So, you’ve read about all the benefits of magnesium and how it’s difficult to get enough from food, and you’ve decided you want to supplement. It’s as easy as walking into the natural food store, asking for the magnesium aisle, and making a quick grab, right?
If you’ve ever tried to do just that, you know it’s not that simple. There’s chelated magnesium, ionic magnesium, colloidal magnesium and one with a label that appears to be shooting out rainbows like an 80’s Care Bear. Which one is best? The answer to that question depends on your goals and bio-individuality.
In this post, we’ll cover what you need to know before heading to the store so that you can skip a frustrating trial-and-error process. Oh, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed as you read, don’t worry. There’s a list of recommended forms – including brands – at the bottom of this page.
Let’s jump in!
What are the different types of magnesium?
Magnesium supplements vary in price, bioavailability (how well we can absorb and use them), and how they impact our bodies. Let’s do a quick pro/con list for each option.
Magnesium Mineral Salts
- Pros: Magnesium mineral salts such as magnesium oxide are usually your cheapest option.
- Cons: They’re not well-absorbed and can cause nausea and diarrhea when HCL (hydrochloric acid levels) are low in the stomach (Murray)
- Pros: This form is attached to another molecule that helps deliver magnesium to a specific place, and is therefore better absorbed. More about the different types and unique benefits of chelated magnesium below.
- Cons: Adequate levels if HCL (stomach acid) are needed for absorption, so individuals with weak digestion may not find this form helpful. (Bergner)
On a related note, we’ve all heard that heartburn is caused by excess stomach acid. But after testing thousands of heartburn patients at his Tahoma Clinic, Jonathan Wright, M.D., says that’s not true in over 90% of cases. This is the most common cause of heartburn, and here’s how to get rid of heartburn naturally.
Ionic magnesium is dissolved in water and doesn’t need HCl to be absorbed, and for this reason is considered by many to be best oral form of magnesium. (Schauss)
Colloidal magnesium is a relatively new form that is considered by many to be mostly hype, difficult to absorb, and possibly a health hazard. (Bergner)
Now, let’s take a closer look at each type.
What is chelated magnesium?
As previously mentioned, chelated magnesium is magnesium bound to other molecules. These molecules can increase magnesium absorption, and they are reported to be able to deposit the magnesium in specific places. Let’s review the different types of chelated magnesium and how practitioners are using them (recommended brands are listed near the end of the article):
* Magnesium citrate: Citrate delivers magnesium straight to the mitochondria because citrate is part of the citric acid cycle (Krebs cycle) that takes place in mitochondria. Therefore, it is considered useful for people who need more energy, but it may cause diarrhea and is often recommended when people have constipation and want to take magnesium. (Murray) However, some practitioners say magnesium citrate is dangerous because it can interfere with iron and copper metabolism. (source 1, source 2)
* Magnesium glycinate: Helpful for musculoskeletal and general anti-inflammatory support. This is considered one of the best forms of oral chelated magnesium because it’s less likely to cause diarrhea. Most herbalists and many functional medicine practitioners recommend and prefer this form of magnesium, particularly for individuals who have loose stools, gut issues, or need higher doses. (Unless those gut issues involve low stomach acid, which would perhaps make ionic magnesium a better option.)
* Magnesium malate: This form may be helpful for fatigue and easing some types of pain. Chelated with malic acid – which is often found in fruits – it was found in a small university study to ease symptoms of fatigue and discomfort in individuals with fibromyalgia. (source)
* Magnesium orotate: Bound with oratic acid, this form is thought to be the most bioavailable form because of the ease with which it enters into cell membranes, and it has been shown through research to support cardiovascular health (source)
* Magnesium taurate: Helpful for cardiovascular and blood sugar support. This form of magnesium is bound to an amino acid that is considered helpful for cardiovascular health and proper insulin response. (source) As always, check with your healthcare provider first if you are on insulin medications, calcium channel blockers, diuretics or any other medication that might interact with any supplements you want to take. Also, this form may be problematic for individuals with a CBS gene mutation because it causes a buildup of taurine in the body. More about the CBS gene mutation below.
* Magnesium L-threonate: This is a relatively new form of magnesium that reportedly better penetrates the mitochondria and the brain, supporting brain plasticity and cognitive function. (source)
So which form is best? From the list above, magnesium glycinate, malate, orotate and L-threonate are the ones I rotate between. However, when deciding, it’s best to consider your main goals and your digestion.
For example, if you’re concerned that your digestive system isn’t robust enough to absorb oral forms, you can choose ionic magnesium that is already dissolved and doesn’t require digestion. Or in that case another option for bypassing the digestive system is to topical application.
What are the benefits of topical magnesium?
Because oral magnesium often needs to be digested by HCl and then absorbed via the small intestines, many people consider topical magnesium the preferable choice, especially for those who have digestive issues.
Magnesium placed on the skin, either through magnesium oil or Epsom salt baths, bypass the digestive system and go right into the blood. However, some people find magnesium oil to be itchy and irritating. Also, many people use too little Epsom salt and therefore don’t experience a therapeutic benefit. Herbalist Rosalee de al Foret recommends at least 2 cups per bath to make sure you are getting beneficial amounts of magnesium. (Taste of Herbs)
What is the different between magnesium sulfate and magnesium chloride?
The two major forms of topical magnesium are magnesium sulfate (commonly called Epsom salt) and magnesium chloride (or magnesium salt). According to the NIH, magnesium chloride has a higher percentage of magnesium and is therefore preferable to magnesium sulfate for quickly raising magnesium levels. (source)
However, magnesium sulfate can also be taken topically via a bath. Although it is not as readily absorbed, it does tend to be cheaper and those without the CBS gene mutation (see below) can get the added benefits of the sulphur component, which also supports detoxification.
Here’s a bath salts recipe that works with either epsom salt or magnesium chloride.
Can I use topical magnesium if I have the CBS gene mutation?
One reason magnesium chloride might be preferred to magnesium sulfate is that certain people with a particular gene mutation might react poorly to magnesium sulfate. The CBS gene mutation increases the speed at which your body utilizes sulfur for making important compounds such as glutathione (often called the Master Antioxidant) and other purposes.
While making glutathione and supporting other processes is a good thing and most of us need more sulfur, for people with CBS the accelerated conversion can lead to a toxic buildup of sulfur byproducts, particularly ammonia and taurine. In other words, people with the CBS mutation convert sulfur so quickly that their bodies can’t keep up with clearing the conversion byproducts, and therefore they often need to limit their sulfur consumption. For those individuals, a sulfur-free magnesium (such as magnesium chloride) is probably a better option. (source)
So, which magnesium supplements are best?
My top picks are listed at the bottom of the post.
What magnesium supplements should I avoid?
- Magnesium oxide and other mineral salts – it isn’t absorbed and causes diarrhea
- Colloidal magnesium – most likely ineffective and possibly hazardous (Bergner)
- Magnesium aspartate or magnesium glutamate – they release glutamates (think MSG) and aspartates (think aspartame) into the brain and can worsen migraines and depression (source)
- Magnesium citrate if you are deficient in iron, have loose bowels, or are deficient in copper
- Magnesium sulfate (possibly) if you have CBS gene mutation
How much magnesium should I take?
Most practitioners recommend dosing at night because it is so relaxing, and to find your bio-individual dose by finding your bowel tolerance. This means start off with a minimal dose the first night, and increase the dose each night incrementally until you wake up the next morning with loose stools.
Once you have loose stools, you have found your bowel tolerance and you need to go back to your dose from the previous night where you didn’t have loose stools. This is your dose! If you notice that after time you start to get loose stools again, it may be that your needs less magnesium because your levels have been raised overall. In that case, it is recommended to decrease intake to match bowel tolerance. Individuals who have digestive issues and frequent loose stools may find it helpful to take small amounts throughout the day or use topical forms.
What else do I need to know?
The body needs certain nutrients – called cofactors – to absorb magnesium properly. They are:
- Vitamin B6, found in tuna, spinach, cabbage, bok choy, bell peppers, turnip greens, garlic, cauliflowers, turkey, beef, chicken, salmon, banana, broccoli, brussels sprouts, collard greens, beet greens, kale, carrots, swiss chard, asparagus, and mustard greens (source)
- Vitamin B1, found in asparagus, sunflower seeds, green peas, flaxseeds, brussels sprouts, beet greens, spinach, cabbage, eggplant, mushrooms, sesame seeds, peanuts, and tuna
- Vitamin D (from the sun)
What about calcium?
We’re often told that we need to consume twice as much calcium as magnesium for bone health. According to Dr. Carolyn Dean, the supposed “ideal” ratio is based on a misunderstanding of recommendations made by French scientist Jean Durlach. Apparently, he warned that calcium intake should never exceed twice the amount of magnesium consumed. New research indicates why he made this suggestion – without adequate magnesium, calcium can calcify soft tissue and contribute to heart disease. (source)
According to Dean, “A hundred years ago we enjoyed a diet high in magnesium with a daily intake of 500 mg. Today we are lucky to get 200 mg. However, calcium in the diet has never been higher. This high-calcium, low-magnesium diet, when coupled with calcium supplementation, can give a calcium to magnesium imbalance of 10:1 or even higher — which constitutes a walking time bomb of impaired bone health and heart disease.” (source)
Chris Kresser offers a similar perspective in this article, where he states that “there are several supplements that are commonly recommended by conventional doctors and healthcare practitioners that are unnecessary at best, and potentially harmful at worst. Perhaps the best example of this is calcium.”
Whoa, that was a lot. Can you recap?
Of course. Please keep in mind that although I’ve linked to several brands that I use, I only use a couple of them at a time, then rotate.
- Ionic magnesium – Helpful for those with digestive issues who need to avoid the necessity of digesting magnesium for absorption. This is what I use.
- Magnesium glycinate – Helpful for musculoskeletal and general anti-inflammatory support. This is what I use.
- Magnesium malate – Considered helpful for fatigue and easing some types of pain. This is what I use.
- Magnesium orotate – Very bioavailable, good for cardiovascular support. This is what I use.
- Magnesium taurate – Helpful for cardiovascular and blood sugar support. This is a good option.
- Magnesium threonate – Helpful for neurological support. This is what I use.
- Magnesium chloride – Overall body support, helpful for raising levels quickly. This is the brand I buy.
- Magnesium sulfate – For topical use via bath soaking (for those without the CBS gene mutation)
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
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About the authors: This article was coauthored by Heather Dessinger and Dr. Lori Valentine Rose (PhD). Dr. Rose, PhD is a college biology, nutrition, herbal, and wellness instructor, Certified Nutrition Professional (CNP), Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild, and is Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition. She created, developed, and instructs the Hill College Holistic Wellness Pathway, the most thorough, affordable, degreed wellness program in the country. She loves spreading love and light, and helping others feel awesome on the inside and out so they can live their dreams and make this world more awesome!