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Get savvy about supplements


Unless you have constant access to organic foods and have the time to do shopping runs every few days to access fresh fruit and vegetables, the tired tomatoes and limp lettuce in your fridge may be sadly lacking in vitamins and minerals. In Grocery stores and fruit markets, once fruit and vegetables reach the shelves they may already have lost much of their nutrient content.

The picking of produce before fully ripe, the application of pesticides in the growing and long storage of food, along with the mineral depletion of soils due to mono-cropping, mean that vitamins and minerals are being eroded at every stage of food production, leaving far less available in food to benefit your body. Studies show that after a week in the fridge, a vegetable such as spinach loses half of its vitamin C content.

Studies show that after a week in the fridge, a vegetable such as spinach loses half of its vitamin C content.

In light of these issues, many people take supplements to boost health, ward off illnesses like colds, address specific conditions such as anxiety and skin rashes, or support their system if affected by chronic conditions such as Crohn’s disease or anaemia. However, to get the most from your supplements, you need to be savvy about the best way to take them.

Double act: minerals & vitamins

Water-soluble vitamins such as B and C are needed daily because your body does not store them. Much of a water-soluble vitamin from a supplement is excreted in urine within two or three hours. Yet over time a small amount is retained, which does increase levels in the blood and inside cells.

Water-soluble vitamins such as B and C are needed daily because your body does not store them.

Fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K are absorbed from the intestine into the bloodstream, then whatever is not used is stored in fatty tissue. Mega-doses of these vitamins can cause side-effects. Excess amounts are stored in organs like the liver and kidneys, so it’s easier to reach a level of dosage where effects of toxicity are experienced if you take excess amounts.

Minerals and vitamins work hand in hand. Vitamins are a group of complex organic substances that regulate your metabolism through enzyme systems that help you break down and use your food. With few exceptions (vitamin D and niacin), vitamins can’t be manufactured by the body and must be obtained through diet. Minerals, on the other hand, are chemical elements that have a range of actions, including enhancing the absorption of some vitamins.

If you have one without the other, they don’t work as effectively. In fact, supplementing with the following vitamins or minerals without their counterpart may even upset bodily systems so that you experience a deficit or overload of some nutrients. So, when choosing your supplements, bear in mind that the following go best in combination:

  • Copper, magnesium, iron and vitamin C
  • Manganese and biotin, B1 and vitamin C
  • Selenium and vitamin E
  • Sulphur and vitamin B
  • Zinc and vitamin A
  • Calcium and vitamin D

Boosting absorption

If you are taking large doses of some supplements to sustain your system through a health crisis or chronic illness, it can prove more effective to purchase a lower strength and take smaller doses several times a day. This will ensure consistent levels to nurture your cellular health and the function of important bodily systems. It will also reduce potential side effects, such as loose stool when taking larger doses of magnesium or vitamin C.

Supplements are better absorbed directly with or after food, swallowed with a glass of water. So, if you are time poor and only manage to take vitamins once a day, make sure you consume them with a meal. It is preferable not to swallow vitamins on an empty stomach — if you have a tendency towards reflux or nausea, this might cause stomach upsets, reflux or even nausea.

Avoid taking iron and calcium supplements together, as they compete for absorption.

If you suffer from a sensitive digestive system, it may be better to take some vitamins, such as B complex varieties, in the morning so they can then be absorbed while you are upright over the day. Otherwise, taking them in the evening may predispose you to issues like heartburn when you lie down for sleep only hours later.

Always be mindful that, when taken in supplement form, a vitamin or mineral may lack some of the other natural compounds and cofactors that accompany it in food and enhance its health benefits. So timing the intake of your vitamins with, or soon after, a meal is important to help restore some of those nutrients. For example, research from Tufts University in the US shows that mono-unsaturated fats, like those found in beef and olive oil, can enhance the absorption of vitamin D supplements. In fact, eating healthy mono-unsaturated fats in a meal from sources such as olive oil, avocado or raw, unsalted nuts will enhance the uptake of any fat-soluble vitamins you are taking, such as vitamins E and D.

Though digestive enzymes are best taken directly before a meal, enzymes to assist a particular organ may be better when timed between meals, so check with a health practitioner. Similarly, some herbal supplements may be more effective when taken between meals, so again check with your health provider.

Choosing the right form

While some supplements are more effectively absorbed when taken as a powder diluted in water, if you suffer a sensitive digestive system, this fast assimilation may upset it. So it’s vitally important to notice and respond to your body’s reactions to supplements. If you’re on the sensitive side, you may find that taking tablets upsets your stomach less. In light of this, it’s always good to seek the advice of a health practitioner such as a naturopath or other holistic specialist, even if you head to your local healthfood store and ask questions of the naturopath who runs the dispensary there.

When choosing any vitamin or mineral supplement, make sure you read the labels so you’re not doubling up on a nutrient you’re already taking (in which case you will risk overdosing). Also, factor in any fortification of foods, such as cereals and breads. It’s also beneficial to conduct a little research on credible sites on the internet to learn about different forms of the vitamin. For example, the natural form of vitamin E called d-alpha-tocopherol is generally now thought to be better absorbed and used in the body than the synthetic form, which has only a subtle difference in name: dl-alpha-tocopherol.

What about the form of the tablet? Though soft capsules are obviously not an option if you are vegetarian, there are now some capsules being made from vegetable cellulose instead of gelatine. Studies don’t show any substantial difference between the level of absorption between tablets and capsules. However, powder forms of vitamins such as C or minerals such as magnesium or zinc are more rapidly and readily absorbed in soluble form.

With some supplements, such as minerals, many health practitioners believe it’s worth paying the little extra for them in a chelated form, which means the substance is bound to amino acids and so is more readily absorbed by the body. When reading labels, this means you look for amino acid chelates and citrates rather than varieties where the compound is available as carbonates and oxides.

Avoid having a cup of tea or a tall glass of Shiraz within an hour of taking your vitamins and minerals.

Where possible, choose supplement varieties that have minimal amounts of binders and fillers and are free of lactose, gluten, yeast, different forms of sugars, soy, cornstarch and preservatives. This is particularly important if you are affected by allergy or food sensitivities or need to be vigilant about health issues such as candida.

Avoiding food interactions

Bear in mind that some natural chemicals such as oxalates (found in foods like spinach and rhubarb) and phytates (in grains and beans, including soybeans) can bind to calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc, preventing their full absorption and utilisation. This means you may be taking on board far less of the supplement than you think. So, for example, if you are vegan and take zinc, you may need to supplement with a little more. Activating nuts and sprouting and soaking grains and beans can help reduce levels of phytates. If your daily breakfast is high in phytates because it contains both grains and soymilk, then your midday or evening meal is a better time to take your supplements.

Certain drinks can also interfere with the absorption of supplements. Avoid having a cup of tea or a tall glass of Shiraz within an hour of taking your vitamins and minerals. They contain tannin, which can bind to certain minerals in the gut, which may lead to reduced absorption of some vitamins and minerals, such as iron. Caffeine can have the same effect on some supplements, for example, reducing zinc absorption by half, so try to allow at least an hour between taking your supplements and having a long black or latte.

As a general rule, any kind of food in excess can upset the balance of minerals and vitamins you are aiming to create through supplementation. This is particularly true of too much dairy and excess intake of grains.

Mega-dose deficiency

When you take enormous amounts of one substance, whether a vitamin or mineral, it’s highly likely you are upsetting the balance of others and, in so doing, you may unknowingly cause a related deficiency of something else. So, where possible, try to avoid taking any kinds of supplements in mega-doses unless guided by a healthcare practitioner. As well as upsetting your delicate nutrient balance, they may have unexpected outcomes.

Though supplements can substantially support your system, it’s important to remember there are more than 1000 phytonutrients in fruit and vegetables that are not yet well understood but are critical for good health and are not found in supplements. Polyphenols, for example, have strong antioxidant activity yet are not included in most vitamin supplements. Vitamin E occurs in food in eight different forms in nature, while supplement use only one or two of these.

In short, supplements are no substitute for the real deal. Eating nutritious fruits and vegetables that are as fresh as possible, and chemical-free because they are organic or homegrown, is always the best approach — with a little bit of supplementation on the side.

Vitamin stealers

There’s no point spending up big on supplements to have their benefits negated by poor lifestyle. So make sure you address the following, which can rob your body of essential nutrients:

  • Smoking. Depletes minerals such as calcium and antioxidant vitamins such as C and E, which help fight the free radicals that cause disease.
  • Alcohol. To help quickly process alcohol and get it out of your system, your body uses up stores of B vitamins.
  • Drugs. Some medications reduce vitamin and mineral levels, eg ulcer medications (calcium) and the contraceptive pill (B vitamins). Meanwhile, supplements may impact on some medications. For example, zinc can impact on antibiotics and ibuprofen painkillers.
  • Stress. When your body is in fight-or-flight mode you can quickly become depleted in minerals such as magnesium and zinc as well as B vitamins.
  • Excess sugar and salt. Overdosing on salt can upset your nutrient balance — for example, causing calcium to be leached from your bones. Meanwhile, consuming too many sugary and sweet foods can lead to an inflammatory process called glycation, where molecules glue themselves to areas in your body such as your organs and the collagen in your skin. In both cases, your stores and uptake of important vitamins and minerals may be affected.


Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning freelance health journalist. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and women’s health issues.