Mailbag: When’s The Best Time To Take My Supplements?
Q: As you can see from our order history, we take a lot of supplements for our health! They represent a considerable investment so my wife and I wanted to know what time of day to take them for best absorption and results (list enclosed).
Gene and Bonnie C.
A: It really depends on the supplement, and in all cases you’re safe going with the manufacturer’s recommended usage. But it does get complicated when you’re juggling several products. Here’s a guide to getting the most out of each product in your regimen.
Unlike some drugs, actual time-of-day isn’t so important with most supplements. But there are other factors that can make a big difference in how well your body absorbs and uses them. If you make it a practice to read labels (and we hope you do) you’ve surely noticed that they can leave a lot to be desired. Labels undergo many revisions and despite the good intentions of the manufacturer, the end result can be hard to read, hard to understand, overly vague, or may not take into account that there are often several different ways to use a product. Also, label directions rarely address the fact that most people, if they use supplements at all, use considerably more than just one supplement.
So when you take stock of your supplement regimen, each product with its own specific directions for use, it can be a little daunting. If you’re unsure, it makes good sense to double-check how and when you take each supplement, so nothing is wasted or under-utilized.
Here are some general guidelines that we hope will make the process of setting up your regimen easier.
1) When in doubt: You can always take a supplement with solid food unless it specifically advises against doing so.
2) Take with food: When a supplement label directs you to take it with food, assume they mean solid food with some substance. It’s very important to do that because there needs to be a sufficient amount of real-food material into which the nutrients can be mixed and dispersed. Otherwise, you will compromise absorption and utilization to an unknown degree. And that’s wasted money. It’s similar to how fertilizer or mulch must also be mixed into topsoil for roots to be able to absorb it and benefit the crops. So when the label says “take with food”, they mean solid food, whole foods with fiber and some nutritional content of their own, not junk food or candy.
The most food-dependent supplements are minerals and mineral formulas, most B-complex vitamins and most multi-ingredient formulas like multivitamins. Herbs are usually taken with food, also. Taking these supplements without food can create nausea, compromise their effectiveness, or both.
It’s best to divide all of your take-with-food supplements into 2 or 3 separate doses and take one dose each time you eat. If you’re not sure when or when you’ll be eating next, take them with you. Those small reusable vitamin boxes are very handy for this purpose.
3) Take on an empty stomach: When a supplement directs you to take it on an empty stomach, assume that means 1 hour before or 3 hours after eating anything else, give or take. The more you eat the longer it takes for your stomach to empty and this also depends on what you eat. So use that range as a ballpark.
This is how you take many specialty formulas and products, especially amino acids, sleep formulas, and appetite suppressants. It’s not harmful to take these products with food, but it will undermine their effectiveness.
Unless it’s a sleep formula, the best way to take an empty-stomach formulas is to leave it out on your nightstand with a glass of water and take it first thing in the morning when you arise. Then wait at least 30 minutes before consuming anything else. This virtually guarantees you’ll be taking it on an empty stomach and that food digestion won’t interfere with its absorption or function.
4) Fat-soluble and oil-based supplements: These all require the presence of dietary fat for absorption. The products themselves often contain some oil or fat as a carrier for the nutrient, but this small amount may not be enough for complete absorption of the nutrient. So the directions will often suggest taking these with food on the presumption that your meal will provide additional dietary fat.
But strictly speaking you don’t have to take oil-based supplements with food since virtually all fat digestion take place beyond the stomach. Many people combine their fat-soluble supplements and take them all in just one or two doses, each of which could be taken with or without food. Be careful about taking fish oil on an empty stomach, however, since this seems to increase the odds of it causing burp back or an aftertaste (then again, enteric coated fish oil softgels get you around that problem).
5) Drink mixes: Keep in mind that when using a drink mix formula, you’re not bound to the label-recommended dose; you can always use less. This is often a good idea with supplements like pre-workout formulas that contain stimulants. By starting with a very small dose and increasing it gradually, you’ll be able to zero in on the best dose without overstimulating yourself.
6) Those with sensitive stomachs: Many people have sensitive stomachs or sensitive systems and have learned to be wary even of conservative label-recommended doses. For these users, it’s best to start with small ‘test doses’ of a new supplement, and gradually increase the dose as they assess their tolerance. A test dose may be anywhere from a tenth of a dose to a half dose.
7) Interactions between supplements: Very often people look at their wide array of supplements and get concerned about drug-type interactions. That’s understandable: it’s well known that harmful drug interactions and reactions are unfortunately both very common and kill tens of thousands of people a year. And they notice that their supplements, just like drugs, come in capsules and tablets that, just like drugs, are intended to be taken in a specific way so that, just like drugs, they’ll support your health in some way. But that’s where these superficial similarities end. Dangerous or life-threatening drug-type interactions are essentially nonexistent among nutritional supplements. This is due to the fundamental difference between drugs and supplements; drugs, by their definition, block, interfere with or in some way manipulate normal bodily processes. This interference brings both the desirable result (the therapeutic effect) but is also what makes drugs dangerous since they essentially interfere with the body’s ability to control and maintain itself. When you have two or more drugs doing that, you can see why it quickly becomes a dangerous scenario.
But supplements don’t act in that way. Generally, supplements support natural healthy processes but don’t force changes in metabolism or function. This is why they are virtually free of serious side-effects and interactions. There are supplements that shouldn’t be taken together (fish oil and a fat blocker, for example) but even when they are, it’s not harmful, you’ll just lose the benefit of one or more of the supplements. And needless to say, the inherent safety of nutrients doesn’t give users the freedom to be reckless or to disregard label directions or common sense.
8 ) Interactions between supplements and drugs: Strictly speaking, only the prescribing doctor or pharmacist can determine that for you. And they often don’t have professional experience with supplements. The usual way people ask their doctors about supplements is to wait until the last few moments of an office visit and, at that point, when both the doctor and office staff are probably anticipating the next patient, ask the doctor if it’s OK to use a supplement or what they think of a supplement. But that puts the doctor “on the spot” in such a way that- unless the Dr. happens to have professional or prior experience with that supplement, something customers tell us is quite rare - it’s usually much more expedient for them to dismiss the idea. After all, if they aren’t familiar with that supplement, giving you a good, straigtforward answer means that the Dr. will have to go research that supplement, on his or her own time, for which they won’t be able to bill you (e.g. get paid). Few doctors would be willing to get themselves into that situation, it’s much easier for them to dismiss the supplement for whatever reason.
A much better way to approach this situation is to print out and organize, in advance, the best information you can find about that supplement, put it in a folder and give it to your doctor for review. What you ask them to do, specifically, is review the information at their convenience and then let you know if they’d have any objections to you using the supplement. Don’t ask a point-blank “Can I use this?” or “What do think of that supplement?”
If you are a longtime and dedicated supplement user, it might be worthwhile to seek out a doctor who is more closely aligned with your commitment to support your health in that way.
9) Divided doses are better: With very few exceptions, it’s always better to take a supplement in divided doses versus all at once. This is due to the fact there are limits to how much and how quickly the body can process nutrients. Nutrients taken in an amount or at a rate that exceeds these limits are essentially wasted.
If you have a very complex regimen, a simple spreadsheet may make it easier to keep track of all your supplements and their dosing requirements. But even for small, basic regimens, taking each supplement the right way on a consistent daily basis is the single best way to get the best results for your money and effort.