By Ginevra Liptan, MD
As the release date for my new bookcomes closer, both my excitement and stress levels have ramped up. And when stress levels go up, sometimes self-care goes out the window and then it is fibromyalgia flare time. Recently I have been reminded how useful magnesium can be during flares as a tool to activate my relaxation response.
Since fibromyalgia is characterized by a hyperactive stress response, anything that we can do to activate the opposite reaction in our bodies by generating a relaxation response can reduce symptoms. One easy way to do that is with topical magnesium lotions or soaking in magnesium-enriched water.
Magnesium is known as the relaxation mineral: it has calming effects on the brain, nerves, and muscles. And guess what mineral nearly everyone with fibromyalgia is deficient in? You guessed it! When scientists have analyzed the levels of magnesium in fibromyalgia patients they are consistently low.
But there are a few challenges with taking this mineral orally in high doses. It acts as a laxative (you may have heard of milk of magnesia, one of the strongest laxatives there is) and we don’t absorb it very efficiently through our intestines. Oral magnesium supplements can certainly be helpful, but to get doses high enough to trigger a relaxation response, you need to get the high doses that can only be attained by letting your skin and muscles soak it up.
We absorb magnesium better through our skin than through our intestines, so a transdermal application is an effective way to trigger relaxation, without causing loose stool. You can bathe in Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) or rub magnesium oil or lotion on your feet and legs before bed, which guides the body into deeper sleep and acts as natural relaxant to tight muscles. Be careful, though, as magnesium can be a bit abrasive to the skin, so if you have an open cut don’t use it on that area—it will sting. The creams and lotions are milder and gentler on the skin than the oils, but contain less magnesium. I like the lotion from Ancient Minerals.
Another way to absorb magnesium is by soaking in magnesium-rich water. If you live in a place with access to float therapy, I definitely encourage you to check it out. Flotation therapy is also called Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST)
and involves floating in a shallow warm pool that is saturated with about 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt to make it heavy and enable easy floating. Often these pools are enclosed in lightproof and soundproof tanks that drastically reduce sensory input, which also helps induce a relaxation response. However there are also open options more like large bathtubs for those with claustrophobia. Flotation therapy has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, muscle tension and pain, and induce relaxation.
Flotation REST therapy currently being studied specifically for fibromyalgia and initial data shows it decreased pain, muscle tension, anxiety, and stress. There is an ongoing international study at float centers around the world. To learn how you can be involved go to fibromyalgiaflotationproject.com.
Floating in these tanks is a like taking a bath while floating like a cork on the surface of the water. It’s a unique experience; it feels like, I imagine, floating in space. Without the effect of gravity on your joints and muscles, there is less input to the pain-sensing nerves, resulting in less pain. In the float tank and for a few days after, my pain is decreased, my muscles feel looser, and my body is calmer.
Float shops are springing up in large cities around the U.S., but if you can’t access flotation therapy, you can simulate its effects at home by taking a bath with as much Epsom salt as you can get to dissolve. Then turn off the lights and reduce noise as much as possible. You won’t float unless you have a huge bathtub (and 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt), but you will still get the relaxing benefits of magnesium absorbed through your skin.
So next time your stress is through the roof and self-care has gone out the window, apply some magnesium lotion, take a bath in Epsom salts, or go for a float!