Dietary supplement usage is at an all-time high, with 77 percent of Americans reporting they consume dietary supplements. The main reason people take supplements is to fill nutrient gaps in diets and improve energy. However, to enjoy the full benefits of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, when you ingest them matters almost as much as what you ingest. With the right knowledge, you can learn when to take supplements so your body more effectively absorbs and uses all that extra goodness.
Why Supplements Are So Popular
For good health, the human body needs roughly 40 vitamins and minerals each day. Nutritionists will tell you the ideal way to get all your vitamins and minerals every day is through a healthy, balanced diet. However, most people are not able to meet their nutritional needs through diet alone. Taking supplements is a way to bridge that gap.
Common supplements include vitamins, minerals, and herbal products (or botanicals). Many people choose to supplement their diet for specific reasons, such as reducing inflammation, improving mood, supporting and regulating hormones, or relieving menstrual symptoms. Hormones play a key role in the emotional state of all humans, but women are more likely to experience mood changes as a result of hormone fluctuations during menstruation. Chronic conditions that require extra vitamins or cause deficiencies are also reasons for taking supplements.
The good news is that there are countless supplement options to choose from; the bad news is also that there are countless supplement options to choose from. With so many choices, it can be hard to know which ones are the best. Knowing how the human body interacts with different vitamins and minerals will help you navigate these choices.
Properly Taking Supplements
Not every nutrient breaks down in your body the same way, which can make it tricky to determine the best time of day to take supplements. Some vitamins are best taken with a meal, while others are better on an empty stomach.
But that doesn’t mean you must monitor everything you put in your mouth all day long in order to time your pills correctly. If it’s too hard or inconvenient, most people will simply skip it. If you establish a routine where you take your supplements at the same time every day, it becomes a healthy habit.
Consistency is important, especially when taking supplements to help support healthy hormone levels. For example, daily consumption of supplements can help stabilize the body throughout the entire menstrual cycle, rather than just a few days a month.
Fat-Soluble and Water-Soluble Vitamins
Most vitamins and minerals fall into two camps: 1) fat-soluble or 2) water-soluble.
Fat-soluble nutrients are dissolved into the body using fats and then make it into the bloodstream. Extra vitamins are stored in the liver. In general, it’s best to take fat-soluble vitamins with a meal, and even better with your evening meal. Vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K are all fat-soluble.
In contrast, it’s best to take water-soluble vitamins on an empty stomach (either 30 minutes before or two hours after a meal). These nutrients dissolve in water. The body takes what it needs and then flushes out the rest; it doesn’t store them. Vitamin C, folate (folic acid), and all the B vitamins fall in this category.
When is the Best Time of Day to Take Supplements?
While the best time to take supplements will depend on the vitamin or mineral being consumed, these general guidelines for the most popular nutrients can help you find a good time to get the most from your supplements.
Multivitamins (including prenatal vitamins) are best taken with a meal. If you’re on prescription medication, check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure your multivitamins don’t interfere with your prescriptions.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body and plays a vital role in teeth and bone strengthening, muscle contraction, and blood vessel function. Research shows that calcium can help with PMS symptoms as well. Calcium supplements come in two varieties: calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Calcium carbonate has more calcium per pill and should be taken with a meal. Calcium citrate has less calcium per pill but isn’t dependent on stomach acid for absorption, so it can be taken on an empty stomach.
Folate (or folic acid) is best known for its role in fetal development, but people who are not pregnant can also benefit from folate for growing healthy nails, combating inflammation, and guarding against depression. Your body can absorb the most amount of folic acid on an empty stomach, but you can still absorb up to 85 percent with food.
Some people prefer a more natural approach to supplementation and turn to herbal products, also known as botanicals. It is best to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines because the timing for greatest effectiveness can vary by product. However, if you’re unsure, nearly all herbal products can be taken on an empty stomach (at least 30 minutes before eating or two hours after eating).
Iron is important in making red blood cells, and a low level of iron can result in anemia. Iron supplements are most effective when taken with water on an empty stomach, one or two hours before eating a meal. However, iron can upset your stomach, so it can be taken with a little food if needed and should be avoided after recently consuming any dairy products. Taking some forms of iron with citrus, like orange juice, can help increase absorption.
Magnesium is an important mineral for a whole host of body functions, including nervous system function. Replenishing magnesium can keep your central nervous system regulated, which also plays a factor in hormone regulation.
Magnesium can interfere with the absorption of other minerals, so take it at a different time of day than multivitamins, calcium, or zinc. It can also affect medications such as anti-diabetes drugs, blood thinners, and osteoporosis medications, so it’s best to check with your doctor before you start taking a magnesium supplement. Magnesium is best taken with food, though some suggest taking magnesium supplements at night because magnesium can help you fall asleep.
Found primarily in fish and fish oil, the fatty acid omega-3 plays an important role in cardiovascular health, brain function, and mood. It is absorbed best when taken with a meal.
Probiotics help promote better digestive health. Because they are bacteria that live in your digestive tract, probiotics must survive stomach acid to make it to the right destination. Take probiotic supplements just before, during, or after your meal.
Vitamin A is important for vision, growth, and immunity and has antioxidant properties. A healthy and varied diet will give most people sufficient vitamin A, but if you have a poor or limited diet or a condition that increases the need for this vitamin, supplementation might be beneficial. This vitamin is best taken with a meal.
Vitamin B-12 is important for the body, converting food into energy and keeping nerve and blood cells healthy while also helping to make DNA. Vitamin B-12 is most abundant in animal-based food sources, so vegetarians and vegans are at higher risk for a deficiency. It is best taken with a meal, usually in the morning or early afternoon.
The body uses vitamin C to make collagen and it is known to aid the immune system. It is water-soluble, so your body is unable to store it and it only stays in the bloodstream for a few hours. To avoid stomach upset, take vitamin C with or just after a meal.
An important nutrient, vitamin D is found in few foods and is hard to obtain in diet alone. Our bodies produce vitamin D through exposure to sunlight, but with many people staying indoors most of the day and the increased use of sunscreen, exposure to sunlight is often too low to produce enough. Vitamin D is best absorbed with large meals, especially when paired with high-fat foods.
Zinc is an important mineral for our immune system and helps the body use carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Human bodies can’t store zinc, so it should be taken every day. Zinc supplements are most effective when taken two hours after a meal or at least one hour before eating. However, if they upset your stomach you can take them with food.
Don’t Rely on Your Supplements Alone
Supplements play an important role in boosting nutrition and body function, but all experts agree that the best way to get your vitamins and minerals is from food. There is more to what we eat than just the distinct nutrients found in each item; often food works together in a synergistic way. So, supplements should never replace food. However, supplements can certainly help us achieve better health and quality of life when combined with a good diet. They can also be valuable for maintaining hormonal health and mood. No matter what supplements you are adding to your diet, time it right so your body gets the most benefit from each.
If you are struggling with specific health issues, the right supplement can make a big difference. For example, there are many all-natural substances that can offer relief from menstrual pain, cramps, headaches, and mood swings associated with PMS. Find out more about how Allevita’s unique PMS relief supplement may help.