Research shows that a whopping 75 percent of Americans take supplements, but that doesn’t mean we’re all reaping their full benefits. That’s because there’s more to supplementation than popping a pill. When and how we take our supplements has a big impact on how effective they are.
Below are seven potential issues keeping your supplement from working its magic.
1. You Eat Or Drink The Wrong Thing With Your Supp
In some cases, what you eat or drink with your supplement can make or break its effects.
Caffeine, for example, can limit iron absorption. In fact, just one cup of coffee can inhibit your body’s absorption of the iron in a hamburger by 39 percent, according to a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
If you need supplemental iron, Jim White, R.D., owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios, recommends taking it at least an hour or two after drinking your morning java.
Other nutrients, meanwhile, should be taken alongside certain foods to boost absorption. If you take vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, or vitamin K, pair it with a meal that contains healthy fats. (Think nuts, egg yolks, or flax or chia seeds.)
“These vitamins are fat-soluble and need some fat to dissolve and be absorbed by your body,” White explains. Since most multis contain notable amounts of these vitamins, take that alongside a fat-containing meal, too.
When in doubt, check your supplement label. Most list the foods or beverages (if any) that mess with—or help—its absorption. “Some specifically say to take between meals, and it’s important to follow this direction because there’s likely something in your food that’s going to block absorption,” says Amy Shapiro, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., founder of Real Nutrition N.Y.C., a private nutritional counseling and weight management clinic.
2. You Take The Wrong Supplements Together
Taking the wrong supplements together can have the same impact as taking a supplement alongside the wrong food. As tempting as it may be to take your supplements all at once, mixing some supplements can limit their individual effects.
A classic example: iron and calcium. Calcium can actually block the absorption of iron, so these two minerals should be taken separately, says Shapiro. She recommends leaving a four- to six-hour buffer between the two. (This also means you shouldn’t take iron supplements with dairy food, or calcium supplements with high-iron foods.)
On the flipside, some supplements actually work together and should be taken at the same time. Vitamin C, for instance, helps us absorb non-heme iron (the type in plant foods and supplements), so taking the two together can be beneficial. (Learn all about which supplements pair together well—and which don’t—here.)
3. You Take Too Much At Once
In some cases, you’re better off splitting up your intake of a particular supplement throughout the day than taking one giant dose.
Calcium, for example, should be taken in increments of 500 milligrams, because your body can only absorb that much at once, says Jessica Crandall Snyder, R.D., C.D.E., founder of nutrition, fitness, and wellness services company, Vital R.D.
Take more of a nutrient than your body can actually use at that time, and a lot of it just goes to waste.
4. You Take Your Supp At the Wrong Time Of Day
Since different supplements have different effects on your body, some are best consumed at specific times of day.
Take melatonin, for example: This sleep-supporting hormone is meant to help you score a quality night’s sleep, so you’re better off taking it before bedtime than first thing in the morning.
Vitamin D, meanwhile, might mess with your sleep if taken at night (it is the sunshine vitamin, after all), and may be best taken with breakfast.
5. You Have A Medical Condition
This one is a little more complicated than popping a pill at the wrong time. Certain diseases and medical conditions can affect your body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
People with Celiac disease, for example, have trouble absorbing some nutrients (especially iron, calcium, B vitamins, and fat-soluble vitamins) because they have flattened intestinal villi (tissues that transport nutrients into the bloodstream), White says. “This doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from supplementing, but they might not absorb 100 percent of the nutrients,” he says.
If you have any existing medical conditions, talk to your doctor about how they might affect your nutrient absorption. Regular blood work can help you monitor your nutrient levels and adjust any supplements as needed. In many cases, you may need to take in higher levels of certain nutrients than other people.
6. You Take Certain Medications
In addition to certain medical conditions, some medications can also affect nutrient absorption, and thus the efficacy of your supplements.
Proton-pump inhibitors (often used for acid reflux and indigestion), for example, can affect vitamin B12, magnesium, and iron absorption. Some diuretics, meanwhile, have a similar effect on magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
If you take any prescription medications, talk to your doctor about nutritional implications that might come with them. With that in mind, you’ll be better able to manage your health concerns and nutrient levels.
7. You Just Take Bad Supplements
Consider this your justification for not buying the least expensive supplement on the shelf.
Since, unlike medications, supplements do not have to be FDA-approved before being sold, not all products are created equal. Beware impossibly cheap products online—and brands that make extreme claims.
To make sure your supplements are doing your body good (and not just draining your wallet), buy from well-established brands—and look for products that have been third party-tested for quality, like The Vitamin Shoppe brand.
The Bottom Line
If you have any questions about taking supplements, meet with a registered dietitian or a Board-Certified Physician Nutrition Specialist. Not only can they help you make sure you’re taking the right supplements, but they can also ensure you’re taking them properly.
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