Part of the key to getting the most out of your supplements lies in knowing when to take them. From whether probiotics work best on an empty stomach, to the vitamins you should never take first thing, we asked GP Nutrition Founder Gabriela Peacock for all the answers…
Is it better to take supplements with or without food?
It depends – as a general rule, you should always read the label when taking supplements; by and large, most vitamins and minerals are best taken with food for better absorption, but it doesn’t matter if that’s just before or with the meal. However, the likes of vitamin A, D, E and K are fat soluble, meaning they need to be taken alongside some fat to be absorbed effectively. However, other vitamins, such as the Bs and C are water soluble, meaning they don’t necessarily need to be taken with food. Just be wary of very high doses of vitamin B on an empty stomach, as this can cause nausea.
What about probiotics?
There’s conflicting advice about whether it’s best to take probiotics on an empty stomach or with food but the truth is it doesn’t really matter. I recommend taking them first thing in the morning before breakfast but don’t take with a hot drink as the heat can damage the delicate live cultures. Also be careful of taking a probiotic – especially stronger strains – with acidic fruit juices, as the acid may also harm the probiotic. To be on the safe side, take with a glass of water.
So are certain supplements better taken earlier in the day?
Timing isn’t really an issue for the majority of supplements – the only exceptions are magnesium and melatonin, which work to aid relaxation and sleep so should be avoided during the day as they can cause drowsiness.
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What about pre-workout supplements?
Pre-workout supplements such as caffeine and green tea can be a really effective way to boost endurance and performance in the gym. Depending on your body and metabolism, these should be taken no more than an hour before a workout; around 15 minutes before hitting the gym is best. If you’re looking to build muscle and take the likes of creatine and BCAAs, take these 15 minutes prior to exercise too. Post-workout recovery supplements, including protein shakes, should ideally be taken within an hour of finishing a workout.
Can you do anything to boost the effectiveness of supplements?
Yes. If you regularly take an iron supplement, always try to pair with a source of vitamin C, as this can boost the absorption of iron. But don’t take with tea or red wine – they contain tannis which can inhibit the absorption of iron. On the flip side, phytates and oxylates – toxins found in certain grains and green vegetables – can hinder the absorption of iron and zinc. Phytates found in beans, grains, seeds and legumes bind to minerals in the gut and prevent them from being absorbed by the body. To reduce phytate levels, you can soak, sprout or ferment the likes of beans and grains and then cook as normal. Similarly, oxylates – found in kale, spinach, chard and other leafy greens – can interfere with calcium absorption. Be sure to cook your greens before eating as this can help to reduce levels of oxylates.
Is it better to take one dose or spread it throughout the day?
It depends on the vitamin. There's evidence to suggest we could benefit from taking smaller doses of vitamin C throughout the day as our bodies can only absorb up to 1,000mg at one time. Aim for two doses throughout the day and consider higher dosages if you're under extra stress, live in smoke-filled or polluted environments and/or struggle to get your five a day.
Is it dangerous to take more than the RDA?
When it comes to vitamins and minerals, some people subscribe to the notion that if a little is good, then more is better. But nutrients can be harmful when taken in amounts above what’s considered beneficial. Determining the right amount is tricky, however. Each nutrient has a range that starts with the minimum daily intake level necessary to meet the needs of most healthy people, called the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). The amount right for you must be based on your needs, so talk to a nutritionist or doctor before you start taking new vitamin and mineral supplements.
What’s the one supplement you think everyone could benefit from taking more of?
Everyone – men and women – should be taking more vitamin D, which is hard to obtain from food sources alone and especially in the winter months, when we’re less able to make it ourselves due to lack of sunlight. During the autumn and winter, everyone should take 10,000 ui of vitamin D (D3) every day. An omega-3 supplement is also great if you don’t like fish (you should be eating at least one portion a week) and evening primrose oil can help relieve symptoms of PMS.