Turmeric, omega-3, calcium… we commit to taking the supplements we hope will fortify our immunity, stave off inflammation, even make our hair grow longer and stronger. But product labels rarely tell us how to reap the maximum benefits. Which supplements do we take with food? If so, what kind of food? Are there any supplements that are better when taken on an empty stomach? Do we take them in the morning or the evening? Unless we do this right, the end result will be expensive urine—with little benefit. Read on to learn how to get the most out of your daily capsules.
What’s the maximum number of supplements a person should take?
“I think the biggest supplement misconceptions are that more is better and that cheaper versions have similar quality,” Taz Bhatia, MD, founder and director of the Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine, tells LivingHealthy. “We have a rule in the practice that more than five is often too many,” she adds. “The goal should be to focus on identifying core health issues and risks, and then building a supplement plan around that.”
How much time should you allow between supplements?
According to Bhatia, you should take no more than three or four supplements together. Wait four hours before taking the next set.
Should you take supplements with food or on an empty stomach?
Most supplements should be taken with food, as food triggers stomach acid to be produced, which enhances absorption, explains the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Lisa Cimperman, MS, RD, LD. But there are some exceptions:
- Fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamins A, D, E and K, are best absorbed with a little fat, especially olive and canola oils, peanut butter, salmon, avocado and sunflower seeds. (Fat also relieves the nausea some people get when taking vitamins.)
- Digestive enzymes, which aid digestion of beans, legumes, high-fiber vegetables and quinoa, should be taken after a meal, per Bhatia.
- Bhatia also says probiotics and amino acids (such as glutamine) are better absorbed on an empty stomach. Wait two hours after eating. If you take probiotics with a meal, the meal should contain fat, which can help absorb the probiotic, Bhatia adds.
Which supplements work best when they’re taken together?
- Turmeric and pepper: Studies have shown that pepper (black or cayenne) enhances turmeric’s absorption. Turmeric helps prevent inflammation and joint pain.
- Vitamin E and selenium: These two work well together, according to Bhatia, so eat a selenium-rich Brazil nut with your next dose of vitamin E. Vitamin E helps strengthen immunity and protect against heart disease, cancer, dementia and diabetes-related damage, while selenium helps protect cells from free radical damage.
- Iron and vitamin C: Cimperman explains that iron is absorbed better when combined with vitamin C (like a glass of orange juice). Iron supports muscle cells and helps people with Crohn’s disease, depression, fatigue and difficulty getting pregnant.
- Calcium and magnesium: Bhatia says calcium is absorbed better when taken with a magnesium supplement. In addition to bone health, calcium is also important for your heart, muscles and nerves. Magnesium is good for everything, according to Bhatia, including blood pressure regulation, hormone balance, improving sleep and reducing anxiety.
- Vitamins D and K2: Vitamin D helps with calcium absorption and K2 ensures that the calcium goes to the bones, says Bhatia. Vitamin D, like most fat-soluble vitamins, should be taken with a meal or fatty foods.
Which supplements should never be taken together?
- Take iron separately from calcium, dairy products and multivitamins, as iron prevents calcium absorption.
- Thyroid hormones should not be taken with other supplements, especially not iodine or selenium. Avoid soy and kelp when taking thyroid hormones, as they hinder hormone absorption, says Bhatia.
Does it matter which supplements we take in the morning or evening?
According to Bhatia, it generally doesn’t matter. However, there are a few exceptions.
You should take these in the morning to help with focus and attention:
- B vitamin complex: Biotin, thiamin, B12, riboflavin and niacin are known to lower cholesterol, boost immunity and cell function, and protect brain cells against stress.
- Pregnenolone: Increases energy, protects from Alzheimer’s/enhances memory, protects from stress and improves immunity.
- Ginkgo biloba: Enhances memory, improves circulation, promotes healthy cells and immunity.
Take these in the evening to aid relaxation:
- Calcium/magnesium: Protects bones and teeth.
- Tryptophan: Helps with insomnia, depression, anxiety and premenstrual syndrome.
- 5-HTP: Reduces depression and fibromyalgia symptoms.
The best way to maximize your supplement investment? Educate yourself.
You can follow all these guidelines to a T, but you need to do so with high-quality supplements that don’t include fillers or, even worse, allergens. And with “bogus herbals” being uncovered at popular stores like Walmart, Target and GNC, we don’t blame you for feeling dubious or daunted when navigating the supplement aisle. So how do you make sure you’re swallowing supplements that are actually effecting change in your body? Start by following our tips on how to identify a trustworthy, first-rate supplement.
- Taz Bhatia, MD, Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine
- Lisa Cimperman, MS, RD, LD, with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- Dr. Andrew Weil Vitamin Library
- Dr. Andrew Weil: Digestive Enzymes
- Cleveland Clinic: Thyroid Issues? What You Need to Know About Diet and Supplements
- WebMD Vitamins & Supplements Center