Magnesium sulfate bath crystals, more commonly known as Epsom salt, have been used medicinally to treat a wide range of conditions, including muscle aches and pain.
In addition to these benefits, research has found that Epsom salt baths may be helpful for some individuals as a natural treatment for anxiety, although more comprehensive studies are needed.
What Are Epsom Salts?
Magnesium sulfate is a chemical compound consisting of magnesium, sulfur, and oxygen, with the formula MgSO4. The name “Epsom salt” refers to a bitter saline spring in Epsom in Surrey, England, where it was first discovered.
Magnesium plays a vital role in the structures and functions of the human body and is involved in more than 300 biochemical reactions.1 About 25 grams of magnesium is present in the average adult size human body, with about 50-60% of the body’s magnesium found in the skeleton. The remainder is found in soft tissue, primarily in muscle.2
Natural Remedy for Anxiety
Magnesium deficiency may exacerbate symptoms of anxiety. Magnesium is also believed to affect the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that helps regulate the pituitary and adrenal glands. These glands play a role in regulating your response to stress.3
According to a systematic review of 18 studies published in Nutrients, one of the reasons why magnesium deficiency is associated with anxiety is that the mineral may improve brain function. Research shows that magnesium plays an important role in regulating neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that send messages throughout the brain and body.
Another study from France evaluated 264 patients who had a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and found that a statistically significant number of the participants reported improvements in their symptoms after taking magnesium combined with two plant extracts.4
In individuals with magnesium deficiency, stress may increase the risk of health conditions, including heart disease. Furthermore, stress, whether physical stress (including heat, cold, exertion, trauma, or surgery) or emotional stress (including excitement, anxiety, or depression), actually increases the body’s need for magnesium1
Depression and Sleep
There is an inverse correlation in adults between magnesium intake and psychiatric states, such as anxiety and depression. Magnesium sulfate has been used to treat depression as far back as 1921.
Research suggests that magnesium supplementation may help prevent depression and may be useful as adjuvant therapy.1
However, research has found no effect of magnesium supplementation on postpartum anxiety.3
Magnesium is needed as a coenzyme to convert tryptophan to serotonin, a neurotransmitter recognized as a major determinant of mental health and mood. There is a relationship between anxiety and depression, as many people with depression also suffer from anxiety.
Magnesium is necessary for the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Studies have found supplementation with magnesium may be useful for treating insomnia and other sleep disorders.5
The quality of existing research on the effects of magnesium on anxiety is generally lacking. Well-designed randomized controlled trials are required to further confirm the efficacy of magnesium supplementation for anxiety.6
Is Magnesium Absorbed Through the Skin?
Transdermal magnesium, which is administered through the skin (such as with a bath or soak), has not been scientifically proven to be effective for treating anxiety.6
How to Use It
There are a number of ways to use magnesium sulfate, through warm baths, supplements, or topical treatments.
Epsom Salt Bath
Some people report that soaking in an Epsom salt bath improves their mood. However, this effect has not been substantiated with evidence.
Simple recipes for making safe, homemade Epsom salt baths:
- Bath crystals: Mix 2 cups of Epsom salt with a few drops of your favorite fragrance to create a custom bath crystal. Add a few drops of food coloring or 1/2 teaspoon of glycerin if you like, mix thoroughly, and store in an air-tight container.
- Soaking solution: Add 2 cups of Epsom salt to the water in a standard-sized bathtub; soak for at least 12 minutes, three times weekly. For an extra treat, add a few drops of eucalyptus oil for a refreshing scent.7
The water should be warm and comfortable to the touch, but not hot. You should add the Epsom salt while the water is running to help it dissolve.
Epsom salt is composed of magnesium and sulfate. Epsom bath salt, however, may contain other ingredients as part of a proprietary blend and is not safe to consume by mouth.7
Magnesium supplements are available in a variety of forms, including magnesium oxide, magnesium citrate, magnesium malate, and magnesium chloride. Absorption of magnesium from different kinds of magnesium supplements varies. Forms of magnesium that dissolve well in liquid are more completely absorbed in the gut than less soluble forms.
Small studies have found that magnesium in the aspartate, citrate, lactate, and chloride forms is absorbed more completely and is more bioavailable than magnesium oxide and magnesium sulfate.8
One study found that very high doses of zinc from supplements (142 mg/day) can interfere with magnesium absorption and disrupt the magnesium balance in the body.8
The recommended intake level for supplemental magnesium is 350 mg daily, for an adult male, and 267 mg daily for an adult female.8
As with any supplement, you should check with your healthcare provider before starting a magnesium regimen.
Many Americans do not get enough magnesium from their diets, which can create a range of health problems.
Sometimes magnesium is used as an adjunct in the management of:1
- Premenstrual syndrome
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Muscle cramps
- Inflammatory bowel syndrome
- Pregnancy complications (preeclampsia/eclampsia treated intravenously)
- Cardiovascular health
- Migraine headaches
- Metabolic syndrome/diabetes mellitus
- Sleep disorders/restless leg syndrome
- Chronic kidney disease
Magnesium sulfate can also be injected to treat hypomagnesemia (low levels of magnesium in the blood).
Sometimes an injected form of magnesium is used to manage seizures in pregnancy due to pre-eclampsia or eclampsia. The magnesium sulfate is injected into a muscle or administered intravenously in a clinic or hospital setting.9
This use of the drug is off-label, which means that it is not an FDA-approved use of the drug.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, has advised healthcare professionals against using magnesium sulfate injection for more than five to seven days to stop pre-term labor in pregnancy.
Administration of magnesium sulfate injection to people who are pregnant for longer than this period may lead to low calcium levels and bone problems in the developing baby or fetus, including osteopenia and fractures.10
Possible Side Effects
Too much magnesium from food does not pose a health risk in healthy individuals because the kidneys eliminate excess amounts in the urine. However, high doses of magnesium from dietary supplements or medications can cause diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal cramping.
Very large doses of magnesium-containing laxatives and antacids (typically more than 5,000 mg/day magnesium) have been associated with magnesium toxicity, including fatal hypermagnesemia (elevated levels of magnesium in the blood).8
In addition to diarrhea, magnesium overdose symptoms can include:
- Low blood pressure
- Facial flushing
- Urine retention
- Cardiac arrest
- Irregular heartbeat
The risk of magnesium toxicity increases with impaired renal function or kidney failure.8
A Word From Verywell
Magnesium sulfate, or Epsom salt, may be beneficial for some people with anxiety, but more comprehensive research is needed. While Epsom salt baths can help calm stress, there is no conclusive evidence that magnesium absorbed through the skin is beneficial.
High doses of magnesium from dietary supplements or medications can result in diarrhea that can be accompanied by nausea and abdominal cramping. You should check with your healthcare provider before starting a magnesium regimen.
- Schwalfenberg GK, Genuis SJ. The importance of magnesium in clinical healthcare. Scientifica (Cairo) 2017; 2017:4179326. doi:10.1155/2017/4179326
- Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute. Magnesium.
- Boyle NB, Lawton C, Dye L. The effects of magnesium supplementation on subjective anxiety and stress—A systematic review. Nutrients. 2017;9(5):429. doi:10.3390/nu9050429
- Hanus M, Lafon J, Mathieu M. Double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study to evaluate the efficacy and safety of a fixed combination, containing two plant extracts (Crataegus oxyacantha and Eschscholtzia californica) and magnesium in mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders. Curr Med Res Opin. 2004;20(1):63-71. doi:10.1185/030079903125002603
- Djokic G, Vojvodić P, Korcok D, et al. The effects of magnesium – melatonin – vit B complex supplementation in treatment of insomnia. Open Access Maced J Med Sci. 2019;7(18):3101-3105. doi:10.3889/oamjms.2019.771
- Gröber U, Werner T, Vormann J, Kisters K. Myth or reality—transdermal magnesium? Nutrients. 2017;9(8):813. doi:10.3390/nu9080813
- Epsom Salt Council. Frequently asked questions about Epsom salt.
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Magnesium.
- Michigan Medicine-University of Michigan. Magnesium sulfate (injection).
- Food and Drug Administration. FDA Drug Safety Communication: FDA Recommends against prolonged use of magnesium sulfate to stop pre-term labor due to bone changes in exposed babies.
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