Top 5 Things About Taking Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
When someone tells me they are taking a multi-vitamin or mineral complex type supplement, it is a bittersweet moment. I am excited they desire to invest in their health and are taking action to do so. At the same time, many are unaware of the mistakes they may be making.
They may be throwing their money down the drain, adding harmful elements to their body, or not achieving the intended purpose of why they are taking the additional nutrients to begin with.
Although there are many more nutrients that can be taken in supplement form, for the purpose of this article, I am referring namely to essential micronutrients (i.e., vitamins and minerals). You can find a list of these at Nutrition.gov along with facts about each nutrient. Multi-vitamins and mineral complexes are the most popular supplements being purchased. To support your efforts when taking supplemental vitamins and minerals, here are 5 key things you should know about:
- Excipients and Fillers
- Best Bioavailable Nutrient Form
- When and How to Take For Best Absorption
When I say quality, I mean being confident in the integrity of the manufacturing standards, testing, purity, and nutrient potency of the product in addition to other ingredients added (e.g., fillers, binders, dyes, etc.).
There is such a presence of inferior nutritional products on the market, why would you just purchase any brand?
For instance, purchasing supplements from grocery or corner markets or even those highly marketed brands on television are generally not your best bet.
There are recognitions that nutritional companies can get from third parties for their supplements that are based on compliance with GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) set by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These include a certification from the Natural Products Association (NPA) and registration with NSF International. At the very least, supplements you take should have one of these recognitions.
One of the highest quality assurances you can get is to purchase pharmaceutical grade supplements. I am not saying you cannot find great quality vitamins and minerals that are not pharmaceutical grade but you will have to do your research. Sure, in many cases they may cost more although not always much more. Would you rather purchase a cheap product that your body does not absorb well or includes undesirable other ingredients that cause adverse affects or take a more pure product that is metabolized well?
Keep in mind that the product label may not always have an icon or indicator that makes it clear they follow GMP standards or are pharmaceutical grade. You may have to contact the manufacturer for this information.
Click here for a great article on pharmaceutical grade brands. A list of brands is at the bottom of the article.
Excipients are items generally listed under the “other” ingredients on the product label and are not part of the “active” ingredients. Excipients used in supplements include fillers, binders, disintegrants, lubricants, coloring agents, and preservatives.
Some excipients play an important and necessary role; some can be harmful.
If your supplement contains a long list of excipients, you would be better off finding another that has minimal other ingredients. These articles from Natural Healthy Concepts and NDHealthFacts offer a list and explanation of common excipients. I encourage you to review these lists and at least avoid excipients that have been linked to harmful effects.
Because of allergies or sensitivities, some excipients can be harmful to specific persons. In this case, it is always necessary to review the other ingredients on the supplement product labels. It is important to take note to ensure the label specifically states the product does not contain certain items such as gluten, dairy, soy, corn, and other common allergens and substances many have sensitivity.
Are you taking too little of an essential nutrient?
Many are familiar with RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowances) or RDIs (Recommended Daily Intakes) that are set for vitamins and minerals. What many are not aware of is that an RDA/RDI is based on an intake for healthy individuals to avoid nutrient-deficiency diseases. They are not optimal daily recommendations and certainly not therapeutic ranges. Unfortunately, many multi-vitamin supplements fall in the category of having too little nutrient dosages for many of the nutrients contained in them. See below for additional resources on Optimal Daily Allowance content and more.
The “% Daily Value ” (DV) indicated on a supplement label is based on the RDA/RDI. Many times, you may see values greater than 100%; however, that does not mean you are absorbing the amount of the nutrient shown on the label. For instance, many supplements show a value of 800% to 1000% for B12; however, in healthy people, only about 2% of an oral B12 nutrient is actually being absorbed.
Ultimately, our goal is to obtain all necessary amounts of essential nutrients from our diet. For various reasons, however, even those that have optimal nutrient dense whole-food diets can fall short with some nutrients.
Hence, daily nutritional supplementation for essential nutrients may be necessary for most to avoid deficiency. Deficiency leads to imbalance and then dysfunction and disease can set it.
Of course, there are reasons why it may be a certain need to add supplemental essential nutrients to your diet. Some of those reasons would be if you already have an adverse health condition, if you are dealing with chronic stress, if you are not absorbing nutrients fully due to age or digestive issues, and if you eat a nutrient lacking diet.
It is best to do your research as to whether you should be taking optimal or dosages. Once you determine what you should be taking, it is then time to review brands (taking into consideration the other content in this article to help you decide) and purchase what is best suited for you.
Click here for a chart that shows the differences between an average diet and a good diet – measured against RDA and the ODA (Optimum Daily Allowance). The ODA in this chart is based on this nutrition expert’s recommendation for healthy individuals to aim for to achieve optimum health. Keep in mind that experts vary in their ODA level recommendations and there are no set guidelines for ODAs.
Click here for another example of a trustworthy resource for optimal levels of vitamins and minerals.
Click here for a Unit Conversion table for Vitamins A, D, and E as some instructions and product labels include IU (international unit) values and some use mcg (microgram also the same as “ug”) or mg (milligram) values.
Certain vitamins and minerals are more bioavailable (better absorbed) if in certain forms versus others. In addition, some forms can cause specific side effects that other forms would not for the same nutrient. For example, taking ferrous sulfate (form of iron supplement) may cause digestive upset compared to a more gentle form called ferrous bisglycinate chelate. Because various forms are available for many vitamins and minerals and this great amount of detail cannot be covered in this article, I highly recommend you do your research. This will ensure you are taking the most bioavailable form and a form that does not cause unwanted effects.
Since I cannot find a suitable comprehensive chart of best bioavailable (absorbable) vitamins and minerals and other factors that inhibit or enhance absorption, I suppose I will have to develop my own. Stay tuned for that.
In the meantime, you can do searches on specific nutrients to gain this information (that is what I had to do). You can also review this article that provides a list with explanations along with other good information consistent with content in this article.
When and How To Take For Best Absorption
Once again, I was unable to find a comprehensive chart that provides this information and it can vary by nutrient. I will provide a summary here and links to other resources. As best, do your research for any uncertainties and I hope to develop a chart soon.
There are 3 key questions that should be answered relating to this topic:
- Should I take my vitamins and minerals with food or on an empty stomach?
- What time of day should I take them
- What other factors affect how well my supplemental vitamins and minerals are absorbed?
With Food or on an Empty Stomach?
I assume that if you are making an effort to take nutritional supplements, you want the nutrients to be absorbed as best as possible. One element that makes a big difference how well the nutrients are absorbed is whether you take them with food or on an empty stomach (2 hours away from food).
Fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, K) should always be taken with a meal that contains fat. Minerals and other vitamins, on the other hand, can vary. Generally, water-soluble vitamins and minerals can be effective when taken on an empty stomach or with food. However, some forms of these water-soluble nutrients are best absorbed when taken with a meal as noted previously when talking about nutrient form.
If you take a multi-vitamin, it would be best to take it with food. Kep in mind, however, that some nutrients in that supplement may be better absorbed on an empty stomach although you cannot obviously separate those out.
You may find that instructions indicate to take certain nutrients with food and this is namely because of possible GI issues. However, it does not mean it is best absorbed with food. For nutrients you are taking separately, iron, zinc, and B-12 are better absorbed when taken on an empty stomach. However, if you do have GI issues, preferably, take a form that is gentler on the gut. Otherwise, take them with food.
Click here for an article providing some details on taking vitamins and minerals with food or on an empty stomach and what time of day is best, which is the next question.
What time of day is best to take them?
Short answer – it depends. Even experts vary in their opinion of this for some nutrients.
Most agree that if you are taking a multi-vitamin, taking with breakfast or lunch is a good idea. For nutrients you take separately, it can vary. Here is an article to help guide you.
When you take specific nutrients can also be dependent on whether you take certain medications, the time of day you have to take those medications, and any drug-nutrient interactions that may exist. See more on drug-nutrient interactions below. For instance, I take thyroid hormones twice a day for my Hashimoto’s (hypothyroidism). Thus, I must avoid taking calcium, iron, and other substances within 3 – 4 hours of when I take my hormones.
What other factors affect how well my supplemental vitamins and minerals are absorbed?
Additional key factors that can make a difference in whether certain items enhance or inhibit the bioavailability of vitamins and minerals you consume are:
- Other nutrients, foods, or medications you are consuming at the same time. Click here for an article that provides charts for some nutrient-nutrient interaction and drug-nutrient interactions. Here is a document that provides a comprehensive list of drug-nutrient interactions.
- Specific health conditions or other bodily causes that inhibit absorption. See this article.
- The specific form of the nutrient you are taking (discussion above).
An example is when taking iron, you should take vitamin C along with it to aid in the iron’s absorption. Taking ironon an empty stomach also avoids substances in food that may inhibit the absorption of the iron. In addition, both calcium and iron inhibit the absorption of other minerals so taking them apart and separate from other nutrients is best.
In the end, what time of day or whether you take your supplements with food or on an empty stomach won’t matter if you do not have take them consistently.Ultimately, if you are going to take them, the priority is having them on hand and taking them consistently.