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Last updated December 19, 2019. 7 minute read

Types of magnesium supplements: the differences explained

We’ve outlined the differences in the main types of magnesium supplements, forms of magnesium supplements (such as tablets, oils, etc.), what they’re best at doing or treating, and who should consider taking them to help clear things up. (If you find you do not tolerate any of the forms below, you may want to consider magnesium glycinate. This type of magnesium is bound with glycine, which helps with absorption.)

Linnea Zielinski Written by Linnea Zielinski
Reviewed by Dr. Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

What do you need to have a good day? Strong coffee, maybe. Sunny weather. How about magnesium? It’s the fourth most abundant mineral in our bodies, and we cannot make it on our own or store it, which means, yes, it needs to be part of our daily routine. At this point, you may be wondering whether getting enough magnesium is really significant enough to make or break the day. It depends on how much you like your body doing what it’s supposed to do, like keeping regular heart rhythm.

This mineral, which is also one of the body’s electrolytes, is required for over 600 chemical reactions in the body (Baaij, 2015). Regulating muscle contraction, so your heartbeat remains strong, is just one of the numerous benefits of magnesium. You name it, and magnesium is probably involved. It helps with protein synthesis and muscle function. It may lower blood pressure (Kass, 2012), decrease your risk of heart disease (Reffelmann, 2011), and improve sleep quality (Wienecke, 2016). Magnesium may even prevent inflammation that’s associated with certain cancers, a 2017 study found (Chen, 2017). And the symptoms of magnesium deficiency, which range from general fatigue and muscle weakness to osteoporosis and personality changes, are severe enough to ruin a good day.

Luckily, people already eating a diet low in processed foods are probably already coming close to hitting the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of 400–420 mg of magnesium for adult men and 310–360 mg for adult women. Food sources are healthy and abundant. Staples like leafy vegetables and whole grains are good sources, as are wellness-world favorites like avocado and cashews. But for some people, supplements are simply necessary—and that’s where it might get complicated.

Vitals

  • Magnesium is an electrolyte and the fourth most abundant mineral in the body.
  • While many people can hit the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) through food alone, some people may need supplements to fill gaps.
  • Magnesium may help improve blood pressure, sleep quality, and risk of heart disease.
  • There are many different types of magnesium, but your body can better absorb some forms than others.
  • Some forms are also less likely to cause side effects, such as a laxative effect.
  • Whichever form you choose, follow medical advice to avoid too much magnesium, which can also be dangerous.

7 Types of magnesium and their benefits

We already told you about this, but there are a lot of different types of magnesium. So much so that the shelf of your nearest health store can get pretty confusing. Of that range of forms, there are seven that you should know about and consider taking. If you want to know more about the other forms that didn’t make this list, like magnesium gluconate, magnesium aspartate, magnesium hydroxide, magnesium l-threonate, and magnesium orotate, you can check out our guide to all the different forms of magnesium supplements. 

Below, we’ve outlined the differences in these types of magnesium supplements, forms of magnesium supplements (such as tablets, oils, etc.), what they’re best at doing or treating, and who should consider taking them to help clear things up. (If you find you do not tolerate any of the forms below, you may want to consider magnesium glycinate. This type of magnesium is bound with glycine, which helps with absorption.) Of course, every person is different, so you may find that you experience different results with each magnesium form than the ones mentioned below.

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Magnesium sulfate

This one is basically the athlete’s magnesium. Although it has two standard uses, it’s known by most people as Epsom salt. Athletes and sore gym-goers add them to baths in order to ease sore muscles and muscle cramps. But it’s also used in hospitals by healthcare professionals who administer it as an injection or IV. It’s used to treat kidney problems in kids and prevent preterm labor and seizures in some cases of severe pregnancy complications. It’s also used by healthcare professionals to treat hypomagnesemia, or low magnesium levels, in a hospital setting. This form of magnesium can also be used as a natural laxative.

Magnesium citrate

As you probably know from other Health Guide articles, we can’t always absorb minerals efficiently, even if we’re taking in enough through diet or supplements. This form of magnesium, which is magnesium bound to citric acid, is one of the better-absorbed forms of magnesium (Walker, 2003). But there is one downside: it can cause a laxative effect at high doses. Aside from oral magnesium intended to boost daily intake, the most common use of this particular form of the mineral is as stool cleaning preparation for surgery or bowel procedures such as colonoscopies. You should talk to a medical professional about whether you need magnesium supplementation to meet your reference dietary allowance (RDA) and whether magnesium citrate is a good form for you. It may take a trial to test your tolerability to this form of the mineral.

Magnesium lactate

This common form is used for general treatment to correct or prevent magnesium deficiency. You’ll find magnesium lactate in health or supplement stores or online as oral magnesium that can be used as part of your supplement plan. This is also a form of magnesium that’s used as a food additive in fortified or enriched foods. People who struggle to hit their RDA through dietary sources, such as vegans, may want to turn to this form in several ways to help boost their magnesium intake. Oral supplements can help, but may not be necessary if fortified foods such as certain breakfast cereals are included in your daily diet in order to get enough.

Magnesium chloride

You’ll frequently see this type of magnesium sold as a dietary supplement to boost your daily intake and help with bone health. The form itself is a magnesium salt bound with chlorine, which makes for a supplement that’s pretty easy for your body to absorb. You’ll generally find magnesium chloride in the form of tablets and capsules, though there are also topical treatments such as lotions that use this form.

Magnesium malate

This form of the trace element combines magnesium with malic acid, a substance found naturally in fruits that is sometimes also used as a food additive. One animal-based study found that magnesium malate was the most bioavailable form of the mineral, which means these supplements may be able to offer the most health benefits (Uysal, 2019). But more work needs to be done to see if that holds true in humans.

Magnesium malate is often recommended for people with fibromyalgia as a treatment for the fatigue and stiffness characteristic of this chronic illness. Unfortunately, a meta-analysis of 11 studies didn’t find any evidence to support these claims. However, magnesium is involved in over 300 chemical reactions in the body, several of which help give you energy (Ferreira, 2019). This mineral is also essential to energy production, so supplementation may help with feelings of fatigue.

Magnesium taurate

This combination of magnesium and the amino acid taurine may be beneficial for those seeking the heart health-boosting benefits of the essential mineral. Taurine’s health benefits reportedly parallel some of those of magnesium, so you’re potentially getting two ingredients that impact cardiovascular health (McCarty, 1996). Many studies that shape what we know about blood pressure and low levels of magnesium are done in rats, not people. These studies indicate that magnesium deficiency contributes to high blood pressure, which may up the odds of developing heart disease (Laurant, 1999). So more research needs to be done on whether this holds true in humans, but a meta-analysis of studies on magnesium found that supplements of this important mineral can successfully lower blood pressure (Zhang, 2016).

It’s not just your heart that may benefit from magnesium supplementation with this specific type, either. This form of magnesium has also been found to help slow or prevent the onset of cataracts (Agarwal, 2013).

Magnesium oxide

You might know this form best as milk of magnesia. When combined with water, magnesium oxide turns into magnesium hydroxide, so these forms have essentially the same health benefits. They’re well known for their ability to promote digestion and ease heartburn. It may also help with anxiety. A meta-analysis looked at 18 studies on how magnesium affects anxiety and found that the overarching pattern was that supplementation could indeed help with subjective anxiety, though more research is needed (Boyle, 2017). Across the 18 studies, magnesium oxide was the second most commonly used form of this mineral.

Potential side effects

When you eat a lot of food sources of magnesium, your body is able to excrete the excess through urine (Musso, 2009). We only absorb roughly 50% of the magnesium content of the foods we eat (Institute of Medicine, 1997). That isn’t the case with supplements, which is why following medical advice about dosing is crucial. High doses may lead to magnesium poisoning, though this is usually caused by a combination of kidney insufficiency and excess magnesium intake (Musso, 2009). For that reason, people with kidney disease are at a greater risk of hypermagnesemia (too much magnesium).

Although some forms of magnesium have a more pronounced effect than others, all of them may cause digestive issues or gastrointestinal discomfort from bloating and gas to loose stools. The amount of magnesium considered the upper limit for supplements is 350 mg, which means the rest is supposed to come from the diet (Office of Dietary Supplements, 2019). High doses above this mark may lead to side effects, but large doses may be given in the short term under medical supervision to correct a deficiency quickly.