So you’ve decided you’d like to give nutritional supplements a test drive. Great! Taking supplements can be a simple way to improve your nutrition and keep your health in tip-top shape. However, it’s important to make sure you’re going about it safely and smartly. Contrary to popular thinking, taking more supplements does not always correlate with better results.
We’ve consulted with our very own in-house medical advisor, Dr. Debby Hamilton, MD, MSPH, to provide you with some simple steps for safely and effectively adding supplements to your regimen.
Know What You Need
Before starting a new supplement regimen, it’s important to understand the health outcomes you’re hoping for. This makes it much easier to know which supplements to take and how much. If you’re mostly interested in filling the nutritional gaps in your diet, Dr. Debby suggests the following:
- A good multivitamin containing a complete amount of minerals, including trace minerals
- Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA)
- Vitamin D, depending on the amount in your multivitamin and the season (more in winter)
From there, you may have other circumstances that require more nutritional support. For example, if you have a stressful lifestyle, you may want to take more vitamins B and C to support your adrenal glands. If you’re in a particularly important stage of life, such as childhood or pregnancy, you’ll want to take supplements targeted for your specific needs.
If you are using a specific supplement to really target a certain medical need, you will need to make sure that your dosage is enough to cover that need. If you aren’t getting enough of the nutrient in question, your supplement will seem ineffective when the problem is really that you’re not getting the correct amount. Verifying a dosage ahead of time will help avoid potential confusion. The best way to know for sure what regimen will be most helpful is to talk to your doctor or a nutrition specialist.
Know Actions & Interactions
Not all supplements perform the same, so by understanding how each supplement acts within your body you can make sure you’re using each one most effectively. Here are a few things to watch out for:
- How is the supplement absorbed in the body? Most supplements are best taken with food since the nutrients are better absorbed when digestive enzymes are present. However, some minerals, like calcium and magnesium, can block the stomach acids necessary to properly digest food. These should be taken on an empty stomach so as not to interfere with digestion.
- How do your supplements interact with each other? Certain supplements should not be taken together because doing so lowers their effectiveness. Taking iron supplements, for example, could lower your ability to absorb zinc. Staggering your supplements throughout the day can help maximize absorption.
- How are the nutrients stored? Some vitamins are water soluble, like B and C, which means that any excess you take is easily flushed out of your system through your urine. Others are fat-soluble, like A, D, E, and K, which means that excess may stick around in your body for much longer. You should be more cautious about taking higher doses of fat-soluble vitamins.
Know Brands & Standards
Brand matters when you choose to take supplements. They may all seem the same lined up on the shelf, but there are some factors you should check for before making your selection:
- Risk of Contaminants. Nutrients are extracted from sources that sometimes come into contact with contaminants. For instance, omega-3’s are commonly derived from fish, which are known to often contain mercury. Any reputable supplement company should test its products to make sure the correct amount of nutrients are present and that the product is free from any harmful contaminants it may have come into contact with.
- Natural vs. Synthetic. Natural supplements only use vitamins and minerals that are taken from food sources, while synthetic supplements create the compounds in a lab. There are those who argue that the body can better absorb naturally derived nutrients, but these supplements can come with some downsides. Food-based supplements are grown in a type of yeast, so anyone with yeast sensitivity should avoid these brands. Also, natural brands often don’t contain as high a concentration of the nutrient as synthetically derived supplements do, and therefore may be less effective. This can make a critical difference in the success of your supplement regimen.