“Did you take your vitamins today?” seems like a simple, straightforward question. But as you likely know, supplementation can quickly turn into a complex affair. Not only are there literally tens of thousands of vitamins, supplements and combination formulas to pick from, but once you finalize your regimen, you need to plan out exactly when you’re going to take them for maximum benefit.
How you take your supplements can be just as important as what you take. For example, if you’re a body builder, you want your amino acid supplements (lysine, taurine, etc.) to work quickly and deliver maximum results in order to complement your hard work in the gym. So what do you do? Take them on an empty stomach—they’ll be directly absorbed into your bloodstream, bypassing the intestines altogether. If you were to take those same amino acid supplements with a meal, your normal (slow) digestion process would take over and slow down absorption and increase the likelihood that they’d simply be excreted as waste instead of being put to use.
That advice doesn’t hold true for all supplements, however (as wonderfully simplistic as that would be). And food isn’t the only variable you need to factor in when deciding how and when to take your supplements. Let’s clear up some confusion with a few simple rules.
Morning, Noon or Night? What’s the Best Time?
When it comes to timing supplements during the day, it’s best to look at the directions and take notice of any supplements recommended to be taken on an empty stomach. SAM-e, as an example, is best absorbed on an empty stomach, therefore taking it before breakfast makes a lot of sense. Melatonin is also supposed to be taken on an empty stomach with just water, but it should be taken at night since it helps support healthy sleep.
But what about amino acids? I thought those should be taken with my workout… not just on an empty stomach?
Once again, the world of dietary supplements can be confusing. Some supplements will have more than one deciding factor. In those cases, just use your common sense. Amino acids should be taken on an empty stomach for maximum absorption… but taking them in the morning just for the sake of an empty stomach doesn’t make sense. In this case, the timing of morning, noon or night doesn’t matter as much as the other deciding factor: with or without food.
With or without Food?
Your best bet is to follow the directions for each individual supplement, and then separate out the “with food” supplements and the “without food” into separate groups to avoid confusion. But, of course, there are a few more caveats to this seemingly simple rule.
If the directions state to take with water, you can take the supplement with only water on an empty stomach or with food, whichever you prefer. Most herbal supplements will fall into this category because your body recognizes natural herbs as food and will digest them as such. If the directions state to take the supplement with water on an empty stomach, as in the case of amino acids, follow that carefully and do not take them with food (take them at least 30 minutes before a meal or at two hours after eating).
Sometimes directions for one brand will conflict with that of another brand. For example, the directions for one glucosamine supplement may say to take it with water, but another will say to take with water and food. This usually happens when a supplement has been known to cause stomach upset when taken with water only. In that case, trust your own gut (literally).
Before or After Exercise?
You go to the gym for a reason, whether it's for weight loss, muscle building or general cardio fitness. If you take supplements specifically designed to support those efforts, it’s important to know what to take and when. After all, why wouldn’t you want to maximize your endurance, strength and fat burning during your workout?
For energy supplements like caffeine or green tea, try to take those about an hour before you begin exercise. Whey protein powders, shakes and other supplements that provide fuel for your muscles (creatine, BCAAs) can be taken about 15 minutes prior to exercise.
After workouts, you need to fuel those muscles once again. Whey protein, therefore, is great both pre- and post-workout. You could also consider adding a protein that digests more slowly to optimize your entire post-workout recovery.
Can I Take All My Supplements Together?
The rules for when to take your supplements are not hard and fast, so the answer to this question is “it depends.” It depends on what you take, how much you take and why you’re taking the supplements you have. Experts say your best bet is to carefully read the directions on the labels and do some of your own research on the specific nutrients you’re taking.
Some supplements react negatively with specific nutrients, so you’re going to have to space things out. For example, high doses of fish oil can react with certain herbs (including ginkgo), which can affect areas of the body, such as the cardiovascular system.
And it’s not just supplement-to-supplement interactions to worry about—some also interact with prescription medicines. Calcium, for instance, “can reduce the absorption of many medications…” (source).
You’ve made the decision to take more control over your health by taking supplements. That’s a good first step. Now you need to educate yourself about how those supplements work in order to get the timing right. Let us know the details of your routine in the comments section below!