Struggling with muscle aches and soreness? Consider taking an Epsom salt bath. This remedy has emerged as a natural alternative to painkillers, diuretics and anti-anxiety drugs. Its proponents say that it promotes weight loss and helps flush excess water, but can you trust these claims?
What Is Epsom Salt?
Epsom salt, or magnesium sulfate, is a colorless crystal with potential therapeutic properties. It's commonly used as an analgesic, anesthetic and anti-convulsant. Some medical professionals prescribe it to moms-to-be who have eclampsia or pre-eclampsia, two common pregnancy complications.
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Epsom salts may not be safe during pregnancy. Consult your doctor before using this natural remedy.
Read more: Dead Sea Salt Vs. Epsom Salt
Alternative medicine practitioners claim that Epsom salts relieve constipation, eliminate toxins, cure skin diseases and alleviate joint pain. This substance is promoted as a cure-all. It's widely available in most drug stores and has a low price tag. Unfortunately, most claims lack scientific evidence.
Many people either take Epsom salt baths or drink a mixture of water and Epsom salts. As the Mayo Clinic notes, this product exhibits laxative effects and may provide short-term relief of constipation. It can also be applied on the skin for the treatment of muscle pain, stiff joints, tired feet, minor sprains and other common health complaints.
Magnesium sulfate is available in powder or crystal form. If you have low magnesium levels in the bloodstream, your doctor may recommend magnesium sulfate injections.
According to the University of Michigan Health System, this substance should not be used during pregnancy (unless prescribed by a doctor). Additionally, it may interact with caffeine, alcohol, intravenous antibiotics and several drugs.
Epsom Salt Uses
Magnesium is an essential mineral that supports energy production, nerve and muscle function, glucose metabolism, DNA synthesis, and more. In fact, it regulates more than 300 biochemical reactions in the human body, as reported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). About 50 to 60 percent of this mineral accumulates in the bones.
According to the NIH, certain health conditions, medications and lifestyle factors may cause magnesium deficiency. Individuals with celiac disease, inflammatory bowel diseases or diabetes are at greater risk. Also, magnesium levels tend to be lower in seniors and heavy drinkers. The same source states that a diet rich in magnesium may help protect against stroke, increase bone density and relieve migraines, but more research is needed to confirm these findings.
Proponents say that magnesium sulfate is absorbed through the skin and helps replenish the body's magnesium levels. This is just a myth, though. A study published in the journal Nutrients in July 2017 questions the effectiveness of transdermal magnesium applications. Most studies available on this topic are either small or inconclusive.
Read more: How Do Epsom Salts Reduce Swelling?
For example, a June 2016 study featured in Magnesium Research suggests that magnesium may penetrate the skin, depending on concentration and time exposure. However, there is little evidence to confirm that transdermal applications improve magnesium status in humans, as the journal Nutrients points out.
Considering these findings, it's fair to say that soaking in an Epsom salt bath is unlikely to boost your health. Most claims associated with this mineral salt are based on the assumption that magnesium sulfate penetrates the skin and raises magnesium levels in the body. Oral ingestion, though, has been proven beneficial.
According to the Mayo Clinic, this product can be used as a laxative. If you have constipation, take up to six teaspoons mixed with water per day. Beware of its side effects, though. Low blood pressure, arrhythmia, dizziness, confusion, diarrhea and sleep problems are all common adverse reactions.
Magnesium sulfate benefits may include asthma relief, improved brain health and reduced risk of stroke, as reported in an April 2017 research paper published in the EXCLI Journal. These effects were observed in intensive care unit patients with hypomagnesemia, or low magnesium levels.
Researchers have found that intravenous magnesium sulfate may reduce acute asthma symptoms, protect the nervous system and aid in the treatment of acute ischemic stroke. This compound also displays analgesic effects and may be used in general anesthesia and sedation as an adjuvant drug, or a drug that has pain-relieving properties although its primary use is not pain relief.
Magnesium Sulfate and Weight Loss
As mentioned earlier, Epsom salt, aka magnesium sulfate, is promoted as a natural weight loss aid. Unfortunately, there is no proof that Epsom salt baths increase fat burning, detox the body or boost metabolism.
In a February 2019 clinical trial published in the Medical Journal of the Islamic Republic of Iran (MJIRI), overweight patients who took a herbal supplement containing 300 milligrams of magnesium sulfate experienced improvements in metabolic health. Although this was a small study of just 70 people, it is the only available study analyzing magnesium sulfate's connection to metabolic health.
Their fasting insulin levels, total cholesterol levels, LDL cholesterol levels and triglycerides decreased significantly within three to six months of treatment. At the same time, their plasma magnesium levels increased to a greater extent compared to the placebo group.
These findings indicate that oral magnesium sulfate may protect against obesity complications and boost magnesium levels in the blood. Because the study was quite small, more research is needed to confirm the results.
It's important to note that a diet rich in magnesium may help prevent weight gain and obesity. A study published in the August 2017 edition of the journal Cureus found that children with obesity had lower magnesium levels than those of normal weight.
As the scientists point out, this mineral influences glucose metabolism and several enzymatic processes that regulate body weight. Its role in obesity prevention is subject to debate. However, research suggests that magnesium supplements may help reduce blood pressure and arterial stiffness, which are common side effects of obesity.
Another study, which appeared in the National Journal of Physiology, Pharmacy and Pharmacology in February 2018 reported similar findings: serum magnesium levels and body weight are strongly connected. Scientists state that hypomagnesemia may predict obesity risk and contribute to high blood pressure, altered blood lipids, elevated blood sugar and increased triglycerides.
None of these studies indicates a link between magnesium sulfate and weight loss, but they do show that adequate magnesium intake may help prevent obesity. However, soaking in an Epsom salt bath or ingesting these salts is unlikely to help you slim down. There are better ways to boost your magnesium levels and maintain a healthy weight.
Read more: Magnesium Malate vs. Magnesium Citrate
Boost Your Magnesium Intake
From almonds and cashews to leafy greens, there are lots of delicious, diet-friendly foods containing magnesium. Spinach, for example, provides 20 percent of the daily value (DV) of magnesium per serving, according to the NIH. The same amount of magnesium can be found in one serving of almonds. Plain yogurt, avocado, black beans, kidney beans, soy milk and peanut butter are all rich in this mineral.
Beware, though, that only 30 to 40 percent of the magnesium in your diet is absorbed by the body. If you have celiac disease or other disorders that affect its absorption, consider taking magnesium supplements. As the NIH notes, high doses of supplemental zinc can interfere with the body's ability to absorb magnesium. The best thing you can do is to consult a doctor and have some blood tests done.
Excessive magnesium from dietary supplements may cause severe diarrhea, nausea, low blood pressure, lethargy, depression and cardiac arrest.
Note that too much magnesium can be harmful and cause toxicity. Epsom salts are not safer, either. When consumed in excess, these mineral salts may lead to hypermagnesemia, a rare but serious condition characterized by nausea, headaches, hypotension, hypoventilation, coma and even death.
- PubChem: "Magnesium Sulfate"
- MedlinePlus: "Eclampsia"
- MedlinePlus: "Pre-Eclampsia"
- Mayo Clinic: "Magnesium Sulfate"
- University of Michigan Health System: "Magnesium Sulfate (Injection)"
- NIH: "Magnesium"
- MDPI: Nutrients: "Myth or Reality—Transdermal Magnesium?"
- NCBI: Magnesium Research: "Permeation of Topically Applied Magnesium Ions Through Human Skin Is Facilitated by Hair Follicles"
- NCBI: Experimental and Clinical Sciences: "The Role of Magnesium Sulfate in the Intensive Care Unit"
- NCBI: Frontiers in Pharmacology: "Use Profile of Magnesium Sulfate in Anesthesia in Brazil"
- Medical Journal of the Islamic Republic of Iran: "Oral Herbal Supplement Containing Magnesium Sulfate Improves Metabolic Control and Insulin Resistance in Non-Diabetic Overweight Patients"
- NCBI: Cureus: "Comparison of Serum Magnesium Levels in Overweight and Obese Children and Normal Weight Children"
- National Journal of Physiology, Pharmacy and Pharmacology: "Serum Magnesium in Relation With Obesity"
- NCBI: Caspian Journal of Internal Medicine: "Fatal Hypermagnesemia: An Acute Ingestion of Epsom Salt in a Patient With Normal Renal Function"
- NCBI: Case Reports in Nephrology: "Severe Symptomatic Hypermagnesemia Associated With Over-the-Counter Laxatives in a Patient With Renal Failure and Sigmoid Volvulus"