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“[...] even the best diet isn't good enough, if we want to stay as healthy as we can.” (Jonathan Wright, MD [Wright, 1979])
Generally, the best time to take vitamins and other supplements is when you eat.
Most commonly, ingredients contained in a nutritional supplement, such as vitamins and minerals, are nutrients found in food. This is clearly specified by the official supplement definition (see What Are Nutritional Supplements? Information You MUST Know!).
Broadly speaking, nutritional supplements are specific food substances supplied in concentrated form. One could loosely say that evidence-based supplements are “supplemental nutrition”.
Many ingredients that are frequently found in supplements are necessary for human life, such as vitamins and minerals. Oftentimes these (micro)nutrients work kind of like “spark plugs” to initiate, facilitate, and make various metabolic and physiological processes within the body possible (Mindell, 1991), such as the release of energy from carbohydrates and fats, for example.
In other words...
Supplement ingredients (micronutrients) work in tandem, in a symbiotic manner, with the macronutrients (fats, protein, carbohydrates) found in food.
Therefore, the best time to take vitamins, and supplements in general (with a few exceptions), is when you eat a meal. Either while you eat, or shortly after you're done eating.
If you take nutritional supplements on an empty stomach you speed up the time the nutrients get absorbed. But speed could impair the completeness or thoroughness of nutrient absorption causing malabsorption (Sansum, 1928; Bhagavan & Wolkoff, 1993) because the adequate utilization and absorption of nutrients in nutritional supplements also demands that enough stomach acid (hydrochloride acid) is present. If it is lacking or inadequate, as it is the case in older people especially or when taking supplements on an empty stomach, you will not experience (all) the benefits from nutritional supplementation. Eating food stimulates the release of stomach acid.
Significant research investigations have shown that the best time to take vitamins (including multivitamins) and other supplements is with food because it will slow down the absorption of the nutrients from the supplements, thereby increasing, or maximizing, the assimilation rate of nutrients (Kelly, et al., 1984; Heaney, et al., 1989; Rosenbaum & Bosco, 1989; Mulligan & Licata, 2010).
“Unlike many of the other vitamins in man, ascorbic acid [=vitamin C] requires a constant intake to maintain a fixed tissue level.” (Pijoan & Lozner, 1944) [explanation added]
Closely related to, and apart from knowing what the best time to take vitamins is, looms the question HOW to take vitamins?
The way we customarily consume food serves as a guideline to answer that question.
The majority of people eat frequently throughout the day. That is, usually three meals a day, perhaps with occasional snacks in-between. Research investigations suggest that taking nutritional supplements several times during the day, reflecting common eating habits, is more beneficial. For instance, the absorption of nutrients is improved compared to taking dietary supplements all at one time (Heaney, 1991; Nieves, 2003).
Furthermore, most nutrients found in nutritional supplements are used up rather quickly by the body, roughly within 6-12 hours (Prasad, et al., 2001). By consuming nutritional supplements more than once a day you are assuring that the cells of your body are well-nourished around the clock. Studies on animals (e.g., Hidiroglou, et al., 1997) found that multiple oral administrations of vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid) yielded higher ascorbate blood concentrations over a single oral dose.
Thus, the best time to take supplements is at several "times" throughout the day. Divide up your supplements so that you get to take them at least twice a day (at main meals).
"After raising generation, after generation of dogs and cats, it is obvious that good food, rich in quality protein, vitamins and minerals, combined with supplementation of vitamins and minerals, clean filtered water can extend the life of the animals by about 2 to 6 years or more and they are generally healthier with fewer episodes of illness. I see no reason this doesn't apply to human beings as well.” (Anonymous)
Adhering to these basic principles on the best time to take vitamins and on how to take supplements helps to avoid some annoying side effects of nutritional supplements, while maximizing health benefits.
By following these rudimentary guidelines about how to and the best time to take vitamins, especially the ingestion of these natural health products with a meal, you also minimize or prevent the risk of certain potential serious side effects of dietary supplements (Domrongkitchaiporn, et al., 2004). (For more ways to avoid supplement risks, review the article Side Effects Of Dietary Supplements –Top 10 Tips To Avoid Them).
Taking dietary supplements, particularly single nutrient products, on an empty stomach might create nutritional imbalances among other nutrients since your body needs an assortment of both macro-, and micronutrients, rather than just micronutrients, or one type of micronutrient.
Scientific studies (e.g., Nègre-Salvayre, et al., 1991; Johansson, et al., 2010) have shown that nutrients work synergistically, or cooperatively, enhancing each other's positive impact which results in a increased combined effect. Thus, by taking one of the multivitamin supplements, rather than taking single element nutritional supplements, you maximize the health benefits of vitamins. You receive more health gains.
“Most of the world's population, including that of the United States, is inadequate in one or more micronutrients according to current intake recommendations. Yet, because there is no overt pathology associated with these levels of deficiency, there has been little public concern.” (Bruce Ames, PhD, Professor Of Molecular Biology At UC Berkeley [Ames & McCann, 2009])
What is arguably above these guidelines addressing the best time to take vitamins, and what ought to be paid close attention to, but commonly isn't, is the choice of consuming high-quality, effective, pure vitamins, rather than one a day vitamins or discount vitamins and nutritional supplements.
No matter whether you know how to take supplements correctly and properly –that is, with meals and more than once a day– if they are ineffective (not science-based) they will not do you much good because you will miss out on the benefits of supplements (i.e., health gains).
In the worst case scenario, the product could harm you if it is contaminated due to low-quality manufacturing standards (discussed in the article Health Risks From Dietary Supplements –Contaminated Supplements).
In the articles on dietary supplement regulation (see home page for heading “Regulations”) I demonstrated that the official rules on health supplements do not assure the safety and effectiveness (i.e., quality) of food supplements. Some people are aware of this. As a result, there are a number of people who ask themselves, in bewilderment, what vitamins should I take?
In my article on how to avoid supplement dangers (see the article “Side Effects Of Dietary Supplements –Top 10 Tips To Avoid Them” –direct link to it at the end of this article under Recommended next pages) I mentioned that some of the best dietary supplements you can take are multivitamins, and I explained why that is. More guidelines on what vitamins and supplements to take is in my article "2 Big Lies: No Vitamin Benefits & Supplements Are Very Dangerous" (direct link to it at the end of this article under Recommended next pages).
In order for you to receive great value for your health, it's not just about knowing how to take nutritional supplements and when the best time to take vitamins is, it is even more critical to know what to take.
(Originally published: ca. Aug-2012 | This is a revised version)
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