Did you know that roughly 1 out of every 6 Americans suffers from migraines (1)?

Migraines are severe headaches that are often accompanied by symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light or sound, and vision disturbances.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive cure for migraines (though many have had success with food sensitivity testing), so treatment is usually focused on reducing the number of attacks and managing symptoms.

Medications, such as over-the-counter painkillers and prescription drugs, are often used to treat and prevent migraines, but natural remedies are becoming more popular.

One promising option for those seeking natural migraine relief is to try magnesium supplements.

In this article, we’ll explain the link between magnesium and migraines and tell you which magnesium supplement is best for preventing migraines.

What Is Magnesium?

Magnesium is an essential mineral, meaning that it can’t be made by the body, so instead, we have to get it from food.

This often overlooked mineral is involved in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body (2).

It plays important roles in energy production, muscle contraction, DNA synthesis, neurological function, and bone structure.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for magnesium is 400 mg per day for males and 310 mg per day for females. After age 30, this increases to 420 mg and 320 mg, respectively (2).

The Standard American Diet, which consists mostly of meat, processed carbohydrates, and vegetable oils, usually does NOT provide enough magnesium. In fact, nearly half of Americans fail to meet their magnesium needs, typically falling short of the RDA by 100-200 mg (3, 4).

Even people taking multivitamins may fall short since magnesium is a large mineral that is hard to fit into a daily multivitamin-mineral supplement. It is often included only in small quantities (<100 mg) or excluded entirely.


Magnesium Deficiency

Symptomatic magnesium deficiency is rare, especially in people who don’t have any diseases (5).

This is because magnesium is an important electrolyte, and the consequences of not having enough in the bloodstream can be very severe.

To avoid these complications, the body tightly regulates levels of magnesium in the blood and will pull from body stores to avoid low levels.

However, it’s still possible to have inadequate magnesium even if you don’t have an obvious deficiency.

This is called a “subclinical deficiency,” which means that you might not have obvious symptoms, but your body is not functioning optimally and may suffer long-term negative consequences.

It is thought that subclinical magnesium deficiency is VERY common, affecting 10-30% of people (5). It may even be one of the leading causes of heart disease worldwide (6).

Some signs and symptoms of overt magnesium deficiency include (7):

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Leg and foot cramps
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Personality changes
  • Depression
  • Irregular heart rhythms

Of course, if you have a subclinical deficiency, you might not experience any of these symptoms, so it can be helpful to test your magnesium levels.


Testing Magnesium Levels

The most common and inexpensive way to check magnesium levels is to test serum (blood) magnesium.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a very accurate picture of magnesium status because only 2% of the magnesium in the body is found in the blood. The majority (67%) is found in bone, and 31% is found inside cells (8).

This means that your serum will be the LAST place to show a deficiency since levels won’t become low until you’ve exhausted your body’s available stores.

There are more accurate ways to test for low magnesium or subclinical deficiency, such as looking at the amount of magnesium in your red blood cells, white blood cells, or tissues, but these tests are usually more time-consuming and expensive to do (6, 9, 10).  

Magnesium deficiency may increase your risk for certain diseases. A long list of conditions has been linked with low magnesium levels, including high blood pressure, heart disease, arrhythmias, osteoporosis, diabetes, and premenstrual syndrome (2, 11).

Because of magnesium’s role in brain function, it is also thought that the deficiency of this nutrient may be one of the causes of migraines (12).


What Is the Link Between Magnesium and Migraines?

Studies have found that up to 50% of migraine sufferers have low magnesium levels (13, 14, 15, 16).

They have also shown that daily magnesium supplements can reduce the frequency and severity of migraines (17, 18, 19, 20)

One study even found that magnesium supplementation was more effective and fast-acting than a common drug used for the treatment of acute migraines (21).

Still, other research has found no benefit from magnesium supplementation, but this may be because the dose was not high enough (22).

Also, because magnesium status is so difficult to test, it’s possible that some studies’ results are thrown off by including both magnesium-deficient and non-magnesium-deficient patients.

How Does It Work?

Researchers aren’t sure exactly how magnesium works to prevent migraines, but they do have some theories.

First, let’s review the mechanisms that cause migraines. Scientists believe it goes something like this (12):

  1. A trigger causes brain cells to release neurotransmitters (chemical messengers), such as calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) and substance P.
  2. These chemical messengers cause increased blood flow, swelling, and inflammation in the brain.
  3. Nerve cells transmit messages to other parts of the brain, where pain is perceived.

Human and animal studies have shown that treatment with magnesium can decrease CGRP levels and block pain receptors, which may explain its therapeutic effects (23, 24).

However, these are likely just a couple of the ways that magnesium affects migraines, and there are probably other mechanisms we are not yet aware of.

What’s the Official Recommendation?

According to the American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society guidelines, magnesium supplementation is probably effective for migraine prevention, but no recommended dosage or form has been established (25).

Even though there is no formally recommended dosage for migraine prevention, most studies have used between 400 and 600 mg of magnesium per day (12, 26).

Magnesium supplements can be taken with food to reduce stomach upset and increase absorption. However, they should be taken away from calcium supplements and high-phytate foods, since these can interfere with absorption (27, 99, 100).


What Types of Magnesium Are Available?

Because magnesium is unstable by itself, it likes to be combined with other minerals to form what is called a “salt.”

Magnesium can also be combined with organic acids to form magnesium acid complexes or with amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to form magnesium chelates.

Depending on what chemical is combined with magnesium, the “bioavailability” might change.

Bioavailability basically means the amount of a substance that is absorbed by the body. So, if a supplement has HIGH bioavailability, then most of it is absorbed.

There are MANY types of magnesium available to choose from, so we’ve broken down some of the most common forms below.

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1. Magnesium Ascorbate (Poor Choice)

Magnesium ascorbate is the salt of magnesium and ascorbic acid, the synthetic form of vitamin C.

Since it contains more vitamin C than magnesium, it is typically used as a source of vitamin C, not magnesium.

For this reason, it is probably not the best choice for migraine prevention.

2. Magnesium Aspartate (Poor Choice)

Magnesium aspartate is formed by bonding (chelating) magnesium with the amino acid aspartate.

Chelated forms of magnesium, like magnesium aspartate, are more bioavailable than magnesium salts since they are absorbed as proteins, rather than via passive diffusion (28).

According to one study using rat intestines, magnesium chelates were nearly twice as bioavailable as magnesium citrate (28).

While magnesium aspartate is well absorbed, it may not be the best choice for people with migraines. This is because the amino acid aspartate is an excitatory neurotransmitter that may worsen migraines (29, 30).

3. Magnesium Carbonate (Poor Choice)

Magnesium carbonate is a form of magnesium usually used as an antacid to treat heartburn and upset stomach (31).

This is because the carbonate in the supplement acts as a base and neutralizes excess stomach acid.  

Magnesium carbonate is an inorganic salt and is not very soluble in the gut. Because of its low bioavailability, magnesium carbonate is not the best choice for migraine prevention (32).

Ironically, diarrhea and upset stomach are common side effects of this supplement due to its poor absorption.

4. Magnesium Citrate (Good Choice)

Magnesium citrate is one of the most commonly used magnesium supplements. It considered an organic salt and is made by combining magnesium with citrate.

It is relatively cheap and has a higher bioavailability than inorganic magnesium salts, like magnesium oxide (33, 34).

This form of magnesium has been widely studied and is recommended for migraine prevention by several organizations, including the American Headache Society (25, 35).

However, citrate is typically produced via corn dextrose fermentation, so it may need to be avoided by people with corn sensitivities. (If you are not sure whether the citrate in your supplement is made from corn, you can always call the manufacturer and ask.)

Our favorite brands of magnesium citrate can be found here in capsule form and here in powdered form.

5. Magnesium Gluconate (Poor Choice)

Magnesium gluconate is made by combining magnesium with gluconic acid, a tart-tasting organic acid that naturally occurs in fruit, honey, wine and other foods (36).

Compared to nine other magnesium supplements, magnesium gluconate was found to have the highest bioavailability (67%) in one study performed on rats (32).

Because it is well-absorbed, it also tends to cause less diarrhea than other magnesium supplements (37).

However, magnesium gluconate pills tend to contain a smaller amount of magnesium per serving, so may not be a practical way to get the dosage needed for migraine prevention.

6. Magnesium Glutamate (Poor Choice)

Magnesium glutamate is formed by bonding (chelating) magnesium with the amino acid glutamate.

Like other chelated forms of magnesium, magnesium glutamate has good bioavailability.

However, glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter and may worsen, rather than improve, migraines (38, 39, 40).

For this reason, magnesium glutamate is probably not a good choice for people with migraines.

7. Magnesium Glycinate (Good Choice)

Magnesium glycinate (also called magnesium bisgylcinate) is a chelate of magnesium and the amino acid glycine.

The bioavailability of magnesium glycinate is relatively high (23.5%), and it tends to be well-tolerated (41).

It has been studied most in the treatment of depression, but no studies on migraines have been conducted (42). The glycine in magnesium glycinate can also have other benefits, including improved sleep (43).

Many practitioners recommend this form of magnesium, especially for people with GI upset, since it is less likely to cause diarrhea than other less-absorbed forms of magnesium.

Our favorite brands can be found here in tablet form and here in powdered form.

A similar product, magnesium glycinate/lysinate is also available. It contains 1 molecule of magnesium bonded to 1 glycine and 1 lysine (rather than 2 glycines in magnesium glycinate).

8. Magnesium Hydroxide (Poor Choice)

Also known as “Milk of Magnesia,” magnesium hydroxide is an antacid that is commonly used as a laxative. It has a lower bioavailability (15%) than other forms of magnesium (44).

Because of its laxative effect, this is definitely NOT the type of magnesium you want to use to prevent migraines.

9. Magnesium Lactate (Good Choice)

Magnesium lactate is an organic salt of magnesium and lactic acid.

It has relatively good bioavailability in humans, much better than inorganic salts like magnesium oxide (45).

It has been shown to effectively raise red blood cell magnesium levels in humans, so could be a good choice for correcting magnesium deficiency, but has not been studied for migraines specifically (46).

Magnesium lactate is not as popular as other types of magnesium salts but is available from a few reputable companies, including this one.

10. Magnesium L-Threonate (Good Choice)

In recent years, a new form of magnesium, called magnesium L-threonate, has become available.

Studies have found that this form of magnesium can cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain better than other forms, which may be especially beneficial for learning and memory (47).

In fact, magnesium threonate has been shown to improve memory and enhance learning in both rodents and humans, although more research is needed (48, 49, 50).

These effects may be due to the synergism between magnesium and threonate, improving neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to form new connections) and increasing the availability of magnesium within the brain (51).

No research has investigated whether magnesium threonate is effective for migraines, but the fact that it easily enters the brain is promising.

Our favorite brand of magnesium l-threonate can be found here.

11. Magnesium Malate (Good Choice)

Magnesium malate is the salt of magnesium and malic acid – a naturally occurring organic acid that is responsible for the tart flavor of many fruits (52, 53).

Magnesium malate has been studied as a possible treatment for fibromyalgia, but other than that, there isn’t much research about this supplement (54, 55).

One recent study on rats found that this form of magnesium was more bioavailable than magnesium citrate, so it might be a good choice (56).

Our favorite brand of magnesium malate is this one.

12. Magnesium Orotate (Poor Choice)

Magnesium orotate is magnesium combined with orotic acid, which is a chemical that helps create energy in the muscle of the heart (57).

This combination has been studied for its potential beneficial effects in heart failure and cardiovascular disease, but no research has been done on migraines (58, 59, 60).

It also doesn’t seem to cause as much diarrhea as other forms of magnesium, which could be a benefit for people with already loose stools (61).

However, magnesium orotate contains far less magnesium per serving than other types of magnesium, so it is probably not the best option for people with migraines.

13. Magnesium Oxide (Poor Choice)

Of all the forms of magnesium that have been studied, magnesium oxide consistently shows the lowest bioavailability at 4-5% (34, 45).

It is typically used to treat constipation because it has a strong laxative effect (62). For this reason, it’s not a great choice to increase magnesium levels.

Magnesium oxide is one of the most frequently used forms to prevent migraines, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best.

14. Magnesium Taurate (Good Choice)

Magnesium taurate is another chelated form of magnesium, made by bonding magnesium with the amino acid taurine.

This form of magnesium is believed to be especially helpful for the prevention and treatment of migraines.

This is because it provides magnesium AND taurine, which can help dampen neuronal hyperactivity in the brain and reduce the likelihood of developing a migraine (63).

More research is needed, but magnesium taurate appears to be a good option for migraine headaches.

Our favorite brand of magnesium taurate is this one.

15. Sucrosomial Magnesium (?)

One of the newest forms of supplemental magnesium is called sucrosomial magnesium, and is available from companies like Pure Encapsulations.

In this form, the magnesium ions are encapsulated inside a membrane with sugars. This combination increases the permeability of the gut, allowing more magnesium to cross into the bloodstream (64).

However, it is debatable whether increasing gut permeability to boost magnesium absorption is actually a good thing since increased gut permeability has been linked to lots of negative health outcomes (65).

One small human study found that sucrosomial magnesium is more effective at raising magnesium levels than magnesium citrate, oxide, or bisglycinate (64). However, more human research is needed.

16. Liquid Magnesium (Good Option)

Magnesium can also be taken in a liquid form, which is typically made by dissolving magnesium chloride or magnesium citrate in water.

Magnesium chloride has been shown to have good bioavailability, but it has not been studied specifically for migraines (45).

Liquid magnesium is very concentrated and can be taken in very small quantities (no more than a few teaspoons). It is a good option for people who do not tolerate pills.

One of the most popular liquid magnesium supplements is this one.

17. Intravenous (IV) Magnesium (Not for Home Use)

People whose migraines are accompanied by auras (visual disturbances) and women who experience menstrual migraines may be more likely to benefit from intravenous magnesium sulfate (12).

This form of magnesium is given through an IV in large doses (1 gram) and is usually administered only in hospitals.

18. Topical Magnesium (?)

Magnesium oil and bath salts (Epsom salts) are gaining popularity as magnesium sources and can be used in several different ways:

  • Magnesium oil is actually not an oil – it’s made from magnesium chloride flakes and water. It can be applied directly to the skin and can be used during massages or added to baths.
  • Magnesium oil spray can be sprayed on the skin after showering. Most people use just enough spray to lightly coat the skin, then rub it in.
  • Magnesium lotion is made from magnesium oil and works great for dry skin.
  • Epsom salts are made from magnesium sulfate and can be used for foot soaks or baths.

The idea is that magnesium can be absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream without the unwanted side effects that can come with oral magnesium supplements.

No high-quality research has been conducted on this topic, but the studies that do exist report mixed results (66, 67, 68).

It appears that magnesium is absorbed through the skin, but it is unclear in what amounts. Therefore the optimal dosage of magnesium cream/oil/salts for boosting magnesium levels is not known.

There haven’t been any studies to test whether topical forms of magnesium are able to prevent migraines, but some people anecdotally report that it helps.


Which Form of Magnesium Is Best?

The majority of studies have used magnesium oxide or magnesium citrate to prevent migraines (17, 26).

The American Headache Society officially recommends magnesium citrate since it is well studied, affordable, readily available, and has a relatively high bioavailability.

But, just because some forms of magnesium haven’t been studied specifically for the treatment of migraines doesn’t mean they aren’t effective.

Many practitioners recommend other forms, like magnesium glycinate, lactate, or malate since they are also well absorbed can have other health benefits.

Some formulations, like magnesium taurate or threonate are especially promising for migraines due to their beneficial effects on the brain, but more research is needed.

The forms that should probably be avoided for migraines are magnesium ascorbate, aspartate, carbonate, gluconate, glutamate, hydroxide, orotate, and oxide.

If you find that you can’t tolerate any of the oral magnesium supplements, it might be worth trying magnesium lotion, spray, or Epsom salt baths.

At the end of the day, the best supplement is the one you will actually use! If you can’t tolerate one brand or variety, you can always try another.


Safety and Side Effects

The most common side effect from magnesium supplementation is mild diarrhea which tends to get worse with higher doses (2).

This is because unabsorbed magnesium functions as an osmotic laxative, pulling extra water into your digestive tract and softening your stool (69).

To avoid diarrhea, the tolerable upper intake level (UL) (the largest amount that can be taken each day without causing negative side effects) for magnesium is 350 mg per day for adults (2).

However, diarrhea seems to be the only potential adverse effect from taking more than this amount.

No evidence has shown any negative effects from magnesium supplementation during pregnancy and breastfeeding, so the UL is the same for pregnant women (2).

There is a higher risk of toxicity for those with impaired kidney function, so it is important to consult your doctor before deciding to take supplements (2).

Overall, taking magnesium supplements carries a very low risk for most people.


Magnesium in Food

Typically, the best and most natural way to consume nutrients is through food.

If you find that you can’t tolerate magnesium supplements, or you would like to avoid having another pill to take, consuming food sources high in magnesium is an option.

In fact, some researchers even recommend getting your magnesium from food as a BETTER alternative to supplements (70).

Here are some foods with the highest amounts of magnesium:

  • Amaranth: 160 mg (40% DV) per cup, cooked (71)
  • Spinach: 155 mg (38% DV) per cup, cooked (72)
  • Pumpkin seeds (pepitas): 150 mg (38% DV) per ounce (73)
  • Swiss chard: 150 mg (38% DV) per cup, cooked (74)
  • Tofu: 146 mg (36% DV) per cup, raw (75)
  • Black beans: 120 mg (30% DV) per cup, cooked (76)
  • Adzuki beans: 120 mg (30% DV) per cup, cooked (77)
  • Quinoa: 118 mg (30% DV) per cup, cooked (78)
  • White beans: 113 mg (28% DV) per cup, cooked (79)
  • Pink beans: 110 mg (27% DV) per cup, cooked (80)
  • Brazil nuts: 105 mg (26% DV) per ounce (81)
  • Coconut milk: 104 mg (26% DV) per cup (82)
  • Edamame: 99 mg (25% DV) per cup, cooked (83)
  • Mung beans: 97 mg (24% DV) per cup, cooked (84)
  • Navy beans: 96 mg (24% DV) per cup, cooked (85)
  • Spelt: 95 mg (24% DV) per cup, cooked (86)
  • Black eyed peas: 91 mg (23% DV) per cup, cooked (87)
  • Cranberry beans: 88 mg (22% DV) per cup, cooked (88)
  • Acorn squash: 88 mg (22% DV) per cup, cooked (89)
  • Prickly pear: 87 mg (22% DV) per fruit (90)
  • Buckwheat: 85 mg (21% DV) per cup, cooked (91)
  • Pinto beans: 85 mg (21% DV) per cup, cooked (92)
  • Brown rice: 85 mg (21% DV) per cup, cooked (93)
  • Caviar: 84 mg (21% DV) per ounce (94)
  • King crab: 84 mg (21% DV) per leg (95)
  • White potato: 83 mg (21% DV) per large, with skin (96)
  • Lima beans: 80 mg (20% DV) per cup, cooked (97)
  • Almonds: 80 mg (20% DV) per ounce (98)

About 50% of dietary magnesium is absorbed, which is MUCH better bioavailability than most of the supplements mentioned above (2).

If you don’t mind making some lifestyle changes, dietary magnesium is a great alternative to supplementation.


Final Thoughts

For people who suffer from migraines, magnesium supplements may be a safe and affordable alternative to medications.

Magnesium oxide is the most commonly used magnesium for migraine prevention, but it isn’t well-absorbed and causes diarrhea in many people.

A better option is to take 400-600 mg of magnesium citrate, glycinate, taurate, or threonate each day.

Undesirable side effects like diarrhea can be avoided by taking several, smaller doses (200-300 mg each) throughout the day.

But supplements aren’t the only answer. If you’re willing to make changes to your diet, getting your magnesium through food can also be effective.

It’s important to remember that magnesium is just one possible treatment for migraines. Typically, migraines have more than just one cause, so it’s unlikely that one single treatment will completely eliminate your symptoms.

{Want to learn more about migraines? Join The Functional Nutrition Library to learn about other causes and treatment options.}