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Magnesium: Oral vs. Topical — looks at which form of magnesium supplement is best absorbed by our bodies ─ including baths, gel and lotion. Plus, the benefits of each!
Years ago, I read about the potential unpredictability of oral magnesium, that the body may not absorb it as well, that transdermal (topical) magnesium is more effective. So I started and used topical magnesium effectively for leg cramps.
I used both magnesium oil and took magnesium baths.
A few years later, after reading a thyroid expert praise the capsules, I also started taking oral magnesium. (source)
Depending on the compounding of oral magnesium, supplements may address a variety of issues: insomnia, constipation, depression, menopause or perimenopause. (source)
Indeed, I had Hashimoto’s at the time of starting oral magnesium, a low-functioning thyroid autoimmune disease. Intermittent insomnia and constipation were constant battles for me.
Why use more than one method
Fast forward to now, I take oral magnesium, use both gel or lotion AND take magnesium baths! ─ having rediscovered the benefits of each! Don’t worry; I don’t use all these methods every single day …
But, while most of us want to simplify our supplements, this article talks about why, if health is a top priority for you, it’s worth considering using more than one form of magnesium, sometimes daily, sometimes a couple of times per week.
Most bodies are quite deficient (I talk more about why below), and so it’s that important. Even after years of supplementing, like me, you may choose to use a combination of magnesium topically and orally.
Yes, more health gains from using magnesium both ways!
Topical magnesium benefits
With many health conditions, intestinal absorption of nutrients does not work as well. But, our skin absorbs magnesium very well, through bath water with dissolved magnesium salts, gel or lotion!
We can choose the method we prefer, or use more than one, to oftentimes get better results than through oral administration.
Personally, I’ve started taking magnesium baths, and then I use gel or lotion some days instead:
- Gel and lotion are SO convenient and fast. While with a bath, we need to set aside time (25 minutes or so, minimum, to absorb the mineral), gel and lotion are instant.
- Consider using the gel or lotion on your abdomen or calves.
- Or, rub into sore joints.
- Despite the time it takes, nothing works quite as well as a magnesium bath! The main benefits from a magnesium bath include:
- reduced stress, which can help to prevent or put autoimmune diseases into remission. Let’s not underestimate this!
- better sleep
- detox support
- improved digestion
- prevention of leg cramps and muscle recovery
- reduced joint pain
One approach to topical magnesium: Take magnesium baths as often as you can fit them into your schedule, perhaps 3 days a week, or every day if you have major health goals. On the days you don’t take baths, use gel or lotion instead.
How to take a magnesium bath and dose
Normal size bath tubs can be filled with not-overly hot water + 1.5 cups magnesium salts.
Foot soaks are another good option; just decrease the Mg by at least half, depending on how big your basin is.
Oral magnesium benefits
A few years ago, putting Hashimoto’s into remission was one of my biggest health goals. I started oral magnesium to help aid the process and found that my sleep improved, as did my daily bowels.
Since that time, I’ve found that oral magnesium continues to be helpful — for keeping me regular and preventing night time leg cramps.
Different compounding methods
Magnesium alone is hard to absorb. The oral supplements that work do so because the manufacturer combines the mineral with a compound that helps to dictate its role and make it bioavailable.
Many studies show a correlation between magnesium deficiency and additional health crises.
Depending on the compounding, oral magnesium may help with the following issues:
- depression (source)
- hormonal changes: menopause and perimenopause, premenstrual syndrome…
- joint pain
- blood sugar issues
- calcium stones
- heart disease
- heart arrhythmias
- diabetes (sources)
These conditions and more may all be caused by or relieved through the lack of or administration of magnesium.
Why is magnesium important?
Why most of us should supplement with magnesium is:
- Our soils are mineral deficient, so we don’t get magnesium from our food, as we once did. This is due largely to the way we now farm and the irreparable damage we’ve done with mechanized farming as well as the use of pesticides and herbicides.
- Those of us with compromised health do not assimilate nutrients well. What little we may get from our food is likely not reaching our cells. (Increasing our stomach’s pH is one partial solution. Consider gentian digestive bitters at every meal that contains protein or fat.)
- Medications, flouride, phytates, oxalates, vitamin A and insoluble fiber in our foods bind with magnesium, making it inaccessible by our bodies.
- Magnesium is used by our heart, lungs and kidneys. It affects our teeth and bones and calcium absorption, our nervous system, our muscles. Magnesium aids our blood sugar and blood pressure levels. It is required for detoxification! (source)
- Regarding kidney health, anyone dealing with any kind of urinary or kidney issues should especially consider topical (as well as oral) regular doses of magnesium. (When someone is struggling with a kidney infection, it’s very easy to rub magnesium lotion or gel into their skin.)
- Slight disturbances in our health’s equilibrium drain magnesium, as it’s used by every system in the human body. So hormone changes, a bout of the flu, too much caffeine or sugar, stress and, of course more serious health conditions, all deplete this essential mineral.
Symptoms of magnesium deficiency
In addition to relieving the above conditions, magnesium may help if you’re experiencing one or more of the following symptoms, all of which point to a magnesium deficiency:
- Feeling of dehydration, excessive thirst
- Abnormal heart rhythms
- Agitation and anxiety
- Spotty or irregular vision
- Restless leg syndrome (RLS)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Tingling in the hands and feet
- Low blood pressure
- Muscle spasm and weakness
- Poor nail growth
- Migraine headaches
- Painful joints (Try putting Mg lotion or gel on these daily; see if it helps.)
Let’s zero in on a few of the most common health complaints and how magnesium (oral or topical) may be helpful for them.
Magnesium — Oral vs. Topical: INSOMNIA
Not always, but oftentimes, insomnia traces back to a magnesium deficiency.
Multiple studies showed that magnesium supplementation improved sleep time and quality among the elderly. (source, source)
Magnesium reduces electrical conduction between brain cells, in much the same way that it calms the muscular activity in leg muscles when restless leg syndrome presents.
Serum magnesium levels have been measured in infants. Magnesium levels are indeed higher when a baby is enjoying deep/quiet sleep.
In active sleep, the body has increased body movement. (source) A similar study was done on rats, with the same findings. (source)
Ultimately, magnesium, like a dark room, affects the central nervous system, decreasing movement and increasing quiet and calm. Conversely, melatonin consumption actually decreases the body’s magnesium levels, which may account for its limited effectiveness. (source)
Interestingly, stress lowers the body’s magnesium levels and increases sleeplessness as a result. (source) Chronic insomnia also lowers the body’s magnesium levels, compounding insomnia.
Zinc supplementation may also be helpful; and it, as an added bonus, aids the immune system.
In conclusion, both oral and topical magnesium can be helpful with sleep.
Some sources also recommend using the homeopathic form of magnesium for (and in addition to) better absorption of the oral supplement: Magnesia phosphorica 6X. (source)
Magnesium — Oral vs. Topical: CONSTIPATION
There are three compounded varieties of magnesium that may be the most helpful for constipation:
- Magnesium malate (this one or this one) is good for those who struggle with low-energy. It is also reputed to help with muscle cramps and many additional functions. It may be the best form of oral magnesium!
- Those who are affected by extreme constipation may find more immediate relief from magnesium oxide. But this compounding isn’t ideal if you just need a little help, as it can make stools too soft. (Magnesium oxide works to improve or relieve symptoms by attracting water. Extra water in the colon helps bowel movements to pass more easily.) Mg oxide also does not have other benefits beyond constipation aid. It is not absorbed or utilized by the body.
- Someone whose bowels are steady and regular (or almost ideal) but still has issues of insomnia — so wants both benefits — may prefer to choose magnesium glycinate.
Magnesium in general relaxes colon muscles.
Oral: Up to 600 mg can be taken nightly to relieve constipation, but too much means loose stools. It’s ideal to start with less. Many will find relief with just 1 to 2 capsules: 150-300 mg. Finding one’s dosage can take some adjusting.
You may start with less and increase over time to find the right balance. (source) 100-300 mg may be used for kids.
For topical: Normal size bath tubs can be filled with not-overly hot water + 1.5 cups magnesium salts. Foot soaks are another good option; just decrease the Mg by at least half, depending on how big your basin is.
Magnesium — Oral vs. Topical: DEPRESSION
The first study on magnesium as it relates to depression was conduction 100 years ago. Since that time, numerous studies have been conducted, also measuring its safety.
Postpartum depression, or PPD, was predicted by 2020 to be the most prevalent health problem after heart disease by the World Health Organization. Indeed, it is considered the leading cause of disability worldwide. (source)
In a study done on Iranian women with PPD, magnesium showed a marked improvement in symptoms. This study suggests that magnesium deficiency causes or contributes to depression. Pregnant women, for more reasons than one, should consider supplementing.
Another PubMed study shows relief of depression within 1 week of supplementing, using 125-300 mg (as glycinate and taurinate). (source)
The same study links IQ loss and addiction to magnesium deficiency.
Magnesium boosts progesterone
During a woman’s 30s and 40s she goes through a stage of pre-menopause, called perimenopause, characterized by surges of estrogen and a deficiency of progesterone.
Her body is getting ready for menopause when she will no longer be able to get pregnant, therefore no longer be ovulating. Progesterone begins to decline in preparation for this. However, we need progesterone to balance our estrogen.
I support my body’s process by taking magnesium and not overdoing sources of estrogen.
Magnesium is used by the body to boost progesterone. In practical terms, this means it helps to reduce hot flashes and the sleep disturbances that come with perimenopause. (source)
Many people are concerned they’ll get loose stools by increasing their oral magnesium. This situation is the perfect example of when to add in topical magnesium: No loose stools but more absorption of the mineral our body needs.
Magnesium for Hashimoto’s disease
Magnesium is often recommended by practitioners for the autoimmune disease characterized by an under-active thyroid.
Magnesium helps to convert the less active T4 thyroid hormone to the more active T3 — hormones that play a role in regulating energy levels in our bodies.
Many patients notice a significant improvement in their symptoms through magnesium supplementation.
(Untreated hypothyroidism in pregnant women can affect babies’ brain development and growth, making supplementation that much more critical.) (source and source)
What are the best brands of magnesium – product recommendations
Ultimately, using both oral and topical magnesium can be helpful.
Compounded oral magnesium, as mentioned above, is suited to specific roles in the body:
- This oral magnesium is a good all-purpose capsule. It works both gently and effectively for regularity, and may help to reduce stress and prevent muscle cramps, to some extent.
For possibly THE best approach to supplementing magnesium, use magnesium salts in your bath water:
For lotion, again a GREAT approach, this is my favorite product:
If you prefer gel, this is the one I have and use:
For oil, my favorite product is:
For years, this ^^ is the product I used on my calves at night before going to sleep, as it effectively prevents leg spasms.
Co-factors of magnesium that aid its absorption
Don’t forget: Proper vitamin D aids the absorption of magnesium:
- Consider a sun lamp. This is what I personally use each fall, winter and spring. I do not use oral vitamin D because it’s a hormone.
- Or, safely use UVB tanning beds, like this.
Vitamin K and potassium also help one’s magnesium balance.
Which is best: oral or topical magnesium?
If you’re only going to use one form of magnesium, I believe the best choice is to do nightly magnesium baths, or to faithfully use magnesium lotion.
When dealing with chronic constipation issues, it may be helpful (and convenient) to use both oral Mg and do baths or lotion.
You can Pin Magnesium — Oral vs. Topical here:
Renee Kohley says
I appreciate this balanced perspective. I mostly see improvement in mag related complaints with oral mag…. 🙂 but I have a hunch baths would be helpful!
Megan Stevens says
Great, Renee. Yeah, I, too, saw Hashi’s improvements from oral, and then other improvements from baths and topical. So glad you’ll try out baths and that the oral has been so helpful!
Raine Saunders says
This is great information, so glad you shared! I have been using a topical magnesium oil spray created from a practitioner in MI and the same spray can be used in capsules orally. The spray is not sticky and does not cause itching, and she says it absorbs better than other sprays sold on the market. It’s combined with a non-GMO grain alcohol that apparently provides better absorption. I’ve been using it for some months and it’s the only magnesium I’ve ever taken orally that hasn’t disrupted my digestive tract and caused diarrhea.
It’s truly amazing how many chronic health issues can be resolved with proper magnesium supplementation!
Megan Stevens says
Wow, that is very cool! Thanks for sharing what’s working for you, Raine!
Ariana Mullins says
Really good information! I too had heard that topical was best, but have continued using oral magnesium anyway, and it’s been really helpful for my muscle tension and insomnia. Thank you for your informative post!
Megan Stevens says
Thanks, Ariana, good to hear your experience!
linda spiker says
I prefer talking it orally. While I love a good bath, the oils make me itch!
Megan Stevens says
Good point; itching can be a sign you need more magnesium, but that the skin is too dry. You might try the lotion I link to, as it is less likely to cause itching/extreme tingling. If you use Mg lotion, it’s a great solution, because it moisturizes as it delivers the mineral.
Carol @studiobotanica says
Thanks for your ‘always appreciated’ research. I have always used oral magnesium personally and have had good results with clients, for years, with same.. Insomnia, leg cramping, etc. It’s also an excellent supplement for cardio-vascular support. The heart is our biggest muscle, after all, so oral Mg is a wonderful calming nourishment for heart health.
Megan Stevens says
Yes, well said. Good to hear your experience. Thank you, Carol!
Emily @ Recipes to Nourish says
This is so helpful! Megan you are so wise! I love reading your health posts and always learn so much from you. I am using the spray you use.
Megan Stevens says
Thank you, Emily!! So kind. 🙂 I’m happy the article is helpful!
Robin Pack says
Megan, do you recommend taking the various forms you list above? I use a topical spray and sleep amazingly well, but I do have asthma and heart arhythmia.
Megan Stevens says
Hi Robin, it sounds like you are already making a great choice. 🙂 You might consider adding in baths, but other than that, I’m happy for your success with the topical.
How do you feel about Natural Calm, the powdered drink mix you add to water? It’s mag citrate. Would it work the same as mag citrate in pill form?
I love your writing! You are always soooo informative! 🙂
Megan Stevens says
Hi Melissa, thank you, so kind! 🙂 The main things I have heard or read about this product are: it is not the best form of Mg and that the citric acid in it is derived from black mold. It’s sounds extreme, but I have personally read the scientific paper on it. So, I would avoid it, even though it’s “tasty” and easy.
I tried making my own magnesium oil a few years ago and it BURNED so badly I had to wash it off my legs. It was the strangest thing!
I take magnesium glycine daily. I have taken some sort of magnesium since I was pregnant with my first child (over 7 years ago) for restless legs and help sleeping. I’m wondering why I STILL need it for issues that originated in pregnancy. My youngest is now 3 years old…so strange. Also I’m unsure on my optimal dose. Since magnesium glycinate doesn’t affect the bowels, is there any way to know if I’m taking too much? Most days I take 700 mg.
Hi Kassia, your reaction is not uncommon, actually. Stinging, burning, tingling can happen when too much Mg is applied for you in that spot. Your body is telling you to put on less in that area. You can also try adding lotion or using Mg lotion, to lessen the effect. Some brands are more likely to cause this effect than others. Consider the brands I link to, and try just a small amount of the lotion on your calf or abdomen. Or try a Mg bath, but use less to start. Oral Mg is a great option for you, to consider using both methods, to get enough. I am not surprised you need so much Mg actually, because most of us do not get enough, for the reasons outlined in this article. It is hard to get too much Mg, but in your shoes, I’d try to back down a bit on the oral and increase a bit on the topical, and then gradually increase the topical.
[email protected] says
Can you please discuss when to use the citrate v. the glycinate? What if you are hypothyroid (slightly), having trouble w/ insomnia and have tingling in the hands (at night). . .all else is ruled out by the naturopath.
Megan Stevens says
Hi! You might consider starting with just the glycinate, because the citrate may make your stools too loose if you have zero constipation. I started with 2 capsules nightly and ended up with 4 nightly. (I would only add in part citrate if there are constipation issues.)
[email protected] says