As humans, we need a broad spectrum of nutrients to make sure our bodies are working correctly. Our bodies are constantly trying to achieve a homeostatic balance and it can often feel like walking a tightrope. Ideally we would get all we needed from food, however today, we live hectic fast paced lives where we often reach for quick-satisfying foods rather than the most nutritious options. Even those of us who do eat a varied, whole food diet can too fall short due to various reasons including, in-organically grown food, depleted soil, absorption issues etc.
The best time to take your vitamins can depend on what you’re taking and for what purpose. Directions on bottles will recommend to take with a meal, on an empty stomach, before bed or with water or juice etc. Vitamins, minerals and other supplements interact and break down differently so it’s important to understand why you’re taking them a certain way and to also establish a routine so you are getting the most out of your supplements.
As is true with both vitamins and minerals, more is not necessarily better. It’s important to maintain a balance within the body as too little can result in deficiency symptoms due to the inability of certain processes to operate fully, and too many can actually be damaging by causing imbalance or becoming toxic.
Before considering taking supplements, always check with your GP that they don’t interact with any existing medication or disease.
“With food” – may indicate that supplementing on an empty stomach could cause a stomach upset or that the supplement content is better absorbed with food (for example fats).
“Without food/ on an empty stomach” – 30 minutes before a meal or 2 hours after a meal. This could suggest that the supplement content could interact with food or enzymes or is not well absorbed with food.
“With water” – generally means it can be taken with or without food.
Vitamins cannot be produced by the body and must come from supplementation if not achieved by the diet first as they regulate the body chemistry and functions. As science evolves we are learning more and more about how they do this.
To understand how supplements should be taken it might be worth noting that vitamins can be divided into two groups. Fat soluble and water soluble.
Fat soluble vitamins (Hydrophobic)
Fat soluble vitamins dissolve in fat before entering the blood stream to perform their individual functions. Excess amounts are stored in fat cells and the liver. For this reason, they are best absorbed when taken with a meal that contain fat such as nuts, seeds, avocados or olive oil.
They are first digested by pancreatic enzymes and then absorbed in the small intestines. If fat absorption is inhibited, then absorption of fat soluble vitamins can be hindered equally and therefore deficiency can occur. Malabsorption might be indicated in stool (steatorrhea) that is bulky, foul smelling, appear oily and float in the bowl for longer than 40 minutes.
Because fat soluble vitamins can stick around longer and aren’t depleted in the food preparation process, eating a well-balanced diet won’t necessarily cause a toxic effect, however mega dose supplementation can be dangerous. Testing for vitamins is a good way to establish where your levels stand.
- Requires bile and lipids for absorption.
- Toxic in excess amounts (likely more from supplements than diet).
- Stored in the liver and fatty tissue until they are needed
- Slow onset of deficiency
How best to get fat soluble vitamins
- In supplement form, these are best taken with a meal that contains nuts, seeds, oils (such as olive oil or coconut), avocados or bananas.
- In supplement form, they are best taken with your evening meal that contains fats. The only exception to this is not to have vitamin D with in the evening but rather an earlier meal as it can block production of melatonin.
Tip: Get tested if you are worried about your levels of fat soluble vitamins.
Water Soluble vitamins (hydrophilic)
Vitamin B group
Water soluble vitamins are dissolved in water when swallowed. Unlike fat soluble vitamins that can be stored for later use, these vitamins must be topped up daily to ensure optimal levels.
Once the body has used all the vitamins it needs, the kidneys will excrete the excess in urine. Exceptions to this is B12 and folate (B9) as they are the only water soluble vitamins that are stored in the liver. Water soluble vitamins can be taken with food as they can cause nausea if not (but preferably not with a meal that contains a high amount of fat as this can hinder absorption). B12 is quite exceptional as it can be tolerated well on an empty stomach.
- Easily absorbed in the intestines
- Excess is excreted in the urine and so toxicity is rare
- Needs to be supplied from the diet and supplementation if necessary
- Fast onset of deficiency
How best to get water soluble vitamins
- In food preparation and storage, these vitamins can be washed out or damaged. Make sure fresh produce is kept refrigerated to prevent nutrient loss.
- Do not over-cook as this can rinse or damage the water soluble vitamins.
- In supplemental form, they are best taken on an empty stomach which means 30 minutes before a meal first thing in the morning or 2 hours after a meal.
- B vitamins in particular are good for taking on an empty stomach in the morning as they may provide a natural energy boost.
Tip: try lightly steaming vegetables, save the cooking water and use in soups so that those nutrients aren’t lost down the sink.
Minerals are different to vitamins and supplementation should also be factored into a routine to make sure you are making the most of them. Minerals can be categorised into macro or micro minerals.
Macro, or ‘bulk’ minerals are those that are needed and found in greater quantities in the body.
Micro, or ‘trace’ minerals, are those that are needed in smaller amounts.
Possibly the most important factor to consider when supplementing minerals is that they can compete, so spreading out your supplements throughout the day might be the best way to insure there aren’t any interactions.
- Minerals can be taken with hot or cold water as heat doesn’t destroy minerals.
- When taken with acidic foods or supplements, absorption of minerals are increased.
- Taking fibre supplements with minerals or other supplements can reduce absorption by binding to them.
- Try to take individual minerals separately if not taking a multi for general purposes as they can compete for absorption.
Time of the day
As touched on earlier, different vitamins and minerals work better at different times of the day to coincide with our bodies natural rhythm and chemical processes.
Below are some examples for some common supplements:
Iron – Best absorbed on an empty stomach and therefore ideal to consume upon rising. Iron is absorbed less if taken in proximity of dairy consumption however some report a stomach ache if taken without food. Vitamin C increases iron absorption which is important to be aware of, especially if getting a blood test. Caffeine and tannins within coffee and tea have been found to limit absorption. Iron can become toxic so it is important to check your iron levels and speak to a healthcare professional before supplementation. Iron interferes with zinc, vitamin and calcium so concomitant use should be avoided.
Vitamin C – Whilst you can take vitamin C any time of the day, it’s best to take in the morning and throughout the day in divided doses as it only lasts in the blood stream for a few hours. Vitamin C can increase mineral absorption such as iron. Vitamin E and vitamin C work well together as vitamin E reduces oxidised vitamin C.
Vitamin B group – These are best taken with food in the morning to support energy levels.
Mid-morning to early afternoon:
Zinc – If taken on an empty stomach, zinc can often cause nausea so should ideally be taken with a meal if this occurs. Zinc interferes with calcium and iron so is best taken at lunch if calcium is consumed in the evening and iron is consumed in the morning. Zinc competes with copper so is often taken together in ratio if zinc is consumed in higher doses. High doses of Zinc should be consumed only for a short period of time or as directed by a healthcare professional.
Mid-afternoon to early evening:
Fish oil – Best taken with a meal that contains fat to aid the absorption. However not before intense physical exercise due to potential of stomach upset.
Vitamin D – As mentioned earlier, vitamin D can interfere with melatonin so it should not be taken before bed but is best taken with meal containing fat such at lunch or an early dinner.
Vitamin K – Can be taken at any point in the day, however it is thought that vitamin K is best taken with calcium and vitamin D. Vitamin K also competes with vitamin A for absorption.
Evening / before bed:
Probiotics – Some probiotics are best taken with water during the evening and away from food to avoid interactions with enzymes, stomach acid and bile salts. Probiotics are are utilised best whilst the body is repairing itself overnight. If not taken at night, some studies suggest they are best 30 minutes before a meal rather than after.
Magnesium – whilst this depends on the reason you are taking magnesium, often people will take magnesium at night to initiate sleep. Can be taken with or without food.
Calcium – this macro mineral is found to be utilised at night. There is some debate as to whether or not magnesium and calcium should be taken together or separately as they work hand in hand.
General advice and cautions
- Wash supplements down with water or juice and store in a cool dark, dry place to avoid contact with contaminants and potential damage from light.
- Avoid taking supplements with caffeine and tannin containing drinks in case of interference of absorption.
- Do not compensate for missed days, always continue as normal.
- Avoid toxicity by testing nutrient levels and not exceeding recommended dosages unless advised by a registered healthcare professional.
- Be aware of interactions between supplements and medications as well as interactions between vitamins and minerals themselves. Minerals in particular can compete for absorption. Always seek help from a healthcare professional if required.
- Factor in your supplements levels with the food you are eating, especially with those fortified with added nutrients such as cereals and dairy products.
- If you are pregnant or nursing, always seek assistance from a healthcare professional.
- Investigate the supplement company, their certifications and choose supplements from reliable sources.