Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Most of us try to get our fair share of nutrients from our diet alone, but it’s not uncommon to have trouble getting your fill. In fact, research has shown that as many as 90 percent of the U.S. population has a diet lacking in at least one type of dietary nutrient. That may be why an estimated 77 percent of Americans are now taking a nutritional supplement , per the Council for Responsible Nutrition . These vitamins, minerals and herbal products are meant to enhance your health in various ways and can be an effective way to fill in nutritional gaps in your diet.
While eating whole, nutrient-dense food is certainly the best place to start, it’s not always an easy method. Why? For starters, functional nutritional therapy practitioner Tansy Rodgers , FNTP, warns that much of the food grown and eaten today is not quite like the food our ancestors consumed. “In addition to soil depletion by modern agricultural methods that has increasingly stripped the soil of dense levels of nutrients, the Standard American Diet is filled with processed, nutrient-depleted foods,” she says. “These factors can have a huge impact on the need for supplementation.”
Different genetics, family histories or even a previous diagnosis also may play a role in the need for a supplement. “Bloodwork for certain nutrients, like iron and magnesium , and vitamins, like vitamin D or vitamin B12, can help you understand if you need to supplement,” says naturopathic doctor Ashley Margeson , ND. Not only can supplements help prevent you from being deficient in a certain nutrient, but they also can help boost the levels of certain nutrients faster than food sources alone, she adds.
The biggest questions that consumers have about supplements is often the best practices for taking them. After all, if you’re taking six different supplements, you might want to know exactly when in your day you should be taking them — and if it’s safe to take your supplements all at once . Unfortunately, the answer isn’t black and white, since, in some cases, you can take your supplements all at once , while in others, you can’t.
“For example, you don’t want to take an iron supplement with a calcium supplement, as these two nutrients bind with each other in the gut and will prevent each other’s absorption,” says Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., CISSN, doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness . “Conversely, you want to take your vitamin C supplement with your iron supplement to facilitate absorption and minimize stomach distress, as iron supplements can be difficult on the gastrointestinal system and vitamin C can lessen these symptoms.”
Yes, it’s complicated. And for this reason, it’s best not to assume you can take all your supplements at once . Rather, work with a nutritionist, dietitian or health professional who specializes in dietary supplements to help you clear up the confusion.
The only exception here is a multivitamin, and that’s because the mix of nutrients included in that multivitamin are formulated this way. “A good reputable company has done their research and then used that information to put the right ingredients in the right amount together that works effectively together,” says Canada-based naturopathic doctor Sarah Connors , ND. “If you are taking several supplements separately, then you are doing this work on your own without the information and research that goes behind that,” she says. “Unless you are well-versed in nutrition and combining nutrients together, then you are basically guessing, which can become dangerous depending on how you are combining them together.”
In addition to not taking all your supplements at once, it’s important to know that you’re taking them correctly. Here are some best practices for taking supplements, according to experts.
This may sound very obvious, but Connors has seen firsthand clients who don’t understand all the uses for a certain supplement . This is important because a supplement that is meant to help with sleep, for example, generally won’t be something you’d want to take during the day. “If you are using a product and you aren’t aware that it can cause drowsiness, then that can be a safety issue,” she says. “Be sure that you know all the possible uses and side effects of a product before you begin using it so you know that it is safe for your health.”
Nearly all supplements are meant to be taken on a daily basis, and it can be beneficial to ensure that you’re taking each individual supplement at the same time each day. For example, if you take your multivitamin first thing in the morning, try to do this each and every day for consistency’s sake. This not only ensures that you don’t forget to take them but also can enhance their effectiveness, Adams notes.
This is where consulting a health-care provider can come in handy. “If the supplements are similar in nature, such as vitamins D, K, A and E, then taking them together is potentially a good combination,” Connors says. On the flip side, some nutrients interact with other nutrients. “Magnesium can inhibit iron and zinc absorption, vitamin C could interact with B12’s absorption, and fish oil and Ginkgo biloba can interact and are a risk for blood-clotting issues,” Rodgers warns. “Knowing what should and should not be combined is very important for supplementation safety.”
Taking too much of a good thing can actually be a bad thing, Rodgers warns, and this is especially true for supplements. “Too much zinc can throw off your copper levels, and too much iron can cause metal buildup in the heart and lungs,” she says. “Most vitamins are ‘water-soluble,’ so your body flushes out any excess that it does not absorb, but others are ‘fat-soluble,’ so they can build up to toxic levels when consumed excessively over time.” Getting too much of certain vitamins or minerals also can lead to unpleasant side effects like vomiting, diarrhea and nausea, so it’s best to be informed about how much to take.
It’s important that you always consume supplements with a full glass of water or other nonacidic beverage. “Some acidic beverages may react with coatings or pills or capsules in the mouth, so I always tell clients to use water, milk or a nonacidic beverage,” Adams advises. “While juice may be OK, it may make the pill or capsule start to dissolve in the mouth, and that isn’t a pleasant experience.”
Whether or not to take a supplement with food all depends on the supplement because some are best with and some are best without. For example, Toronto-based naturopathic doctor Rachel Corradetti , ND, points out that dairy products and iron don’t go well together, whereas oranges and iron are great. Probiotics are often better with food, too. “Take a look at the supplements you are using to determine which are best with and without food so that you are getting the most out of your products,” she adds.
Supplements are meant to help you meet your nutritional needs, not replace certain foods. It’s important that you are striving to enhance your intake of whole foods that are nutrient-dense before relying on supplements to fill any voids, Rodgers says. “I recommend working with a professional who can help you understand what that is and what is right for your body and lifestyle,” she says. “After you have a solid plan in place, then look at using supplements to fill the gap and round out the edges.”