Sad fact: if you’re reading this and you’re human, you’re probably magnesium deficient.
(If you’re reading this and not human, you’re probably an alien with nutrient vats with squiggling life forms in them. Erm… you might be fine.)
For the rest of us sentient beings the magnesium situation is grim: anywhere from 50% to 80% percent of us are not even getting the RDA. Even those who are getting RDA are getting barely enough to sustain the body’s baseline chemical reactions. 
This isn’t one of those optional minerals that’s just “nice” or “beneficial.”
You need magnesium. Your body uses it for more than three hundred different enzymatic reactions. You can’t synthesize proteins without it. Your nervous system can’t pass signals without it. Your blood glucose levels would be wildly out of control. Your bones wouldn’t develop properly.
Without magnesium your muscles wouldn’t be able to contract and relax – including a somewhat useful muscle you might have heard of… your heart.
Without magnesium you couldn’t even produce the energy to get up and move. Magnesium ions are critical to the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the basic unit of energy in our cells.
Even plants need magnesium to synthesize chlorophyll. Magnesium is so necessary to cellular chemistry that some researchers refer to it a “basic building block of life.”
From where we’re sitting, that means that if you’re magnesium-deficient, you’re partially… not alive.
(Cue The Walking Dead theme. Don’t panic, but most of the people around you are low-magnesium zombies. Just… keep your eye on them. Especially if they start making gurgly, raspy sounds).
Well, like many problems facing our species, we’ve done this to ourselves on multiple fronts:
- Modern agricultural methods that strip nutrients from the soil. (None more so than magnesium. Check this map to see how your local soil is doing.)
- Use of pesticides and herbicides that reduce the uptake of minerals by plants.
- Lack of plant food in our modern diet. Animal foods tend to be magnesium-poor, with certain exceptions. We’ll talk about magnesium-rich foods here in a minute. And junk food, is well… junk.
- Purification of our water supply. Our ancestors probably got a lot of magnesium from their water. Not us. Routine municipal treatment takes away bad stuff and good stuff, like essential nutrients. Plus, we’ve decided to add fluoride, which is known to completely neutralize magnesium ions. SMRT!
- Prescription (and OTC) drugs. Antibiotics, allergy and asthma remedies, anti-inflammatories, diuretics, hormone replacements, and oral contraceptives are notorious magnesium-depleters.
- Our calcium intake (mainly in the form of dairy), which is way too high. Calcium and magnesium are synergistic minerals, meaning they work together when taken in the right ratios, but when one is taken in excess the other can’t function properly.
- Carbonated beverages. Phosphates in soft drinks bind with magnesium and calcium preventing their absorption by the intestine.
- Our sugar addiction. Sugar suppresses your body’s ability to absorb and synthesize other nutrients. Avoid sugar as though it were poison. Hint: it is.
Well, here’s where things get really interesting. The research is clear: magnesium does a bang-up job at fighting almost all the major underlying causes of acne.
Let’s look at a few of the big ones…
When we’re stressed our adrenals work hard, releasing adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that help us jump into action if we’re in danger—which is a good thing, so long as the situation is temporary. But when we’re in a state of chronic stress, these hormones don’t switch off. Cortisol builds up, causing the skin to secrete more sebum, clogging your pores, and worsening acne.
Magnesium earns its cred as the “relaxation mineral.” As one doctor put it, magnesium is “the original chill pill.”
Magnesium supports your adrenal function. When cortisol gets released into your system, your kidneys release some magnesium to compensate. Essentially, magnesium regulates and dampens the effect of the stress hormones when they’re no longer needed. It says: “Chill, bro. We got this.”
Magnesium is also needed to synthesize serotonin, which is your “feel good” hormone, the one that makes you want to get up in the morning and do things and enjoy life. Patients suffering from depression, for example, invariably have low serotonin levels.
So, bonus: in addition to being the original chill pill, magnesium is also the original “happy pill.”
Upping our magnesium intake, accordingly, helps us manage stress and anxiety, and by doing so, helps us manage acne.
But magnesium is not enough by itself. Chronic stress can overpower and use up your magnesium stores—basically, it eats magnesium like candy. (Yet another big factor depleting everyone’s magnesium.) When your magnesium stores run low, your blood vessels tighten and blood pressure goes up, which magnifies the effects of the stress, which makes the blood pressure worse… etc.
It’s a bad spiral to be on, and it invariably shows up on the skin.
So, the idea here is not to eat a bunch of magnesium just so we can go on enjoying our stressful lives! Gotta work on reducing the stress, too.
Note: if you’re a heavy caffeine user you might consider, uh… not being one. Caffeine has exactly the same effects on the adrenals as stress, triggering the release of the same damaging hormones. This too, uses up our already under-supplied magnesium!
You knew that a good night’s sleep is essential for clear skin, right?
Just look at some of the effects of insufficient sack time:
- It has exactly the same effect of you, physiologically, as stress, including the same increase in cortisol.
- It makes inflammation worse, resulting in worse acne.
- It worsens insulin resistance.
- It weakens your immunity, making it difficult to fight off P. acnes bacteria.
How does magnesium help with sleep?
We’ve already talked about how it down-regulates cortisol. Cortisol keeps you awake and “wired,” essentially keeping you ready to fight off enemy combatants or run away from a bear… whether those are legitimate threats or not. Magnesium tells the cortisol to chill. “Like, I think we’re good on the whole ‘bear-situation,’ okay, bro?” (Apparently magnesium is some kind of super-chill hippie/surfer-dude in my head. Probably not too far off.)
Magnesium also helps the muscles relax. In fact, without it, they couldn’t relax. Obvious benefits for snooze time.
We also mentioned magnesium being necessary to synthesize serotonin. Serotonin, in turn, is a precursor for melatonin, your “sleepy-time” hormone. One study had elderly patients taking a 500mg daily dose of supplemental magnesium for eight weeks. Compared to a placebo group, the magnesium-takers all showed a boost in melatonin levels (and a decrease in cortisol).
As a bonus, getting more serotonin also boosts your immune function. Take that, P. acnes bacteria!
And, finally, as we already discussed, magnesium helps with anxiety – so you’re not lying there having mini-panic attacks instead of settling down for a nice, deep slumber.
All good things for getting some quality sack time, and therefore, for reducing acne.
Insulin is another hormone, like cortisol, that’s a good thing in small doses. It helps keep your blood glucose (sugar) low, which would otherwise be toxic to your system, shuttling it off into your body’s cells to be used as energy instead. But when we produce too much insulin (like when we overload our diets in sugar) the body’s cells stop accepting all the excess glucose—they become resistant. This is the short road to metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
Not a road you want to be on.
Insulin resistance, as it turns out, opens up a world of acne-related problems: sebum production goes up, dying skin cells clog our pores, and inflammation gets worse.
Here again, it’s magnesium to the rescue. Magnesium has been shown to slow and/or reverse the effects of insulin resistance.
One study from 2013 showed that non-diabetic individuals who were showing metabolic syndrome symptoms (technically “pre-diabetic”) were able to lower their metabolic markers for insulin resistance 71% just by increasing their dietary magnesium. Wow. Pass the magnesium, please.
Another study found that increased magnesium intake was able to slow the progression of pre-diabetic/insulin resistance into type 2 diabetes. The study participants (nearly 300 of them) had 37% lower risk for diabetes progression than the general population.
Yet another study from Japan confirmed this: magnesium was able to “significantly prevent” the incidence of type 2 diabetes.
Again, we’re not suggesting magnesium as a crutch for your poor diet. Fix the diet and get your insulin under control, for sure.
But based on this research, magnesium is going to help your efforts in a big, big way!
Well, it’s not a good article unless we end up on the subject of poop at some point.
We’ve talked before about the link between gut problems, specifically an imbalance of good guys and bad guys in your gut microbiome, and how it relates to acne. Everything acne-related—inflammation, nutrient absorption, skin chemistry, immunity—is worse when your gut is out of whack. 
And a magnesium deficiency only makes matters… umm, worse-er.
As one study showed, mice fed a magnesium-deficient diet had significantly lower concentrations of beneficial gut bacteria.
A pretty clear-cut result.
It makes sense. Your body uses magnesium to activate enzymes to help break down your food. If you don’t get enough magnesium, down the road you’re looking at all the problems that poor digestion brings a-knocking: Crohn’s disease, leaky gut, SIBO, etc. In all these situations, the bad (pathogenic) bacteria thrive, and the good guys die out.
Also, magnesium is necessary for the contraction and relaxation involved in bowel movements. Insufficient magnesium causes slower bowel emptying, which also causes problems with your gut flora.
Basically, magnesium makes the parasympathetic nervous system work better, which makes the muscles contract and relax better, moves things along, improves digestion, and allows the gut and microflora to do their work in a timely fashion.
In short: more magnesium = happy pooping = a happy gut = happy skin!
No need to belabor the point here. You’ve likely read or heard all about the damaging effects of chronic inflammation. As we’ve discussed before, when inflammation shows up on the skin as acne lesions, it’s a sure bet you’ve got some serious damage going on internally as well.
So, what does the research on magnesium and inflammation say?
In one study on more than 3000 post-menopausal women, increased magnesium intake was responsible for reducing three separate biomarkers for inflammation: CRP (C-reactive protein), TNF (tumor necrosis factor alpha), and IL6 (interleukin-6).
Magnesium is also a precursor for vitamin C, and specifically helps vitamin C express itself in the skin, where it has antioxidative effects . Antioxidants are effective at preventing something called sebum peroxidation, which is when free radicals damage the skin’s sebum, lowering its oxygen content, and making it an ideal environment for an anaerobic bacteria, P. acnes, to thrive and reproduce.
Magnesium deficiency has also been tied to a reduction of glutathione, another key antioxidant your body uses to fight off damage from free radicals.
Magnesium also prevents inflammation by inhibiting e-selectin, which is a molecule responsible for inflammation in the skin. Basically, when your skin is damaged, e-selectin directs inflammation to the site to help the healing process. When the skin is chronically damaged (owing to ongoing poor lifestyle choices such as smoking, poor diet, stress, etc.) then the e-selectin never shuts off. Red, swollen, painful acne lesions are the result.
Bottom line, getting plenty of magnesium helps your body turn off all the inflammation, both systemically and locally, on the skin.
- Green, dark, leafy vegetables (the darker the better): Spinach, kale, swiss chard, collard greens, etc.
- Fish: sardines, mackerel, tuna
- Seaweed, spirulina, and kelp
- Dried fruit: figs, prunes, apricots, raisins
- Dark chocolate
Some sources also say (we’ll call this List B):
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and lentils
- Whole grains
A word of caution with List B, however. Some things may be superficially high in magnesium but have anti-nutritional properties which completely negate the benefits. Nuts, for example, contain a lot of omega-6 fats, which can worsen acne if they’re not consumed sparingly.
Also, grains, nuts, and seeds contain a lot of phytic acid (another anti-nutrient, like sugar) which actually hinders your absorption of magnesium.
Same goes for the high calcium content of dairy. (You’ll want to avoid dairy anyway if you’ve got acne.) Calcium and magnesium occupy the same pathways as far as the intestine is concerned, so one can “crowd out” the other. If you’re over-consuming calcium, the intestine just won’t let the magnesium into the nutrient party.
Stick to List A, and you’re giving the body what it wants, with little to no downsides.
(Hmm, maybe those zombies on Walking Dead should be going for leafy greens instead of gnawing on human flesh. Probably not as dramatic a show, though. “Oh NO, they’re swarming the garden. Not the collard greens!!.. NOooo!!”)
Alright, so that covers your food sources.
Now it’s time for some grim math.
Consume all the magnesium-“rich” food you want, you’ll still be in magnesium poorhouse. The standard daily intake recommendation is around 300-400mg of magnesium, and some recommend even higher amounts like 800mg to 1000mg.
One cup of raw spinach has a whopping 24mg of magnesium. Are you going to eat 33 cups of spinach every day? I doubt it. A can of sardines has about 36mg of magnesium. Again, do the math: 22 cans of sardines today? Yeah, didn’t think so.
Plus, the magnesium measurements in our food were all taken by the USDA years ago. All those factors contributing to magnesium depletion haven’t gone away, so there’s likely even less magnesium in our food today.
Food, these days, unfortunately, just isn’t up to the task.
(With the possible exception of kelp. More on this in a minute)
In a word, yes.
The case for supplementing magnesium is strong—more so than for any other mineral supplement out there. As we’ve seen:
A. It’s absolutely vital for a healthy, functioning, energetic body (and, therefore, for clear skin) and…
B. There’s just not enough of it in our food, even if we’re being diligent about consuming magnesium-rich foods.
Listen, there are many cases where we’ve recommended ditching the supplements in favor of eating real deal, a.k.a. plants and animals.
This isn’t one of them.
Eat the real food, of course.
But seriously consider adding some supplemental magnesium because, unfortunately, your food just isn’t cutting it.
As an experiment, I tried tracking my food intake of magnesium for two weeks. I didn’t modify my intake of magnesium-rich food—I just wanted to see where I was at.
I eat ocean liners of sardines. I also eat an unholy crap-ton of green, leafy vegetables—just… mountains of it. (Even the real dark, bitter stuff that no one likes, like kale, and swiss chard, and dandelion greens… blech.)
Now, I knew from my research that I probably was a wee-bit deficient in magnesium, but I predicted I would at least be in the upper percentiles.
Boy, was I wrong.
After averaging out two weeks, I was shocked to find my magnesium was holding fast right at about 55% of the RDA.
Shocking. Knowing what I now know about the importance of magnesium, this called for a change.
Without changing my diet, but adding magnesium supplements (about 500mg a day), here’s a few things I noticed:
- WAY more consistent energy. No afternoon slumps, just a steady feeling of alertness all day long.
- Less coffee craving.
- Less salt craving. Could my body actually be begging for magnesium when I’m giving it sodium? Hmm…
- Less worry/anxiety, and improved mood in general (that serotonin is magic stuff).
- Better concentration. Instead of being distracted every few minutes, I found myself able to focus on a task for longer, every now and then looking up at the clock in surprise to find that an hour had passed without me noticing!
- Better and more consistent bowel movements. (Boy, we really get up front and honest in these things, don’t we?)
- Better and more solid sleep. I’ve always thought of myself as a light sleeper, waking up several times a night, and sometimes even sleeping in little shifts, like 3-4 hours, then up for a couple of hours, then back to sleep for a couple of hours, etc. Since the magnesium: one solid shift of sleep, every night. And waking up refreshed, without a need for a siesta later on in the day. Que bueno!
- Improved skin. Yep, this is the one we’re really after. I sometimes get a little rosacea under my eyes. It invariably comes back when my gut is out of balance, and in the past I’ve been able to control it using probiotics. This time, however, magnesium (with no probiotics) cleared it up nicely!
Now, all of these effects were predicted by the research, which I was aware of before taking the supplements. Could there have been some placebo effect? Sure.
But I really wasn’t expecting the variety of issues that magnesium seemed to address for me. I thought I might experience one or two little improvements, like lower anxiety and improved sleep. But to also experience an increase in energy, reduction in salt craving, better bowel movements, better sleep, and better (less-inflamed) skin? Hmm.
Suddenly, multiple health issues (which, in my mind, had been unrelated) all seemed to be improving at the same time. It certainly seemed to form a picture.
Have I been underfeeding myself magnesium all these years?
Turns out, most of us are.
If you aren’t currently taking a magnesium supplement, I’d highly encourage you to try one, even if it’s just for a few weeks. If you experience even one of the effects that I did, especially the skin clearing, there’s a pretty good chance your body has been crying out for some magnesium for some time now.
Go ahead and Google magnesium supplements. We’ll wait.
Name soup, right? No doubt you ran into a list along the lines of:
- magnesium oxide
- magnesium hydroxide (aka. milk of magnesia)
- magnesium citrate
- magnesium orotate
- magnesium chloride
- magnesium lactate
- magnesium carbonate
- magnesium glycinate
- magnesium malate…
Phew. Well, one’s as good as another, right?
They all have their uses, but they differ in bioavailability, quality, and the issue that they’re targeting. Magnesium “–ides,” for example tend to be used as nothing but stool softeners. That’s swell, but it’s not really our end game here. We’re looking to fix our magnesium deficiency and thereby address all the issues that give rise to acne (stress, gut issues, inflammation, etc.).
I’ve taken magnesium lactate before, on the recommendation of a holistic doctor, specifically to address digestion issues I was having at the time, and it did help fix the gut and make my skin better. This was the brand I used, if you’re interested.
Note: This and the following supplement links are affiliate links, which means we receive compensation if you make purchases using these links. Visit our disclaimer page for more information.
Magnesium glycinate, while it doesn’t have the highest total magnesium content, is nevertheless touted as one of the most bioavailable forms out there. This is the version of magnesium that’s believed to be the best at making up for an overall deficiency. This is the one I’m taking now, with all the benefits already noted. There are a few different ones on the market, but the nice thing about Pure Encapsulations is that they focus on giving you the purest form of the mineral or vitamin possible, with no weird additives or fillers. The ingredients list speaks for itself: magnesium glycinate, ascorbyl palmitate (a fat-soluble form of Vitamin C), cellulose (what plant cell walls are made of), and water. That’s it.
Let us know if there’s another one you’ve tried, and how it worked for your skin!
You know at the end of a commercial when they say “results may vary”? Same goes here.
There is no universal prescription for magnesium. What’s good for you may not be good for your spouse, or for your neighbor, or your pet budgie. Like most things, it depends on a bunch of factors, like bodyweight, metabolism, how much calcium and potassium you’re getting, how depleted you already are on magnesium, how bioavailable your magnesium source is, and if anything else you’re eating is enhancing the bioavailability. (We’ll talk about a few bioenhancers here, shortly.) You may get excellent results with 250mg a day, or you may be one of those that need 700mg.
Experiment with what works for you. It’s generally a good practice to start off with a low dose, then gradually increase it.
Thankfully, unlike a lot of other supplements out there, it is really, really hard to achieve toxicity levels with magnesium. The only people that really need to worry about OD’ing on magnesium are those with kidney problems. (If you’re not sure whether you have impaired kidney function, or if you’re taking diuretics of any kind, consult a doctor before trying anything new with magnesium… but you knew that, right?) This is a good resource if you’re worried about any contraindications or drug interactions.
Assuming a good, healthy set of kidneys, your body has a nice, obvious tell when you’ve gone a little overboard with magnesium: your poop gets loose.
So start off with a minimal dose per day, say one 100mg capsule. (Remember, you should hopefully be getting a few hundred mg’s from your food.) Then try 200 mg. Then 300, etc. When things start getting a little too umm… motile… for your liking, then drop the dose back down by one.
Yay! Your body is finally getting the levels of magnesium it has been begging you for!
Some people talk about taking a calcium supplement along with magnesium to increase it’s bioavailability. We think this is based on a misunderstanding. The two minerals operate synergistically, yes; one can’t function without the other. But, as we discussed, most people are getting too much calcium relative to magnesium already. Upping the calcium only increases the need for magnesium! (And too much calcium relative to magnesium can lead to muscle spasms, stroke, or heart attack! Gulp.)
Dr. Mercola suggests a 1:1 ratio of calcium to magnesium as optimal. . If you’re really concerned about it, try tracking your nutrient intake for a couple weeks and see where you’re at. Don’t worry about the total amounts; just pay attention to the ratio between the two minerals. If you’re like most folks, we’re betting it’s the magnesium you need to work on.
Maybe the best thing you can do for bioavailability is avoid all the things that hinder or harm magnesium absorption (duh!):
- Pesticide/herbicide-laden produce. (Buy from an organic farm or CSA. Even better, start growing your own garden!)
- Fluoridated water
- Prescription drugs
- Soda drinks
- Excess caffeine
- High phytate foods like whole grains, seeds, and nuts
Yep, glad you asked!
- Take Epsom salt baths. This is great way to absorb just the right amount of magnesium through the skin. Now you know why Epsom salt baths are so relaxing: the magnesium!
- Drink mineral water.
- Apply magnesium oil (affiliate link) to your skin. Not on the face—no need to mess with the skin chemistry there. Just apply it in a highly absorbable place, like the rib cage or inner arms so it starts to go to work in your cells. Let your body direct the magnesium to where it needs it the most! Some people report an initial burning sensation with magnesium oils. If this happens to you, wash it off, and dilute the oil 50/50 with water. Also, never put magnesium oil on a place you shave (armpits, ladies!) – it will burn!
Oh yeah… we mentioned kelp. This Huffington Post article claims kelp has 750mg per serving. For a food source, that’s just… incredible! Of course, we’re not exactly sure where they got that measurement, or how accurate it is. On the back of the Maine Coast Sea Vegetables Kelp (affiliate link) they recommend, for example, it says serving size 1/3 cup (7g): magnesium = 4% of RDA.)
Anyway, it’s worth looking into. Seaweed, in general is a known powerhouse of multivitamins—it’s the only plant food on the planet that provides every mineral required by the human body. If you’ve tried kelp before, or you have another source of magnesium you’ve tried, let us know how it worked out for you in the comments!
And, as always, remember that we’re not suggesting you to try just one thing in isolation to cure your acne. Adding magnesium to your life should be just one small part of a holistic approach that addresses diet, lifestyle, stress—the whole works. If you want the complete breakdown of everything we recommend for acne so you can start getting clear today, please check out the book Clear Skin Forever!
(Though, to my knowledge, the book has nothing to say about zombie-defense. You’re on your own for that one. Maybe in a future edition?)
- Magnesium isn’t just nice, it’s necessary. And, if you’re like most humans, you’re not getting remotely enough of it.
- Magnesium addresses several huge acne causes, namely: it fights stress/anxiety, gives you better sleep, it helps regulate your insulin and blood sugar levels, it helps the gut flora thrive, and it’s anti-inflammatory. As far as acne goes, that pretty much runs the table!
- Some great food sources for magnesium are dark leafy greens, fish, seaweed, bananas, and dark chocolate, BUT…
- Food sources are not enough! Definitely consider taking a magnesium supplement, and experiment with the right doses for you.
- You might also experiment with Epsom salt baths, magnesium oils, and finding a good source of mineral water. And, eww… kelp.
- Remember you’re not alone in your struggles with acne! When you check out the Clear Skin Forever e-book, you’ll also get access to the members-only CSF Forum, where we discuss everything acne-related (and sometimes beyond 😉 ).
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