You may have a near-perfect battery of supplements to support everything from your bones to your blood to your heart, and more. But when and how you take your vitamins, fish oil, and probiotics may be as important as what you’re taking. Get the most out of seven popular supplements with this comprehensive guide to timing, combining, and dosing.
In doses higher than 250 milligrams, calcium and magnesium tend to compete for absorption. But both are critical for bone health, and the extra convenience of taking them in a combined supplement may outweigh the relatively small percentage of each that may not get absorbed. A 1:1 to 2:1 ratio of magnesium to calcium is best.
Take calcium with food (to boost absorption and reduce the risk of kidney stones) and in split doses (the body absorbs smaller doses better than large ones). If you can, take calcium at a different time of day than zinc and iron. Chelated forms tend to be better absorbed and easier on the stomach. New Chapter Bone Strength Take Care is a whole-food supplement that delivers bone-strengthening calcium.
For maximum absorption, it’s best to take iron on an empty stomach. Unless you have a sensitive stomach, take it first thing in the morning and wash it down with orange juice. (The caffeine in coffee and the calcium in dairy can interfere with its absorption, while vitamin C can enhance it.) To prevent constipation, avoid the ferrous sulfate form, and be sure to drink plenty of water and eat ample fiber. If you have a sensitive stomach, try iron bisglycinate.
Take 60 to 120 milligrams of iron with a vitamin C-containing food (like an orange) before breakfast, at least two hours before taking vitamin E or a multivitamin. Flora Floradix Iron + Herbs is an easily-absorbed liquid formula that’s rich in iron and B vitamins.
3. Vitamin D
Like other fat-soluble vitamins (A, E, and K), vitamin D is better absorbed if taken with a meal that contains fat. (One study found that taking vitamin D with dinner—usually our heaviest meal—increased blood levels by 50 percent.) Don’t take D at dinner if you eat late, though, since it interrupts the body’s production of melatonin and can disrupt sleep.
Take up to 2,000 IUs of vitamin D with lunch or early dinner that contain healthy fats, like avocado, olives, salmon, or nut butter. The Vitamin Shoppe Vitamin D3 delivers 2,000 IUs in each easy-to-swallow softgel.
4. B Complex
B complex vitamins are water-soluble, so the body can only absorb so much at a given time (unlike fat-soluble vitamins, which are stored until they’re needed). Splitting the dose can ensure steady blood levels. B vitamins tend to boost energy, so take them in the morning; at night, they can lead to restlessness and insomnia. They’re best absorbed on an empty stomach, but if you have a sensitive tummy, take them with a little food.
Split B vitamins into morning and afternoon doses—before breakfast and lunch—and take them on an empty stomach, if possible. Look for a formula that contains well under 100 milligrams of B6. Irwin Naturals Mega-B Complex softgels provide all of the essential B vitamins.
5. Vitamin C
Like B vitamins, vitamin C is water-soluble and doesn’t require dietary fat to be effective. Splitting the dosage improves absorption, keeps blood levels elevated all day, and prevents the gastrointestinal distress some people experience with large doses (1,000 milligrams or more). Buffered forms of vitamin C are best if you have a sensitive stomach. Vitamin C enhances calcium absorption, but may interfere with the absorption of vitamin B12, so take them separately if possible.
Take 250 milligrams twice a day, with breakfast and lunch. Plnt’s Whole-Food Vitamin C offers 250 milligrams per capsule.
6. Fish Oil
Fish oil can cause gastric distress (like nausea and indigestion), so it should always be taken with food. Plus, the fat in your meal will also help its absorption. Because it can be hard to digest, take fish oil in divided doses, and never right before physical exercise or bed; the increased activity or prone position can interfere with digestion and cause heartburn or reflux. If you really struggle with digesting fish oil supplements, try an emulsified version, which may be easier to digest and absorb. Fish oil mixes well with most other supplements, but don’t take it with ginkgo biloba or other blood-thinning herbs. If you’re on a prescription blood-thinner, talk to your doc before adding fish oil to your routine.
Take 500 to 600 milligrams of fish oil twice a day, with breakfast and lunch or with lunch and an early dinner. Nordic Naturals Lemon Omega-3 softgels offer 690 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids.
Harsh stomach acids may destroy probiotics, so they’re best taken when digestive enzymes, bile salts, and stomach acids are low—in other words, on an empty stomach. Some studies suggest probiotics survive in the largest numbers when taken 30 minutes before a meal that contains some fat (which buffers stomach acids and helps probiotics survive to reach the intestines). However, some evidence also exists that food buffers stomach acid, so taking probiotics with a meal may offer increased protection for the microorganisms. (Keep in mind that probiotics were traditionally taken via cultured foods like yogurt or sauerkraut.) Additionally, different strains may have different tolerances to stomach acids. Since the jury’s still out, try taking some of your daily probiotics before meals and some with meals, and see what works best for you. Just don’t take them post-meal: Several studies show probiotic survival tends to be lowest when taken 30 minutes after eating. Choose a probiotic with a variety of strains, especially L. acidophilus, B. Longum, B. bifidum, L. rhamnosus, and L. fermentum.
Take anywhere between five and 25 billion CFUs of a broad-spectrum formula, half an hour before or with breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Garden of Life Primal Defense Ultra delivers 15 billion CPU per three-capsule serving.
This article and picture originally appeared in Amazing Wellness magazine.