Six tips to get the most out of your vitamins

Naturopath Natasha Turner shares the need-to-know advice on purchasing and taking supplements.

vitamin effectiveness, vitamin absorption

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Perhaps you have purchased a daily vitamin to obtain the nutrients you need for optimal health, or maybe you have a cupboard full of supplements to improve a condition or to increase energy. But how do you know if you’re getting the most bang for your buck from your supplements? There are many factors that determine a supplement’s quality and absorption. Unfortunately, not all pills are made equal. In general, here are the things you should consider to improve both the selection and effectiveness of your vitamins:

1. Get alkaline: Acidity decreases your body’s ability to absorb the vitamins and minerals from your food and supplements. It also interferes with your ability to detoxify, disrupts your metabolism and makes you more prone to health problems. To test your pH levels you simply need to purchase pH papers available at any health food store. You should test your saliva pH first thing in the morning, one hour before a meal or two hours after eating. Match your strip to the associated colour on the package of pH papers to determine your body pH. Ideally your pH strip should turn the same colour matched with 7.2 to 7.4 on the package (usually dark green or bluish, depending on the brand of pH papers you purchase). Remember that processed cereals and flours, sugar, coffee, tea and alcohol are acidifying, whereas vegetables, millet, soy, almonds and wild rice are alkalinizing. By going “greener”, you will be improving the absorption of your vitamins and your overall health.

2. Amino acid chelate forms are best for absorption: Better multivitamins have their vitamins and minerals in highly absorbable forms, like amino acid chelates and citrates, rather than sulfates, carbonates or oxides, although these less absorbable forms are still good for many purposes. Amino acid-bound, chelated mineral supplements can provide three to 10 times better assimilation than the non-chelated forms. Check labels for the words “citrate” or “chelate” to ensure you are taking the most absorbable form. Examples include calcium citrate, which is better absorbed than calcium, and iron citrate because it does not cause constipation.

3. Capsules versus tablets: Capsules are usually the most absorbable compared to tablets because they are easily broken down in the stomach. However, if tablets are made by a reputable company, they are just as absorbable as capsules — and in some cases may be superior. Liquid vitamins or minerals are the easiest to absorb (especially for children or those who have difficulty swallowing pills), but be sure to avoid the extra sugars or fructose often added to these mixtures to enhance the taste.

4. Free of fillers: For best results, look for multivitamins and all other supplement products that are free of binders, fillers, artificial colourings, preservatives, yeast, sugar, starch, hydrogenated oils or other additives. If you suspect food allergies or sensitivities, you may want to be particularly vigilant about looking at your vitamin labels. Lactose, corn starch, various sugars, soy and yeast can be used as fillers, and may cause digestive disturbances in sensitive individuals. In many cases, what you get is what you pay for, so it’s worth it to spring for product manufactured by a reputable company or purchased through a practitioner’s office as these products are rigorously tested and pure.

5. Herbal remedies: When purchasing an herbal remedy, such as valerian or echinacea, ensure the label says that it is “standardized.” If a product is standardized it means it is guaranteed to contain a certain amount of active ingredient. There is a big difference between taking 500 mg of an herb and 500 mg of an herb which is guaranteed to contain 45 percent of the active ingredient. Always be informed of your options and be sure you know what you are looking for.

6. Watch your medications: A general rule of thumb is that you should always take medication at least two hours away from any vitamins to avoid interactions. If they interact negatively it may cause a drug-related deficiency of certain nutrients, a medication to lose potency or affect the way the drug works in the body. For example, birth control pills typically limit the body’s ability to efficiently absorb vitamin B and folic acid, so you may have to take more of these nutrients to receive the ideal amount. Many antibiotics and chemotherapeutic drugs have interactions with high-dose magnesium and vitamin supplements. Vitamin K (found in liver, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green leafy vegetables and certain multivitamins) is known to decrease the effects of warfarin, a popular blood thinner. Interactions can also occur between vitamins. For example, you should avoid taking iron with supplements containing calcium, insositol, magnesium, vanadium or vitamin E, since taking it together may interfere with absorption of one of the supplements. Consult with your pharmacist or doctor when beginning any new medical protocols.

7. Timing is everything: Remember that the form of the vitamin is important, but the time the vitamin product is taken, in which combinations, and whether or not it is taken with food, can also affect a product’s effectiveness. A good rule to remember is to try to take your vitamins and minerals with food, but herbal supplements are best taken away from food, for optimal absorption and effect. Also be sure to take your vitamins away from a fibre supplement, as the combination of the two will decrease the overall absorption.

Natasha Turner, N.D. is a Toronto-based naturopathic doctor and founder of the Clear Medicine wellness boutique. She is also the author of the bestselling book The Hormone Diet

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