The Best Time to Take Supplements

As a dietitian, when I used to counsel individuals, there were several occasions when my clients brought in shopping baskets filled with supplements. They couldn’t remember exactly all of the reasons why they bought them nor how much or how often to take them. If this sounds like you, you are NOT alone! I think we’d all like to get the most out of our supplements through proper timing, combining, and dosing. Here are a few basic supplements I’ll be covering: vitamins C, B, and D; calcium; magnesium; iron; omega-3 fish oil; and probiotics.

Typically, most supplements are recommended to be taken with a meal because there’s a synergistic effect of better absorption. Fat soluble supplements like vitamins A, D, E, and K should be taken with a meal containing healthy fats, like avocado, salmon, or nut butter for optimal absorption. Some vitamin and mineral supplements can cause nausea or heartburn when taken on an empty stomach, and taking too many supplements at once may cause an upset stomach. If you experience the latter, I recommend taking your supplements across multiple meals.

Water-soluble vitamin C and the B vitamins are not stored in the body like fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Amounts of the B vitamins and vitamin C not used by the body pass out of the body; therefore, it’s recommended to split the doses of vitamin C and B vitamins throughout the day. When doses are split, it helps keep blood levels elevated. Too much vitamin C taken at once (3 g and up) can cause gastrointestinal (GI) stress, such as loose stools, in some people. Splitting the dose to 250-500 mg with breakfast and lunch works well. B vitamins tend to give people more energy, so it’s best to take them with breakfast and lunch also.

Calcium and magnesium are critical for bone, cardiovascular, and nerve health. Taking them in a combined supplement in a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio is best. Be sure to take calcium with food and in split doses because our body absorbs them better in smaller doses of 400-500 mg/meal.

Iron is best taken on an empty stomach for maximum absorption first thing in the morning with orange juice. The caffeine in coffee and the calcium in dairy can interfere with its absorption, while vitamin C and vitamin C-rich foods can enhance it.

Omega-3 fish oil should always be taken with food, as the fat in our meal with also help its absorption. It’s also beneficial to take fish oil in divided doses of around 500-1,000 mg per meal.

Harsh stomach acids can destroy certain probiotic strains, so they’re best taken on an empty stomach. Different strains may have different tolerances to stomach acids, so it’s best to take them before meals.

It can be confusing what to take when. In doubt, follow the recommendation listed on the label. If you have concerns about interactions with medications, be sure to speak to a pharmacist or health practitioner.