Of course calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body and silicon is another important structural element, so how can we say magnesium is the most important? The reason is because it is so deficient in so many people in developed countries. Studies show that most Americans have magnesium deficient diets, with one in five getting less than half the RDA (recommended daily allowance) for magnesium in their daily diets (1). Magnesium is a coenzyme that catalyzes hundreds of biochemical processes throughout the body. It’s essential for myriad chemical reactions, the production and transport of energy, synthesis of protein, transmission of nerve signals, muscle function, healthy DNA, and more. All the nerves in your body use magnesium to help send messages along the nerve pathways. It is also involved in blood pressure regulation and blood sugar uptake.
A massive epidemiological study from China showed that the more than 1 million people across nine countries who consumed the most magnesium tested out with a 10 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease, a 12 percent lower stroke risk and a 26 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes(2).
Intravenous magnesium has been used to treat acute migraine headaches, acute asthma attacks, eclampsia, the life-threatening hypertension of late pregnancy, and depression among other problems. Many significant health problems can now be attributed to magnesium deficiency including increased insulin resistance leading to diabetes, insomnia, fatigue, muscular tension, nervous hypersensitivity, osteoporosis, atherosclerosis, congestive heart failure, tics, tremors and even some skin disorders.
The consumption of sugar, alcohol, some chemical exposures and the prevalence of stress in our lives use our magnesium reserves. Magnesium is necessary for calcium transport, so when it is deficient, bones get soft and calcium becomes deposited instead of circulating and integrating into tissue. This can result in bone spurs, cataracts, atherosclerosis and many other problems.
Magnesium is part of the chlorophyll molecule so it is found in green vegetables. It is also found in various nuts and grains, but for most people supplementation is necessary because with the modern lifestyle, consumption of the magnesium-rich foods doesn’t seem to compensate for the physiological need. One problem with magnesium supplementation is that so much of it is eliminated in the bowel. In fact magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt) is used as a laxative. Magnesium hydroxide is used as an antacid. Both of these forms of magnesium are not useful for supplementing the blood and tissues. Amino acids can help magnesium cross from the gut into the blood stream, but in general it is difficult to supply sufficient magnesium through oral supplementation. For this reason, it is helpful to supplement magnesium intravenously or transdermally. Intravenous treatment is a medical procedure, but transdermal administration is readily available, well known as the Epsom salt bath.
People have been using minerals like magnesium transdermally for thousands of years. Even though humans have been using the skin as a direct pathway into the body for treatment for centuries, but only recently have we begun to understand the science behind it. Magnesium absorption has been studied in both humans and animals under various experimental conditions. Research in the growing field of balneotherapy, which is using mineral water baths to treat disease, has shown that nutrient minerals in the water can be absorbed by the skin, challenging earlier assumptions. While more research is needed, early results suggest that soaking in hot mineral springs offer numerous benefits for human health. The science confirms the personal reports of many people who report an overall increase in physical, emotional, and mental well-being, not to mention pain relief, as a result of their immersion in mineral baths. It’s not likely that these results are simply the effect of sitting in hot water (3).
Transdermal patches are produced commercially by pharmaceutical companies as delivery systems for nicotine, hormones, pain killers, and others (4). Similarly, herbalists utilize compresses and ointments based on the healing properties of plants. There are prescription estrogen patches, scopolamine patches, nicotine patches – all fairly large molecules compared to magnesium sulfate.
If molecules are small enough, they can slip through the skin. A molecule smaller than 500 Daltons, can drift through the stratum corneum, the outer layer of the skin – the 500 Dalton rule. Magnesium ions are significantly smaller than 500 Daltons, at an atomic mass of just 24 Daltons.
In 2000, Stephen C. Mitchell and Rosemary Waring of the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom did a review of over 120 books and scholarly articles published last year in the journal Xenobiotica, and also found direct evidence of metallic ions crossing the skin barrier. Nineteen healthy volunteers, ten men and nine women between ages 24 and 64, soaked in Epsom salt baths at 122°F to 131°F on seven consecutive days for 12 minutes. Blood and urine specimens showed that the magnesium had been absorbed and, in some cases, was being excreted. Sulfate levels also rose. The researchers proposed that soaking two to three times a week in 500 to 600 grams of Epsom salts would provide maximum benefit (5).
In another experiment, using human skin at 98.6°F, the same researchers, Waring and Mitchell found that sulfates rapidly penetrated the skin barrier but magnesium did not. One of the criticisms of treatment with transdermal magnesium is that it is only absorbed into the skin and sequestered there. Other experiments by Mitchell convinced him that magnesium crosses the dermis and is stored as a protein complex in the skin, where it is slowly released. In one test where two older patients wore patches of solid magnesium sulfate, blood and urine samples revealed elevated levels. The volunteers also remarked that their rheumatic pains had disappeared. The article, “Sulphate Absorption Across Biological Membranes,” focused on compounds that include sulfates, an arrangement of one sulfur and four oxygen atoms, such as magnesium sulfate.
In another study both the blood level as well as the cellular magnesium content was determined with the help of a hair analysis before and after a twelve week transdermal application with a 31 percent saturated magnesium chloride solution. After a twelve week course of treatment, an average rise in the cellular magnesium content of 59.5% was determined in 89 percent of the test subjects. All participants showed an average improvement of 25.2% in the calcium-magnesium ratio during the test period. As an additional effect, a clear indication of a detoxification of toxic metals was observed in 78 percent of the test subjects (6).
Despite the relatively small sample size the results are significant. Data shows that around 74% of the population in general are likely to have sub optimal levels of magnesium. The concentrated magnesium chloride form can significantly improve cellular magnesium in over 59% of these patients. Magnesium chloride as a transdermal application reaches beyond the potential of orally administered magnesium and saturates the tissues, delivering high concentrations of magnesium to where it is needed most: at the cellular level, directly into the circulation and sometimes directly entering the tissues.
The chloride radical has an even smaller atomic mass than the sulfate radical and is found in all body fluids. It is responsible for maintaining pH balance, transmitting nerve impulses and regulating fluid into and out of cells. This study confirms that transdermal application of magnesium in the chloride form will raise magnesium levels within the body over a relatively short period of time.
There are many things that affect skin absorption. Absorption occurs by distribution around and through the cells that make up the skin. Some absorption takes place along hair follicles or through sweat ducts. Skin thickness and barrier accessibility are different in various areas so absorption rates will vary in different parts of the body. Hair follicles significantly contribute towards topical magnesium absorption by up to 40% (7).
An in vitro clinical trial carried out at the University of Cardiff proved that elemental magnesium could be delivered to the cells of the body through a transdermal delivery. The trial showed that the skin started absorption with immediate effect and the action was accelerated with a short period of massaging the application area after spraying the magnesium solution onto the skin sample (8).
Another study set out to determine whether magnesium in a cream could be absorbed through the skin to increase magnesium status. Twenty-five participants were randomly assigned either a 56- mg magnesium cream or a placebo cream to use daily for two weeks. Serum and urinary magnesium levels were tested before and after application.
There was no change in the placebo group’s baseline levels, but people using the magnesium cream saw a clinically relevant increase in both serum and urinary levels of magnesium. Even though participants applied relatively small quantities of magnesium (56-mg daily) use of the magnesium cream resulted in a significant increase in magnesium levels (9).
Finally, a study in Poland specifically addressed the issue of ion diffusion through the skin. Using ion chromatography, researchers demonstrated in vitro that the metal cation magnesium can diffuse through the skin. The Polish researchers found evidence for multiple routes of absorption (10): There are probably different routes of ions penetration through the skin. It is also supported by different transportation characteristics of individual ions through the skin that can unfold and manifest over time. It is hypothesized that metallic ions may travel between the cells, through the cells and along hair follicles.
Absorption occurs by distribution around and through the cells that make up the skin. Some absorption takes place along hair follicles or through sweat ducts11. Skin thickness and barrier accessibility are different in various areas so absorption rates will vary in different parts of the body.
The internationally renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota (USA) investigated transdermal application of Magnesium oil for fibromyalgia. Forty women with a clinically determined diagnosis of fibromyalgia participated in the study. The type and manifestation of the complaints were documented on a scale using a special questionnaire. The data were recorded at the beginning, after 2 weeks and 4 weeks treatment time. Every participant was asked to spray and massage in 4 spray strokes of magnesium oil twice a day on her arms and legs for 4 weeks. Twenty-four participants completed the study. All participants reported that all complaints had improved significantly (12).
One critic from “Headache News Blog” posted a complaint that “You can’t get magnesium through the skin. The company that sponsored the study has a product they’d like to sell to the unsuspecting public and it will certainly use this “study” and the Mayo Clinic name to sell their miracle spray. The Mayo Clinic is a highly respected institution and I hope they will not allow its name to be associated with such poor quality marketing studies.”
If a study is poorly designed, then logically you can’t conclude anything from it. To conclude that you can’t get magnesium through the skin betrays a serious bias from the critic. Of course the study was not decisive, but most pain and quality of life studies are by means of questionnaire since it is very difficult to assess pain or quality of life objectively and numerically. It is also a fact that pharmaceutical companies carry out research on their products, so criticism of research on a nontoxic product seems unjustified.
To achieve sufficient magnesium, supplementing orally and transdermally is optimum. There are many forms of magnesium available for oral administration. The most efficient forms according to studies are magnesium chloride, aspartate, lactate and orotate13-17. Magnesium citrate tests fairly well despite its traditional use as a colon cleanser or laxative (18).
Magnesium orotate seems to have a protective role in heart disease. Magnesium orotate improved heart failure symptoms in about 40% of patients (15). Preliminary research in animals and humans suggests that this protective role of magnesium orotate may relate to its involvement in the synthesis of genetic material such as RNA and DNA (16). A 500 milligram tablet of magnesium orotate may contain only 31 milligrams of magnesium, but the magnesium is absorbed very efficiently by your body. Magnesium oxide doesn’t test well (13) and magnesium malate may provide some additional pain relief.
But it’s also important to create conditions whereby transdermal treatment can be as effective as possible. There are several factors that can optimize absorption through the skin:
Combining oral and transdermal administration of magnesium will give the best results in raising magnesium levels to normal. One can expect to see improvements in a wide range of health challenges if they are able to achieve this result.