As always, please remember that everyone’s body is different. I’m talking about something that has been helpful for me so that you can look into it if you want. I’m not trying to suggest that this will work for everyone or that everyone can or should try it.
Last semester, around November, I had a really bad flare. My pain levels were really high, especially around my neck and shoulders. Doing anything with my hands made my shoulder pain even more severe. And I was exhausted. Despite plenty of sleep, I only wanted to sleep more.
Basically, all I could do without increasing my pain was watch videos and read. So, yeah, I binge-watched some streaming television, but there is only so much of that I can take without getting really antsy. So I started reading, trying to see if there was anything else I could try to improve my health. And I came across magnesium.
Here’s the scoop. What types of conditions might this help? Mainly fibromyalgia and fibromyalgia-like conditions. Many types of chronic pain have a fibromyalgia -like component, so this might be worth investigating for anyone with chronic pain. There is also evidence that magnesium improves sleep quality, so folks with sleep disorders and/or issues with fatigue might want to look into it as well. (I have a fibromyalgia-type pain disorder and a tangled mess of sleep issues.)
What is magnesium?
Magnesium is a naturally-occurring mineral. It is found in many foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, and meats. Some of the best natural sources are almonds, cashews, peanuts, soybeans, and spinach (cooked). Magnesium is an essential nutrient, meaning that humans must consume it in the diet to remain healthy.
Magnesium is an electrolyte, meaning that it exists as a charged ion when dissolved in water. Magnesium plays important roles in allowing nerve cells to pass messages and muscle cells to contract and relax. In muscles, magnesium is crucial for allowing muscles to relax after they contract. As an electrolyte, magnesium also plays a role in osmotic regulation (regulating the amount of water in your body). Magnesium is also crucial part of many enzymes, where it facilitates many of the chemical reactions essential for normal metabolism.
Why might people with chronic pain (or other conditions) need to supplement?
To be honest, this question doesn’t have a good answer right now. There is some evidence that the amount of magnesium in our food is decreasing due to modern farming practices. There is also some evidence that physiological stress (including pain) can increase the need for magnesium. But both of those statements are based on limited evidence, and neither provides a complete picture.
How can I supplement magnesium?
Listen up, this is important. If you’re trying to increase your magnesium intake, you don’t want just any old supplement.
Okay, here we go. The most common way to supplement magnesium is with a dietary supplement. Many of these are not well absorbed, however. The type of magnesium compound makes a big difference. Please do your own research here, but I will outline the basics. Magnesium oxide is a very common compound used in supplements, but it is not very bioavailable, meaning that most of it is never absorbed. Magnesium sulfate suffers from similar problems. There are small studies suggesting that magnesium aspertate, magnesium citrate, magnesium lactate, and magnesium chloride are all better options.
I have been taking a brand called Natural Calm. It comes as a powder that you mix into hot water to make a fruity tea-like beverage. The advantage to this form is that you are actually consuming ionic magnesium, which can be easily absorbed in the small intestine. Be aware that the flavored forms of Natural Calm do use Stevia as a sweetener. Unflavored forms are also available from the same company. All I can really say is that it has been helpful for me.
Another option is to go through the skin. Magnesium is naturally absorbed through the skin in moist environments. (Evolutionarily speaking, think the ocean or hot springs.) If you have a bathtub and some time, Epson salts in a hot bath or a way to get a dose of magnesium while relaxing your mind and muscles. Some people advise making a magnesium “oil” by dissolving a high concentration of magnesium in water. Once it cools, they suggest spraying this on your skin. I tried this, and I don’t recommend it. First of all, most recipes have you ending up with a supersaturated solution, meaning that it contains more magnesium than water can normally hold it room temperature. That means that, as the solution sits in the spray bottle the magnesium will start to crystallize in the water, and this has a very good chance of clogging your spray bottle. Second, your skin can only absorb the magnesium while it is in solution. This means that you need to keep your skin wet for an extended period of time while the magnesium is absorbed. So you’re either constantly spraying your skin with more water, or wrapping yourself up with damp towels, both of which get really cold. Or else maybe you are hanging out in a steamy bathroom, which at least is pleasant, but at that point you should probably just be taking a bath. When the water finally does evaporate from your skin (or your towels), you’ll be left with a fine white powder. This is harmless; it’s basically just a really fine crystals of Epson salt, but it makes a big mess. As a third option, there are some lotions formulated to contain magnesium. I haven’t tried these, so I can’t speak to it personally. Just remember that your skin has to stay moist in order to absorb the mineral.
Can I test for magnesium deficiency?
Well, the short answer is not really.
The long answer has two parts. First, true magnesium deficiency is extremely rare. True deficiency happens when your nerves and muscles don’t have enough magnesium to function properly, and it has severe consequences, like numbness, tingling, muscle contractions and cramps, seizures, abnormal heart rhythms, and disruption of the balance of other electrolytes (like calcium and potassium). Like I said, this is extremely rare, occurring mostly as a consequence of chronic alcoholism and certain metabolic disorders. Anyone having these type of symptoms needs to see a doctor immediately. Hopefully that’s obvious.
What we are really talking about is magnesium inadequacy, which just means that you have enough magnesium to perform essential functions, but not enough for your body to operate optimally. Medical science recognizes that gastrointestinal diseases, type II diabetes, chronic alcoholism, and certain medications can increase the risk of magnesium inadequacy. The involvement of magnesium in chronic pain is less well studied, but the limited evidence we have that stay that people with chronic pain may have magnesium inadequacy, as well.
Most of the magnesium in your body is found inside your cells, primarily muscle and nerve cells. There are blood tests that can check for the level of magnesium in your blood, but less than 1% of the magnesium in your body is actually found in the serum of your blood. So there is good reason to doubt whether the results of such a test are meaningful. This means that, at present, attempting to test for magnesium levels is probably not helpful (unless you are experiencing severe symptoms). Instead, since magnesium supplementation is generally safe (when taken according to package directions), for most people it is probably more helpful to simply try a supplement and see if symptoms improve.
Please do be aware that certain medications can interact with magnesium, and these medications should not be taken at the same time as a magnesium supplement. Some common classes of medications that can interact with magnesium include bisphosphates, antibiotics, diuretics, and proton pump inhibitors. Please look up the specific medications you are taking and ask your pharmacist or doctor if you have any questions about the safety of adding a magnesium supplement.
Okay, that’s the basic science. Back to me.
I started supplementing magnesium in late November. I noticed right away that my sleep was better. I woke up feeling actually refreshed for the first time in years. (This doesn’t happen every day, but it does happen a few times a week, which is way better than before I started supplementing.)
It took considerably longer, at least a month, for me to notice differences in pain. Slowly, I started to notice that I did have a bit less pain and a bit more tolerance for activity. It’s not a cure; I definitely still have a chronic pain disorder, but I don’t feel as bad as I did before.
I definitely intend to continue supplementing with Natural Calm. It has made a positive difference in my sleep quality, energy levels, and pain levels. I would encourage my fellow chronic pain warriors to take a look at magnesium if you haven’t already. I’m happy to answer what questions I can; drop them in my ask box.