “huge sufferer”. He credited a supplement: 500mg of magnesium, combined with vitamin D3.
The magnesium hashtag has over a billion views on TikTok, and people continue to rave about the mineral eradicating their anxious feelings.
It’s not the first time people have hoped that a vitamin or supplement could fix a mental illness. Back in the 1950s, psychiatrists unsuccessfully tried to treat schizophrenia and psychosis with forms of niacin, a B vitamin. The chemist Linus Pauling widely pushed his discredited belief that high doses of vitamin C could cure various diseases; he took around 18,000mg per day (the recommended daily amount is 75 to 90mg a day).
But magnesium may show more promise than other vitamin fads. The body needs magnesium to function, and it plays many important roles in the body and in the brain. There’s intriguing evidence to suggest it might reduce symptoms of depression or anxiety in some people.
At this time of year, there’s a big push for quick health remedies. For most people magnesium is relatively harmless to try, but mental distress is complex and usually results from a number of different factors. Staking too much on a single supplement’s outcome could lead you to feel even worse if it doesn’t dramatically change your life.
Here’s what we know about the effects of magnesium on anxiety.
What does the research say about magnesium and anxiety?
Nearly half of Americans get less than the recommended levels of magnesium from their diets, said Louise Dye, a professor at the school of food science and nutrition at the University of Leeds; the recommended intake ranges from 300 to 400mg for most adults, depending on age and sex. And there is evidence that getting more magnesium could be beneficial for how much anxiety people say they feel.
In a review paper from Dye and her colleagues, four out of eight recent studies on magnesium showed positive effects on anxiety. A 2018 randomized clinical trial in outpatient primary care clinics found that people with mild-to-moderate symptoms of depression felt better after taking magnesium. But this study was open label, meaning people knew what they were taking and were more susceptible to placebo effects, when people’s expectations influence how they feel.
How might magnesium help anxiety or depression? “We know a lot about how magnesium works in the body,” said Katie Holton, a nutritional neuroscientist at American University.
Magnesium seems to have an overall calming effect. It may inhibit stress responses by preventing over-excitation through a neurotransmitter called glutamate. Too much glutamate can disrupt brain processes and has been associated with multiple mental health conditions, Holton added. Magnesium is helpful for making enzymes that create serotonin and melatonin, and it’s also thought that it might be neuroprotective by regulating the expression of an important protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF, which helps with neuronal plasticity, learning, and memory, among other roles.
But more research is needed to properly understand its effects. It’s not yet clear what dosage people need to feel better, or how it performs against other interventions like medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s also not known yet if magnesium is most helpful as an anxiety salve for those who are deficient, compared to those whose intake is adequate.
How can I increase my magnesium intake?
People with certain medical conditions or taking other drugs shouldn’t take magnesium supplements, so talking to a doctor is crucial before taking any new supplement – and especially before stopping any other medications. One reason why vitamins are so appealing is that people often prefer natural interventions to synthetic ones, especially for mental illness. But going off prescribed medications, like antidepressants, in favor of vitamins is discouraged.
If you want to see how magnesium affects you, Holton said she would encourage people to first try more magnesium in their diet. Foods like seeds, nuts, salmon, whole grains, potatoes, beans, green leafy vegetables like spinach and swiss chard, and fruits like avocado and banana are all high in magnesium.
For the supplement route, Dye recommended certain forms of the mineral: magnesium citrate, lactate or pidolate salts, and chelated forms of magnesium, which are more bioavailable than others. It’s important to note that supplements aren’t closely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, although brands that are verified by the non-profit US Pharmacopeia are checked for quality and dosages.
It’s best to think of magnesium as a tool in a larger toolbox. “In our research, as with any other intervention, it did not work for everyone,” said Emily Tarleton, an assistant professor of health science at Vermont State University. There are many other deficiencies that might disrupt mental functioning, and addressing just one if others are at play can only do so much.
Are there any downsides to adding magnesium to my diet?
There’s potential harm in promising a radical mental change to people who are feeling lost and desperate for some improvement. Magnesium supplements are being sold in the TikTok shop, so there’s an incentive for creators to promote the certainty of how much it helps.
Philosopher of psychiatry Jake Jackson wrote that people with mental illnesses are constantly facing conflicting opinions and debates about how best to live with conditions like anxiety or depression, a state he calls being “epistemically adrift”. These feelings add to the distress they are already experiencing, and it can end up making them “feel morally inadequate and pressured to do the right thing without clear direction”. It can be tiring to not be doing your best, and see so-called cures everywhere you look (or scroll).
Magnesium is low risk, so trying to eat more foods that contain magnesium or trying out a supplement with support with a doctor should be fine for most people. Getting more nutrients from your diet will probably make most people feel better, so it’s worth a shot. But be kind to yourself if it doesn’t work out.
“Given its importance in the body, it might not be surprising to observe marked benefits after magnesium intake,” Dye said. “However, magnesium should not be seen as a ‘miracle’ molecule, capable of solving any issue.”