Do you start your day off with a mini “handful” of vitamins, minerals, and various other herbal supplements? If so you’re not alone; more than half of U.S. adults use dietary supplements,1 with the most popular being fish oil, multivitamins, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin C, calcium and B-complex vitamins.
If you have any of these, or others, in your kitchen cabinet, you certainly want to be sure you’re using them correctly, not only to protect your health but also to protect your “investment.” Americans spend an estimated $25 billion a year on natural products including dietary supplements, but if you’re not careful you could end up flushing the benefits right down the toilet (quite literally!).
This is because certain supplements do better when kept in the fridge. Others need to be taken with food or are most effective in combination with other supplements. Others can even be harmful if taken with certain medications. Knowing what to do, and what not to do, when it comes to storing, combining and using your supplements will ensure you stay safe and get the most health bang for your buck.
Top Tips for Being a Savvy Supplement User
Fat-based supplements, like omega-3 fats (fish oil), generally do better stored in the fridge. The cold temperature helps protect the fragile fat molecules from rancidity. Certain probiotics should also be stored in the refrigerator to help preserve the number of live bacteria (if your probiotic does not require refrigeration, it should say so on the label). All supplements should be stored in a cool, dry and dark place, particularly fat-soluble vitamins (like vitamins E, A and K), as they can be damaged by ultraviolet light and heat.
Take Fat-Soluble Supplements with Food
Certain vitamins cannot be absorbed by your body unless you eat them along with some fat. This includes vitamin A or retinol, vitamin D, vitamin K and vitamin E. Always take these supplements, as well as your multivitamin, with a meal that contains fat to ensure maximum absorption. Calcium carbonate is another example of a supplement to take with food, as your stomach acid during digestion will help its absorption.
Be Careful When Combining Supplements with Prescription Drugs
They can interact in ways you may not expect, and some of the interactions can be serious. For instance, supplements that can interfere with the blood-thinning medication warfarin (Coumadin) include:
- Dong quai
- Evening primrose oil
- Vitamin K
- St. John’s wort
Before you take any prescription drug, make sure to ask your doctor and pharmacist, and read the label yourself, to be sure supplements you’re taking will not cause an adverse event or otherwise impact its effects. Other important interactions to be aware of include:
- St. John’s wort may speed up the rate at which drugs such as antidepressants and birth control pills break down, impacting their effectiveness2
- Vitamins C and E and certain other antioxidants may reduce the effectiveness of certain types of chemotherapy
- Calcium may interact with antibiotics, bisphosphonates and blood pressure medications
- Certain oral diabetes drugs, aspirin, antacids and antibiotics can affect vitamin B6 metabolism
Combine Vitamins When Appropriate
Certain supplements are absorbed better when taken in combination. For instance, taking vitamin D along with calcium and magnesium can enhance the absorption of calcium, magnesium and other minerals. Taking calcium with vitamin D and magnesium may help your body absorb the calcium into the appropriate areas.
Similarly, vitamin C helps increase the absorption of iron.
Beware of Synthetic Versions
Certain supplements should be taken only in their natural form. For instance:
- In choosing a vitamin D supplement, for instance, look for vitamin D3, which is the same natural vitamin D your body makes when exposed to the sun. Vitamin D2, which is synthetic, may be less effective.
- Most vitamin E supplements contain a synthetic form called dl-alpha-tocopheryl, which is made from petrochemicals. Research suggests that natural vitamin E, d-alpha-tocopherol (or a natural vitamin E with mixed tocopherols and tocotrienols), is better absorbed and preferred by your body.
The mentality that “if a little is good a lot will be better” is dangerous when it comes to dietary supplements. Taking too much iron, for instance, could lead to liver problems and accumulation of fluid in your lungs. An excess of vitamin A can cause liver damage, while chronic overdosing on vitamin B6 may cause nerve damage in your arms and legs.
Follow Label Directions for Time of Day
Certain supplements require multiple daily doses, or work best when taken at a certain time of day. For instance, B vitamins should be taken in the morning for the best effectiveness and because they increase energy levels, which means taking them in the evening may interfere with your sleep. Magnesium, on the other hand, may support sound sleep so is best taken in the evening.
Know Your Supplements …
Before you add a new selection to your dietary supplement arsenal, do a little homework to find out the best way to take it. For instance, here’s a brief primer on calcium:
It’s best to take smaller doses of 500-600 mg at a time, as this will be absorbed most efficiently. If you need to take more than that, split the dose in half and take it twice a day. Iron should not be taken at the same time as calcium, as they compete for absorption. While calcium carbonate should be taken with food, calcium citrate is better absorbed on an empty stomach.3
Use Caution if You’re Pregnant, Nursing or Giving Supplements to a Child
Most dietary supplements have not been specifically tested in these groups, so be sure you are working with a knowledgeable health care provider before deciding which to take if you’re pregnant, nursing or giving supplements to a child.
In many cases, supplements can be a smart and safe way to add nutritional oomph and a variety of health benefits to your lifestyle. In addition to the tips above, you can help get the most out of your dietary supplements by choosing only those that offer superior purity and reliability, from a brand you know and trust. The supplements you choose should go through a rigorous quality control process and offer guarantees of potency and purity to protect your health.
1. Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health, Message from the Director
2. Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health, What You Need to Know
3. Mayo Clinic.com Calcium Supplements