Yet did you know that how and when you take them can undo their potential benefits? For example, there is little point in taking vitamin D on an empty stomach because it needs fat in the gut in order for it to be properly absorbed. And taking too much of one B vitamin can leave you low in another.
‘The vitamins and minerals we need to stay healthy work together in a complex and delicate balance,’ says Lindsy Kass, a sports and nutrition scientist at the University of Hertfordshire. ‘While some need each other to perform best, others can compete in the body for absorption.’
Here, our expert guide explains how you should take your supplements to ensure you get the most out of them and don’t waste your money…
At a glance: Take on an empty stomach before bed, and combine with vitamin C or A; avoid taking with dairy, tea, or zinc pills. Low iron is one of the most common nutrition deficiencies, with figures from the UK Health Security Agency showing that three-quarters of women are at risk of iron-deficient anemia, which causes fatigue, lack of energy, and heart palpitations.
This is mainly owing to women losing up to 250mg of iron during their monthly period. ‘Iron should be taken on an empty stomach, because certain foods, especially dairy, can block its absorption,’ says Aidan Goggins, a London-based pharmacist and an independent adviser to the supplement industry.
‘But vitamin C can help your body absorb iron, so it’s a good idea to combine it with this, either in the supplement or by having a glass of orange juice,’ he says. That’s because vitamin C bonds to iron particles, which helps them to dissolve more completely in the gut.
Vitamin A can also improve iron absorption, so taking an iron supplement that contains it — or its precursor beta-carotene — can be very useful.
At a glance: Take a supplement (ideally also containing magnesium, vitamin D, and vitamin K) with food; look for products containing calcium citrate; avoid taking zinc or iron pills. Many menopausal women take calcium to help prevent the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis.
Often, the calcium is combined in a pill with magnesium, which is also good for bones. In fact, calcium and magnesium work together in some ways but also compete for absorption in the gut.
Vitamin D Supplements :
At a glance: Take in the evening with food (or the largest meal of the day) containing fat; avoid taking vitamin E pills. In the winter months, around half the population is low in vitamin D, a nutrient vital for healthy bones and strong immunity.
And because we make vitamin D largely via sun exposure on our skin, the advice is to take 10 mcg daily over winter. Like the other fat-soluble vitamins (A, E, and K), vitamin D is better absorbed if taken with a meal that contains some fat, such as avocado, egg yolks, or olive oil.
At a glance: Take in the morning on an empty stomach; split larger doses throughout the day; consider taking pills that are ‘fat wrapped’. Important for the immune system and vital for healthy skin and bones, vitamin C is a water-soluble nutrient and so, unlike some other vitamins, doesn’t need to be taken with fat.
Most water-soluble vitamins are best absorbed on a completely empty stomach, such as before breakfast, as their absorption can be hindered by proteins and fiber in food, says Aidan.
Studies suggest we can absorb doses of up to 400mg — ten times the recommended daily level of 40mg — but vitamin C isn’t stored in the body, so any excess is simply passed out in the urine. That means people taking short-term, larger doses of 1,000mg — for example, during a cold — may be better to split up the dose throughout the day to help maintain constantly high levels in the blood.