Epsom Salts: A Favorite Remedy For Anxiety, Inflammation & Insomnia
Epsom salts have been a popular natural remedy for centuries, used to help with anything from healing wounds to relieving constipation. But did you know that Epsom salts are really just magnesium sulfate salts? It's true. Epsom salts are just one of the many ways we can use magnesium—also known as nature's relaxation mineral—to better our health.
As the health editor at mindbodygreen and the author of the upcoming book Magnesium: A Lifestyle Guide to Epsom Salts, Magnesium Oil, and Nature's Relaxation Mineral, I've spent my fair share of time both soaking in Epsom salt baths and at my desk researching the history of Epsom salts, their benefits, and how we might be able to use them to treat various health woes.
Over these years of research and personal experimentation, Epsom salts have become one of my absolute favorite "alternative" remedies. Although I'm not sure we should even use the word "alternative," seeing as magnesium-based therapies have actually now been approved by the FDA as laxatives and you can find Epsom salts in pretty much any pharmacy or grocery store in America. They're a great remedy whenever you're amped at the end of the day, sore from a workout, or just in need of a little extra self-care.
What are Epsom salts?
The history of Epsom salts is pretty fascinating. They were discovered as early as the 1700s in a town called Epsom (big surprise there), which is about 15 miles from London. People would travel from all over Europe to bathe in the healing water at the bitter saline spring in the town, which would help with anything from skin issues to wound healing and decreasing infections to digestive problems. Eventually, they discovered that boiling down the water produced magnesium sulfate salts, later named Epsom salts, which were then able to be transported and sold everywhere. Epsom salts—much like witch hazel—have withstood the test of time and are still a popular remedy today that has been embraced by both Eastern and Western medicine practitioners.
The health benefits of Epsom salts.
Magnesium is an incredibly important mineral and acts as a cofactor in over 300 biochemical reactions1 in the body. These reactions control things like protein synthesis, muscle contraction, blood pressure regulation, and blood sugar balance. In other words: It's really important.
Unfortunately, it's suspected that a large portion of the population isn't getting enough magnesium through their diet. This is in part because of how our soil has changed over the years—aka, the mineral content has decreased drastically2—and also because processing foods leaches them of their magnesium content, leaving them virtually devoid of the mineral. Magnesium-rich foods include leafy greens, fatty fish like salmon, and nuts and seeds.
Since Epsom salts are technically a form of magnesium therapy, the benefits you get from bathing in a magnesium-rich bath are thought to be similar to those you get from taking oral magnesium. Integrative medicine doctor Bindiya Gandhi, M.D. is a fan of Epsom salts for more reasons than one, explaining that "I recommend Epsom salt for muscle aches, anxiety, and to help patients relax and sleep better. I also have postpartum patients and with those with hemorrhoids soak in Epsom salt to help with recovery. I personally soaked in Epsom salt prior to labor to help have a smooth and easy vaginal delivery. Many people are deficient in magnesium and using epsom salt soaks instead of a supplement can be therapeutic."
Here are some of the most common reasons why people are using Epsom salts baths on the reg:
Epsom salts as a natural laxative.
One of the first benefits of Epsom salts that was discovered was its ability to act as an all-natural laxative. Today, however, it's not recommended to use Epsom salts internally as a laxative. Instead, there are other forms of magnesium that can help keep things moving along your digestive tract in a way that's a lot more gentle. Magnesium citrate, which is available in a supplement capsule or as a powdered drink, is one of the top doctor-recommended forms of magnesium for constipation, along with magnesium oxide.
Epsom salt as a stress- and anxiety-reducer.
One of the best benefits of magnesium and Epsom salts is their ability to help wash away the stress from the day and soothe occasional anxiety3. Magnesium is often praised as one of the best natural approaches to anxiety, stress can be a risk factor for magnesium deficiency, and ironically, a deficiency in magnesium can magnify our unhealthy responses to stress. Top integrative medicine doctors think we need more magnesium in times of stress, explaining that it interacts with GABA in the brain.
Epsom salts to help with sleep.
Knowing magnesium's ability to soothe tense muscles and relieve anxiety, it probably comes as no surprise that it is also praised for helping with sleep. One study showed that elderly people taking a magnesium glycinate supplement had improved insomnia4.
Epsom salts for pain relief.
Epsom salts to soothe damaged or dry skin.
People have been using Epsom salts to heal the skin for as long as they've been around. A study published in 2005 suggests that Epsom salts can be helpful if you have dry skin and can decrease inflammation and promote hydration.
Epsom salts for detoxification
Epsom salts are also a great way to help your body detox and support the liver. Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP functional medicine expert and mindbodygreen Collective member is a big fan of Epsom salts, "I seriously love Epsom salt baths. Most people today are magnesium deficient and Epsom salt baths are one great way to increase magnesium levels. Magnesium is essential for hundreds of important pathways in our body, one of which are detoxification pathways. In addition to being nature's chill pill, magnesium is extremely important for sulfonation, glucuronidation, and glutathione conjugation reactions which are all part of phase II liver detox pathways." He frequently recommends Epsom salts to patients at his functional medicine clinic.
How to use Epsom salts: dosing, safety, and where to buy them.
You can buy Epsom salts at pretty much any grocery store or pharmacy in the United States, including these next-level Epsom salts at CVS. Bonus: They're also very reasonably priced (you'll usually pay somewhere between $5 and $10), and there are plenty of options to choose from—some even have added ingredients like activated charcoal or lavender.
To dose Epsom salts, just follow the directions on the package of whatever brand you're using. Don't be surprised when they ask you to pour half the bag (or the entire bag!) into the bath—you need a lot to get the desired effects! Dissolve the salts in the water while the bath is running, and soak 15 to 30 minutes.
If you want to bring your bath to the next level, try adding a few drops of lavender or chamomile essential oil or one of these PureSoma soaks that feature different herbs, clays, and minerals that can also help with recovery, sleep, or detox.
Transdermal magnesium: The truth about absorbing magnesium through the skin.
Clearly, Epsom salts have quite a few benefits. And while there's still no final consensus on whether or not magnesium in the form of an Epsom salt bath has all of the same benefits of taking magnesium as a supplement by mouth, they're still a great way to take advantage of this ancient mineral that our bodies rely on so much. There's also still some debate over how well magnesium can be absorbed through the skin6 since the skin is technically designed to keep things from entering the body, and it does a great job at it. That said, so many people swear by Epsom salt baths as a helpful remedy for sleep, pain, and anxiety, and integrative and functional medicine doctors often recommend them to their patients, that it remains a staple in my medicine cabinet and medicine cabinets all over the world. In addition, getting a daily dose of magnesium by way of a bath eliminates the risk of the most common negative side effect of oral magnesium supplementation7: diarrhea.
One note: Excess magnesium is excreted7 through your urine, and magnesium balance in the body is controlled by the kidneys, so if you have a kidney issue, you'll want to talk to your doctor before supplementing. In fact, it's always best to mention to your doctor when you're thinking of taking a new supplement and to make sure it's on your chart if you're already taking it.
Epsom salts: Why they should be your new favorite natural remedy.
The best thing about this natural remedy is the fact that they are cheap and easy, especially compared to other lifestyle remedies like dietary changes and supplements—which can be expensive and require a lot of time and energy. Bathing in magnesium also doubles as a form of self-care, which means you're killing two birds with one stone. They encourage you to take a little bit of time out of the day to dedicate to just you and your health.
Want one last Epsom salt tip? Leave the phone out of the bathroom while you soak—you're taking away some of the benefits when you're reading the news or scrolling through social media. Instead, sit in silence, listen to some calming music, or try a guided meditation.
Gretchen Lidicker has a B.S. in biology and earned her master’s degree in physiology with a concentration in complementary and alternative medicine from Georgetown University. She's the author of CBD Oil Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide to Hemp-Derived Health and Wellness and Magnesium Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide to Epsom Salts, Magnesium Oil, and Nature's Relaxation Mineral. A Kripalu Center for Yoga and Ayurveda-trained yoga instructor, expert bread baker, and farmers market fanatic, she believes that no day is complete without a good dance party.