Magnolia Bark: Your Go-To Herb For Sleep & Anxiety

Image: Nadine Greeff

For centuries, magnolia has been used as a calming natural remedy—and with good reason. Thanks to magnolia's sleep-promoting, stress-reducing properties, these ancient applications have a powerful place in modern-day wellness practices, too.

"I am a big fan of magnolia for sleep," says Michael Breus, Ph.D., a board-certified sleep specialist. "It works as an anxiety reducer, and several of my patients have commented to me that it helps them 'turn off their brain.'"

Its ability to 'turn off the brain' (or at least calm it down) has benefits beyond the bedroom, too. In addition to aiding in restful zzz's, magnolia bark is also used to help manage stress and anxiety, protect brain health, and treat depression. It's also been shown to reduce inflammation and inflammation-related pain, help manage diabetes, improve dental health, and even potentially prevent certain cancers.

Here's what you need to know about magnolia—where it comes from, what it does, how to take it, and more.

What is magnolia?

While supplements are commonly referred to simply as magnolia, they usually contain magnolia bark (magnolia itself refers to a class of about 240 flowering tree and shrub species). The plant is native to North and South America, the Himalayas, and East Asia; and Magnolia has a particularly strong connection to Chinese herbal medicine (which utilizes both the flowers and the bark).

Among other bioactive compounds, the bark contains magnolol and honokiol, which are largely to thank for many of magnolia bark's benefits.

Magnolia bark for sleep.

Magnolia bark's most widely known application is helping with sleep—research has found that magnolia bark can help reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and increase the amount of time spent in both REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, which are both important in restorative rest.

There are several mechanisms behind its sedative effects. Notably, magnolia bark boosts the neurotransmitter GABA, or gamma-Aminobutyric acid. "GABA is like the brakes of the brain," says Breus. "When GABA is elicited, then your whole being starts to slow down, which obviously is something that you want for sleep."

This is the same way that powerful prescription sleep aids like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata work. "They are all GABA receptor agonists, meaning they increase the amount of GABA in your system, and magnolia bark basically hits the same receptors that Ambien does," says Breus.

Magnolia bark also helps promote better sleep through the body's internal endocannabinoid system, which is a system of neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors to tell the brain to slow down. Magnolia bark actually activates these cannabinoid receptors, says Breus. This is similar to the way CBD oil works (CBD, or cannabidiol, is one of the non-psychoactive properties found in cannabis that helps the body and brain relax). 

Another way magnolia bark aids in sleep is by reducing the stress hormone adrenaline, which helps control the fight-or-flight response (which, hopefully, doesn't need to be in action when you're dozing off). "Right as you're falling asleep, you really want adrenaline to be as low as possible," says Breus. By reducing adrenaline and other stress hormones like cortisol, magnolia bark can help you doze off peacefully.

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Other benefits of magnolia bark.

Magnolia bark's sleep-improving benefits go beyond the time you actually spend sleeping itself. In addition to waking up feeling rested and rejuvenated, the simple act of getting enough high-quality sleep can improve your mood, skin, and energy levels, and it can help manage weight and stress, among countless other benefits. So, if you're using magnolia bark to help improve your sleep, other aspects of your health may also see a boost.

Thanks to its powerful properties, magnolia bark also has health benefits that are independent of its ability to improve sleep (and all of the associated health benefits that come along with that). Here are some of the main benefits of magnolia bark:

1. Magnolia bark for anxiety.

Through many of the same mechanisms that it supports sleep by, magnolia bark can help reduce anxiety by activating receptors in the endocannabinoid system (like CBD) and reducing adrenaline and other stress hormones like cortisol.

This may make magnolia bark a promising natural remedy for stress and anxiety, without the side effects of certain prescription anti-anxiety medications. One study done on mice found that honokiol, one of the anti-anxiety (or anxiolytic) properties found in magnolia bark, doesn't carry the same side effects as the anxiety medication diazepam (including Valium), such as physical dependence, central depression, and amnesia.

2. Magnolia bark for managing depression.

One study found that the mixture of honokiol and magnolol from magnolia bark had antidepressant-like effects on stressed rodents—it helped normalize biochemical abnormalities in serotonin (5-HT) and the main metabolite of serotonin (5-HIAA).

Other studies have found that the combination of honokiol and magnolol with ginger may have similar antidepressant properties (a common combination in Chinese medicine to treat depression), possibly by regulating both serotonergic and gastrointestinal system functions (so both the brain and the gut are involved).

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3. Magnolia bark to protect brain health.

Research suggests that one compound in magnolia bark, 4-O-methylhonokiol, helps prevent memory impairment, which may help prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease. Honokiol and magnolol have also been shown to help decrease Aβ‐induced cell death, which may play a role in the development of Alzheimer's disease. 

4. Magnolia bark to help manage and prevent diabetes.

The compounds in magnolia bark (especially honokiol) may help control blood glucose levels. One study found that 4-O-methylhonokiol, an active compound in magnolia bark, can help prevent obesity and insulin resistance. It also may help protect against oxidative liver damage, a possible complication of diabetes.

5. Magnolia bark to lower blood pressure.

One study found that the magnolia bark compound honokiol had an antihypertensive effect on rats, reducing systolic blood pressure significantly when the honokiol was administered long-term.

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6. Magnolia bark for reducing inflammation and pain.

In one study, magnolia bark extract helped reduce the secretion of inflammatory markers in cells. The compounds honokiol and magnolol also have been found to alleviate pain resulting from inflammation.

7. Magnolia bark for treating the symptoms of menopause.

When magnolia bark was combined with magnesium, one study found that menopausal women saw significant decreases in the frequency and severity of symptoms including flushing, night sweats, palpitations, insomnia, anxiety, depression, irritability, vaginal dryness, and libido loss, as compared to women taking a combination of calcium and vitamin D3.

8. Magnolia bark to protect against certain cancers, including breast cancer.

Research from Johns Hopkins University found that the magnolia bark compound honokiol slowed the growth of breast cancers associated with excess leptin (a hormone that helps regulate hunger). Research has also found that honokiol can block a pathway for cancer growth (including breast cancer, bladder cancer, and lung cancer), which was previously thought to be unreachable with drugs. In another study review, honokiol was found to have anti-cancer properties, including the ability to aid in shrinking tumors alongside radiation therapy (more so than radiation on its own).

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9. Magnolia bark for dental health.

One study found that breath mints made with magnolia bark helped kill the oral bacteria that causes bad breath and tooth decay within 30 minutes, suggesting that magnolia bark in gum and mints may make visits to the dentist's office much more pleasant. Research has also found that its antimicrobial properties may also inhibit the formation of plaque.

Image: Nadine Greeff

Safety of magnolia bark.

Like any herbal supplement, magnolia bark isn't safe for everyone to take. Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, in particular, should avoid it. "You don't want magnolia bark passing through to the fetus, because magnolia bark is not a naturally occurring substance that they would normally encounter, [so there's risk of a reaction]," says Breus.

If you're having surgery, you should also stop using magnolia bark for two weeks leading up to the day. Magnolia bark calms the central nervous system, so adding anesthetic on top of it can slow the nervous system down too much when they're combined, says Breus (and anesthesiologists may not be aware of magnolia bark use when they're determining proper dosage). Magnolia bark may also slow blood clotting, which isn't good news in surgery.

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Magnolia bark side effects and interactions.

For most people, magnolia bark generally doesn't come along with side effects (aside from, of course, drowsiness). However, possible side effects may include heartburn, shaky hands, thyroid problems, sexual problems, and dizziness, according to Breus.

Magnolia bark also has some interactions with certain medications. According to Breus, it may interact with anticoagulant medications (or blood thinners). It also may interact with central nervous system (CNS) depressants, including benzodiazepines (such as Xanax and Valium), sleep medications (such as Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata), and barbiturates (such as Mebaral, Luminal, and Nembutal).

Magnolia bark can also interact with other herbal remedies that have similar effects to magnolia, so take caution when combining them. According to Breus, other herbs and supplements that aid in sleep include 5-HTP, calamus California poppy, catnip, hops, Jamaican dogwood, kava, St. John's wort, skullcap, valerian, and yerba mansa.

Herbs and supplements that prevent blood clotting should also be used with caution when you're also taking magnolia bark. These include angelica, cloves, danshen, feverfew, garlic, ginger, ginkgo, panax ginseng, horse chestnut, red clover, and turmeric, says Breus.

Finally, large doses of magnolia bark taken with alcohol may also magnify the drowsy effects of both.

How to use magnolia bark.

Magnolia bark extract is often found in capsule form or in tinctures. You can also buy magnolia bark on its own (although if you're not familiar with magnolia, it's best not to prepare your own magnolia bark supplements, like teas—dosing is more challenging to control this way).

"A typical starting dose for magnolia bark for somebody is probably somewhere between 200 and 250 milligrams," says Breus. He recommends starting low and working your way up, and you shouldn't exceed 400 milligrams, in order to reduce the risk of side effects or drug interactions. "The higher you go, the more likely it is to interact with other medications you may be taking, even other herbal supplements," says Breus.

And, of course, because magnolia bark is a sleep aid, it should be taken at night (definitely not in the day, when you're driving a car or doing important tasks). Save it for when you're winding down at night, cozy up, and enjoy the restful, calming benefits of magnolia bark.

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