Mr. Bubble, Meet the Sandman 

I take a handful of vitamins every day that includes a bone health supplement that gives me the full women's RDA for magnesium. I also am a long-distance runner and like to soak in an Epsom salt bath a few times a week after my runs. I read that you absorb magnesium through your skin with Epsom salts and am wondering if I can overdose myself (I'm 28 if that matters). Am I being paranoid or can that happen?


It's nice to see someone under 30 buying Epsom salts, one of the few things left at the drugstore that remains embarrassing. I'm reminded of a movie I saw recently called In Good Company, in which Dennis Quaid plays an aging salesman given a gag gift of the stuff to make him feel old. Given that his new boss is about half his age, and just happens to be dating Quaid's daughter, he's going to need a long bath just to get by without a meltdown. All the better that it was a gift since he won't have to hide the Epsom under The New York Times in his shopping basket.

Your bath salts got their name from the place of discovery: the natural mineral springs of Epsom, England. In the late 1500s, farmers noticed that cattle wouldn't drink the bitter water of the region. Soon enough, someone stumbled upon the pleasant effects of a good soak in this spring and word spread throughout the country. Bathers, ignoring the inherent wisdom of a cow, accidentally discovered the first medical use: a purgative to induce evacuation of the bowels. Exports of the crystalline salt made from this spring has completed the armamentarium of country doctors and grandmothers ever since. Four hundred years later, grandma might be shocked to see intrepid explorers of the mind fill their flotation tanks with 800 pounds of these salts to produce the buoyancy needed to keep the astral travelers from drowning.

Epsom salts are composed of a chemical compound called magnesium sulfate. Broken apart by the bath water, both the magnesium and the sulfate are necessary to the functions of the body and each can, indeed, be absorbed directly through the skin. Magnesium is essential for hundreds of critical actions like keeping heartbeats steady, regulating blood sugar levels and maintaining proper blood pressure. Emergency medicine uses this mineral in the treatment of acute asthma attacks and heart arrhythmias. Sulfates (different than the headache-inducing sulfites found in wine) are required for joint health, almost all digestive processes and the creation of electrical brain connections. According to the National Institutes of Health, low magnesium levels are commonplace and may play a significant role in diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis. Perhaps we should keep this quiet; this information could inspire Congress to legislate your bathtub into a regulated medical device.

True magnesium deficiency is rare, but almost three quarters of us don't get enough from our food. Lots of women are understandably concerned with proper calcium intake for bone health, but don't realize that magnesium levels are equally--if not more--important. Since most of this critical mineral is stored within the bones, in the absence of magnesium absorbed from food, the body will cannibalize itself to keep blood levels steady. Research is now suggesting that simply taking magnesium supplements might help difficult-to-manage conditions like migraine headaches and fibromyalgia. This makes sense; one of the key effects of this mineral is relaxation of muscle tissue, an important issue in both of these maladies.

A different kind of relaxation happens in the Epsom salt bath. A feeling of well-being and mood elevation is a real, documented effect of a soak. The theory goes that magnesium assists the release and maintenance of serotonin levels (a neurotransmitter involved in sleep, depression and memory), thus sedating the nervous system (whatever, just reading the theory has a sedating effect). One more benefit of the bath is that Epsom, unlike other salts, produces softening of the skin while reducing swelling of muscle strains. It's now clear to me why Martha Stewart has become so rough, swollen and crabby--prisons only have showers.

A recent study showed that bathing two or three times a week in a bath containing about two cups of Epsom salts could effectively and safely raise magnesium levels. No risk of overdose or loosened stools was noted, so I think you'll be fine with a soak after running. This seems like extra good news for all those moms who have accumulated hundreds of pounds of Mother's Day bath salts under the sink. Using them up, you can forget about growing old and, instead, fantasize about sharing the tub with a gracefully aging Dennis Quaid.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send your rubber duckies and health-related questions to (on the Web at

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