Melatonin vs. Magnesium: The Difference Between The Sleep Aids, Explained

mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."
Medical review by Wendie Trubow, M.D., MBA
Functional Medicine Gynecologist
Wendie Trubow is a functional medicine gynecologist with almost 10 years of training in the field. She received her M.D. from Tufts University.
Woman Waking Up In The Morning and Drinking a Glass of Water

Magnesium and melatonin are two of the most popular sleep supplements around.

Melatonin has been a popular sleep aid in the U.S. for decades. Between 2007 and 2012, usage of the supplement more than doubled in America, and millions of people now keep it at their bedside for sleepless nights. Magnesium's entrance to the sleep market has been more recent, but initial research shows that it could be a helpful tool for getting the mind and body ready for bed. Here are the main differences between how these two readily available sleep aids work.

What does melatonin do?

Melatonin, a metabolite of serotonin, is a hormone that the brain's pineal gland usually produces at night to send a signal to the rest of the body that it's time to start winding down. Fixtures of modern life like indoor lighting and electronics can get in the way of this process and confuse the brain into thinking that it's still daylight long into the evening. Traveling across time zones can also mess with melatonin production, as your body's circadian rhythm (or internal clock) can't immediately catch up to the new environment.

The isolated hormone has been studied as a sleep aid since the mid-1990s, and research has confirmed that it can help people with circadian-rhythm‐related sleep disorders, jet lag, and wonky work schedules fall asleep faster. Some people experience headache, grogginess, and sleepiness upon waking after taking melatonin—likely because the supplement doesn't necessarily improve sleep quality or duration.


What does magnesium do?

Magnesium is also naturally produced in the body, but it's a mineral and more of a multitasker. It plays a role in over 300 biological reactions. Unlike with melatonin, there are many types of magnesium supplements, each with a slightly different impact on the body (you can read top-level descriptions of each here). Magnesium glycinate seems to be the most effective form for promoting sleep.* It's a combination of magnesium and the amino acid glycine, which enhances sleep quality and neurological function.

There hasn't been as much research on how magnesium supplements promote sleep, but one study on 46 elderly subjects found that it did help ease insomnia and lead to longer, deeper sleep by decreasing cortisol and increasing melatonin levels.* Its relaxing properties likely also have to do with the fact that it activates GABA receptors in the brain, which have a calming and balancing effect on the nervous system.*

Which one is better for your sleep?

The answer largely depends on what you're looking for: If you are someone who travels across time zones a lot, melatonin definitely deserves a spot in your suitcase. In an mbg article on healthy travel, functional medicine health consultant Jon Mitchell, PA-C, M.S., recommends taking it an hour or so prior to your desired bedtime when you reach your new destination. Be sure to turn off the lights and get off your electronics at that time to give it the best chance of kicking in. If you have a job that requires you to be up at night and asleep during the day, melatonin can also help get your body used to winding down when it's still light outside. However, since there isn't much research into the long-term effects of taking melatonin every night, you'll want to take it only as necessary. The recommended dose is 0.5 mg to 5 mg.

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If you're looking for a more consistent sleep aid that helps you fall asleep and stay asleep, family medicine physician Robert Rountree, M.D., says magnesium is the way to go: "Melatonin does one thing very well, which is to provide a specific signal to the brain that it is time to initiate the sleep process. It isn't so great for maintaining sleep," he tells mbg.* "Magnesium helps to calm down the central nervous system, which helps to prepare the brain to turn off and also to keep it functioning at a calmer level throughout the night.*" Since magnesium is a mineral and not a hormone, there's less concern over taking it every day, though you should always talk to your doctor before introducing a new supplement into your routine.

This ability to promote a longer-lasting state of relaxation is why mindbodygreen chose magnesium as the workhorse of our new sleep supplement, sleep support+. The formulation includes 120 mg of magnesium bisglycinate (a highly absorbable form of the mineral) as well as other sleep promoters like jujube and pharmaGABA, to help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and wake up feeling refreshed.*


The bottom line.

Magnesium, a mineral, and melatonin, a hormone, both play a big role in prepping our bodies for sleep. If you are prone to sleep issues, both of them can be taken in supplement form: Melatonin is helpful for prompting the body to fall asleep, but early research is finding that magnesium can help us stay asleep for longer and feel more restored upon waking when combined with other healthy nighttime habits.*


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