Are Your Supplements Potent Enough?

Shopping for supplements can be a daunting experience, to say the least. Between the endless assortment of brands and science-y-sounding language splashed across labels, buying something as seemingly simple as a multivitamin often feels like a big decision.

To add to the confusion, many different types of products are now being promoted as ‘high-potency.’ Huh?

Don’t worry, we did the research so you don’t have to. Here, we break down what ‘high-potency’ actually means, and how to tell if it’s right for you.

Defining High-Potency

According to the FDA, vitamins or minerals that present at 100 percent or more of the reference daily intake (a.k.a. ‘RDI,’ the measurements used to calculate appropriate daily intake of a nutrient) per serving can be labeled ‘high-potency.’ So if you’re reaching for a high-potency vitamin C supplement, one serving will pack enough to hit the RDI target for adults (which is 75 milligrams for women and 90 milligrams for men), or more.

When there are multiple ingredients in a supplement (like in your multivitamin), at least two-thirds of them must offer 100 percent or more of the RDI in order for that supplement to be labeled ‘high-potency.’ You’ll have to check the Supplement Facts labels on multi-ingredient high-potency supps to determine which of its ingredients are present in these high levels.

When we’re not talking about vitamins and minerals, though, things get a little hairier, since the definition of ‘high-potency’ isn’t officially defined for other supplements, says naturopathic physician Chanté Wiegand, N.D, director of education at The Synergy Company.

The term can still indicate how powerful a punch a supplement packs, but it’s not backed by the FDA. Probiotics, for example, are often found in doses of five to 10 billion live organisms (or CFUs, ‘colony-forming units’)—so supplements that contain more than 100 billion are often labeled ‘high-potency.’

Same goes for herbal supplements, such as licorice. When these natural products are made into extracts and concentrated (or ‘standardized’) to contain larger amounts of their beneficial compound, they might be labeled ‘high-potency’—but again, there’s no official definition here. Take turmeric, for example: “There is a huge difference between the turmeric spice, the ground turmeric root that you can buy at the grocery store, and an extract,” says Wiegand. While you’d need to eat a tablespoon of actual turmeric spice to get about 130 milligrams of curcuminoids (the compounds responsible for turmeric’s benefits), a single capsule of a standardized extract might contain over 200 milligrams. So turmeric spice would be considered low-potency, while the extract supplement would be considered high-potency, Wiegand says.

Who Can Benefit From High-Potency Supplements

Not all health and nutrition experts agree on the necessity of high-potency supps, but Wiegand sees them as beneficial. “The RDIs vitamins and minerals are considered quite modest in most cases—and many in the nutrition world consider these levels the minimum to prevent deficiency, not to support optimal health,” says Wiegand. Experts in this school of thought suggest most people can benefit from high-potency doses of vitamins and minerals. “For example, the RDI for vitamin C is 90 milligrams, but vitamin C is a beneficial, powerful antioxidant, and at least 200 milligrams—or even more—a day is widely recommended,” Wiegand says. B vitamins are a similar story: “The RDIs for B vitamins are tiny—and these vitamins are rapidly depleted by stress, poor diet, genetic issues, and more,” she adds.

Related: Get Your B Vitamins Straight: A Guide To What’s What

People with certain health issues may also have specific high-potency vitamin needs. One example: an autoimmune disease called pernicious anemia, which affects vitamin B12 absorption. “For these folks, high-dose vitamin B12 is necessary,” says Wiegand.

Featured Supplements

Others who might benefit from taking high-potency supplements:

  • People with gastrointestinal issues, who may have trouble absorbing nutrients.
  • Strict vegans, who have a hard time getting enough B12 (which is found in animal foods).
  • Those with chronic GI disorders that impact nutrient digestion and absorption.
  • Women who are pregnant or planning to get pregnant should take high-dose folic acid.
  • Those who’ve just finished a round of antibiotics should take a high-potency probiotic to help rebuild the community of good bacteria in their gut.

Just like you’d use a high-potency probiotic when faced with a major gut dilemma, you might also consider high-potency herbal supplements when you want to benefit right away. “ (Since high-dose herbal products can interact with other drugs and have possible side effects long-term, think of them more as situational superheroes than everyday staples.)

Who Should Stay Away From High-Potency Supps

While high-potency supplements can be beneficial in certain cases, more isn’t always better. For example, since exceeding the upper limit of vitamin A can lead to birth defects, it’s not recommended that pregnant women take high doses, says Wiegand.

Meanwhile, if your vitamin D levels are already high enough, a high-potency supplement could be problematic, just as high-potency vitamin K could be an issue if you take blood-thinners. Even high-potency probiotics can do more harm than good if you have a common condition called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), in which you have too many bacteria festering in the wrong place.

Ultimately, your unique circumstances and health determine whether high-potency supplements (and which ones) are right for you, so talk to your doctor or a dietitian before updating your supplement regimen.