Pop quiz for the Paleo pros: what supplement can soothe muscle cramps, build bone strength, gently alleviate constipation, calm down the most wound-up insomniac, and treat a common mineral deficiency all at the same time?
The answer: magnesium! That’s a pretty impressive list of benefits just from one mineral. Unfortunately, inadequate intake of magnesium is also quite common, which means that a supplement may sometimes be a smart choice.
Supplements don’t have to enter your body through your mouth, though. In fact, sometimes it’s better when they don’t. Enter Epsom salts…
What Are Epsom Salts?
Epsom salts, technically magnesium sulfate, are little crystals that look just like any other bath salts. You can get them all gussied up with essential oils and colorings, but you can also buy a huge bag of plain, unscented Epsom salts for almost nothing at most drugstores.
When you toss Epsom salts into a bathtub or even a foot bath, and then spend some quality time soaking, you’ll absorb the magnesium through your skin: it’s basically a supplement that you soak up rather than eat. If you’d rather take a bath than take a pill, Epsom salts might just be the form for you – and in fact, they have some interesting qualities that might make them even better than a pill-based supplement, depending on what you’re using them for.
Replace gut-irritating anti-inflammatories.
After a hard workout leaves you sore and achy, it’s only natural to reach for the ibuprofen, but non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen are actually very hard on your gut. And that goes double for anyone with an autoimmune disease.
Fortunately, you can skip the pill bottle and reach for the Epsom salts instead. Just pour 1-2 cups into a hot bath and enjoy your soak. No bathtub? A bucket also works; you can just stick your feet in for half an hour while you do something else. As a neat little chemistry bonus, the Epsom salts actually help prevent your skin from wrinkling, so you can soak longer without getting all pruney.
You can simply toss a couple cups of Epsom salts into the bath for a purely medicinal soak, or you can add a few drops of essential oils to make your bath smell good as well. It’s also good for other anti-inflammatory needs (like menstrual cramps or just general stress).
Magnesium is a very gentle, natural laxative with few side effects, and absorbing Epsom salts through your skin is just as effective as taking magnesium by mouth. There’s no clear benefit to one way or the other, but it’s always nice to have options. If oral supplements give you diarrhea, Epsom salts baths may be a better choice; many people find them gentler.
Epsom salts are mildly anti-inflammatory and famous for soothing everything from sunburn to bee stings. And they also help make your skin a little softer and smoother. Some people also swear by them for drawing out blackheads and splinters – there’s no harm in trying to see if it works!
Technically, you can also take Epsom salts as a magnesium supplement by mouth. Most brands recommend 2-6 teaspoons per day as a maximum for adults, with 1-2 for children. Start with a lot less than the maximum, and work up as you need it. Just dissolve the Epsom salts in a glass of water and drink it. If you do this, make sure you’re using pure Epsom salts, without any added scents or colorings.
There’s one immediately obvious downside to this method, though: it tastes disgusting! In a pinch, it’ll do, but if you want to make a habit of magnesium supplements you’ll probably want to get them in pill form.
Epsom Salts and Magnesium Overdose
That was all the good stuff; now it's time to look at the potential problems. One of the big potential drawbacks of taking any kind of supplement is the risk of an overdose: when you’re not getting nutrients from whole foods, it’s a lot easier to get a dangerous amount of them. With Epsom salts, though, there are two sides to the issue. On the one hand, taking them orally presents a known risk for an overdose. But on the other hand, taking them dermally (through a soak in the bath) is the safest magnesium supplement we know of.
Let’s start with the bad. Taking too much oral magnesium first causes nausea, a headache, a feeling of lightheadedness, and flushed skin. An even higher dose makes you feel very sleepy; even more than that will make it very hard to move and cause hypoventilation (not breathing enough). In extreme cases, it can cause heart problems, coma, paralysis, and death.
- This case study describes a constipated woman who had to go to the hospital because she took too many magnesium supplements. This one describes a man in a more or less similar case.
- Here’s a case study of an 11-year-old boy who drank Epsom salts for constipation and ended up in the hospital.
- In this case, a woman actually died from drinking magnesium as a weight-loss aid.
As a more minor side effect, a smaller overdose of magnesium in any form can also cause diarrhea – not life-threatening, but certainly unpleasant.
But again, this is only a serious concern for Epsom salts taken orally, and even then, it’s only for extreme overdoses (if you read the studies, it’s pretty obvious that most of these people had no idea when to stop, or were using the supplements in an unsafe way). There aren’t any cases of people having serious complications from Epsom salts baths, and in fact, this study suggests that Epsom salts baths might be naturally self-limiting: when you’ve had enough magnesium, your body just stops absorbing it. That makes Epsom salts baths a very safe choice especially for children or the elderly, who are more vulnerable to an overdose in the first place.
Even oral Epsom salts (or other magnesium supplements) can be perfectly safe to use, though, as long as you’re smart about it. Using supplements isn’t necessarily dangerous just because abusing them is bad. Read the label, start with a low dose, and know the signs of an incipient problem so you can get help right away.
Where/How to Buy Epsom Salts
Any drugstore will have Epsom salts, usually wherever they store the other “athletic”-type stuff like compression sleeves and IcyHot. You can sometimes find it with the bubble bath and other cosmetics, but more commonly it’s in with the medical products. Sometimes it’s in a bag; sometimes it’s in a box.
It doesn’t matter what kind or brand you buy, but it should be very cheap – you shouldn’t have to pay more than $4 or 5 for a huge pile of the stuff. Then just haul it back to the cave, throw it in a nice hot bath, and lie back to enjoy the relaxation!