And does it really even matter?
When to Take Supplements
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We're going to take a wild guess that you take at least one supplement every day. (The reason for our hunch? Americans spend almost $37 billion—with a B!—on them each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.) Still, even the simple logistics of taking them—like how and when—can be confusing. (Related: 5 Nutrients Even Healthy People Forget About)
But do these nitty-gritty details really matter? There's a two-part answer. In general, the time of day when you take the supplement is NBD. "The most important thing about supplements is not when you take them but why you take them," says Kathleen Zelman, M.P.H., R.D., L.D., WebMD's director of nutrition. And if you and your doctor have determined you'll benefit from one, it's important that you take it regularly. Jeff Gladd, M.D., a member of the scientific advisory board for the new digital vitamin and supplement brand Care/of, says the easiest way to remember is to build them into your morning routine. If you swallow your supplements right after breakfast enough times, it'll soon become second nature.
Though timing doesn't really matter, how you take them and what you take them with does. Generally, you want to pair your supplements with a meal to enhance absorption and lessen the likelihood that you'll upset your stomach, Gladd says. That's a good rule of thumb, but it doesn't always apply (as you'll see in the following slides). Consider these pointers for how to get the most out of five common supplements.
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Vitamin D is fat-soluble (as are vitamins A, E, and K) which makes that take-them-with-meals advice even more important. By popping your supplement with food—especially meals that include healthy fats like olive oil, nut butter, or avocado—you'll boost its absorption rate, Gladd says. Since many of us don't come anywhere close to reaching sufficient vitamin D levels by relying on the sun alone, it's okay to take a megadose of vitamin D once a week if you forget to take it every day, Zelman says. Just stay below the upper limit of 4000 IU a day.
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You may want to split your calcium supplement into two doses. First, calcium is a physically huge mineral that can be hard to swallow. Breaking it in half and taking one half in the morning and the other in the afternoon could make it go down more easily, Zelman says. Second, your body absorbs smaller doses of calcium better than large ones. So while you might think a 1000mg tablet will give you more bang for your buck, many of the benefits go to waste. You're better off taking two 500mg doses, according to Harvard researchers.
When choosing your calcium supplement, avoid those listed as "calcium carbonate," Gladd suggests. It may be cheaper, but because it has the highest amount of calcium per dose, it's not as easy for your body to digest. That could lead to stomach issues, like bloating and feeling constipated.
One last watch-out: Taking calcium at the same time as iron, zinc, and magnesium could mess with your body's ability to absorb them, according to a 2011 review of calcium intake. So avoid taking those supplements at the same time if you can.
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Here's the exception to the rule to take supplements with meals. "Iron is one I would recommend taking on an empty stomach to lessen any digestive irritation that may occur," Gladd says. If you need to wash it down with something, make it orange juice. Some nutrients are absorbed better when taken together, and iron plus vitamin C is one of those magical combos, Zelman says.
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Since B vitamins are water-soluble, there's a limit to how much your body can absorb at any given time. With fat-soluble vitamins, the body stores the excess, but extra water-soluble vitamins get flushed out when you go to the bathroom. To tap into as many benefits as you can, there may be an advantage to splitting your dose, Zelman says. B vitamins are pros at keeping your energy levels high, so consider taking one dose in the morning to jump-start your day and again with lunch to help you sustain your energy in the afternoon.
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Fish oil supplements, which nearly 8 percent of Americans were taking in 2012, are another that you should try to take with food. But not for absorption reasons. Rather, following a fish oil dose with sips of a tasty protein shake can wash away the iffy fishy aftertaste tied to many supplements. If you still have issues with digestion or can't even think about fish oil without gagging, opt for an emulsified version of fish oil. It's said to taste better and is absorbed more effectively by the body, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.