Let’s face it. We all know that we should be consuming plenty of fresh, organic produce each day for optimal health and energy. But many of us don’t have the time or inclination to be as consistent as we should be. Or we are experiencing enough stress in our lives that even a clean and nutrient-dense diet just isn’t cutting it!
As complementary and alternative medicine becomes more popular and necessary for healthy living, there are more and more people heading to health food stores and online nutritional supplement websites to stock up on vitamins and minerals. As they peruse the aisles or webpages, they find there are so many options and price points! One can easily become overwhelmed, or lost and confused, at the very minimum.
But with my degree in food and nutrition and my vast experience using vitamins and minerals for myself, my family and my homeopathy clients, I’m here to demystify some of this confusion! There are three factors I would like you to consider when choosing and taking your supplements, so that your hard-earned money is being put to good use. First, consider the most absorbable and usable “forms” of each vitamin and mineral. Second, consider the “purity” of the product you are purchasing. And last, set up a dosing schedule which helps to maximize absorption. When all of these factors are considered, the chances of big health gains from nutrient supplementation go way up!
Most-Absorbable and Bioavailable Forms of Nutrients
Do not fall into the trap of thinking that all vitamins and minerals are the same and that cheaper is better (probably not in the long run)! Many vitamins and minerals are much more absorbable and usable in the body when formulated a specific way. In my experience, it truly does benefit your health to pay for a more quality product and reputable brand. Do your research, ask around, and consider the following specific recommendations for individual nutrients.
First, consider choosing vitamins made with whole-foods (label should read whole-food supplement, sometimes it will say raw whole-food supplement). When vitamins are supplied in their original form, within the original food, the supplement will also contain synergistic cofactors, enzymes, phytonutrients and mineral activators to allow for maximum utilization by the body. But if you opt for individual nutrients, whether due to cost or a food sensitivity to some foods found in whole-food supplements, check this list for the most usable forms of each nutrient.
Most-Absorbable Forms of Vitamin Supplements
Vitamin A There should be a balance between beta carotene and retinol intake (unless you have a very healthy digestive tract which allows for the conversion from beta carotene to retinol). If you are consuming a large amount of vegetables, you probably don’t need much beta carotene supplementation. And if you are vegan, consider supplementing with retinol. Try this vitamin A supplement by NOW.
B-Vitamins For people who have a defect in the pathway which allows for the utilization of folic acid (a doctor can test for this defect called the MTHFR gene mutation, a defect thought to be present in 50-75% of the population), folic acid is best supplemented as 5-MTHF, or 5-methyltetrahydrofolate. The “methyl” form of B12 (methyl-B12) is best utilized by some, as well. Even for people without the MTHFR gene mutation, B12 is best absorbed via sublingual lozenges or subcutaneous injection. There are even B12 lollipops available which utilize the sublingual mode of absorption.
Thiamine, vitamin B1, in the form of benfotiamine, has been found to be five times more absorbable than standard thiamine supplements because it has been formulated to be fat-soluble, allowing it to absorb directly through the intestinal wall and into cells. Note that substances in coffee and tea, called tannins, can impact the absorption of thiamine.
Riboflavin, vitamin B2, can be taken in its standard free form, however some manufacturers provide riboflavin 5′-phosphate (R5P) as it may be most utilized in this form. This is the B vitamin responsible for turning your urine bright yellow as the unutilized portion of the vitamin is passed through.
When shopping for vitamin B3, you will notice there are two forms – niacinamide and niacin (or nicotinic acid). Niacin is the form known for enhancing a person’s lipid profile and also creating the characteristic “niacin flush”, however some practitioners feel it is hard on some organ systems. Niacinamide is the other form of vitamin B3 which has many benefits without the flush and the potential taxing of organs, such as the liver.
Pantothenic acid, vitamin B5, is commonly found in the form of d-calcium pantothenate, which is found to increase oxygen to cells and decrease the formation of lactic acid in exercise, more so than standard pantothenic acid.
Pyridoxine, vitamin B6, is best consumed as P5P or pyridoxal 5′-phosphate. This is because sometimes the liver is not functioning optimally enough to convert standard pyridoxine into P5P.
Vitamin C Vitamin C is most usable when consumed in its natural form, as in a fruit powder such as ascerola powder, however synthetic ascorbic acid, or ascorbate, combined with “bioflavonoids” for enhanced absorption is very useful.
Vitamin D 20 minutes of sun exposure per day (with the maximum amount of skin exposed) during the hours of 8-10 am or 2-6 pm is excellent for allowing your body to manufacture its own vitamin D. If this is not possible, standard Vitamin D3 drops or softgels are fine.
Vitamin E The best form of vitamin E is in its natural form, d-alpha tocopherol. Also consider purchasing a product with all four tocopherols…d-alpha, d-beta, d-delta and d-gamma tocopherols. Even better would be to find a product which also contains all four “tocotrienols”…d-alpha, d-beta, d-delta and d-gamma tocotrienols. The more tocopherols and tocotrienols in the product, the more balanced it is. If the vitamin E forms have a “dl-” before their name, this indicates that they are synthetic and should be avoided. Vitamin E is also available in a water-soluble form which was found to be more absorbable amongst people with fat malabsorption issues. (1) Avoid vitamin E products containing GMO soy.
Vitamin K Vitamin K is available in three forms, however, some doctors recommend supplementing specifically with vitamin K2 for maximum absorption and utilization. Here’s what Dr. Joseph Mercola has to say about Vitamin K supplementation:
The vitamin K I recommend for supplementation is vitamin K2, which is natural and not toxic, at even 500 times the RDA. Vitamin K2, which is made in your body and also produced by fermented foods, is a superior form of vitamin K. Increasing your K2 by consuming more fermented foods is the most desirable way to increase your levels. The food highest in natural K2 is natto, which is a form of fermented soybeans consumed in Asia. (2)
Most Absorbable Forms of Mineral Supplements
When it comes to mineral supplementation, oftentimes the “chelated” form of the mineral is considered the most utilizable by the body. Chelation refers to the binding of the mineral to an amino acid or another organic compound. However, chelated forms are not the only absorbable forms of minerals. Here are some good options of some commonly supplemented minerals to look for, and some to avoid!
Calcium Calcium citrate (or better yet, calcium citrate malate) and calcium orotate are more absorbable than calcium carbonate. Avoid calcium extracted from oyster shell, as it has been found to contain lead.
Iodine Consider an iodine form called potassium iodide. Some health professionals recommend iodine in the form of kelp supplementation. Some iodine and selenium combination products are on the market to keep the two nutrients in balance, this is very important because a deficiency of one can heighten the deficiency symptoms of another (commonly resulting in thyroid imbalance). It is important to consult with a healthcare professional or do your research before supplementing with iodine.
Magnesium Avoid magnesium oxide, known for its low absorption rate. Some health professionals will recommend magnesium sulfate (epsom salt) baths or topical magnesium oil. For oral supplementation consider magnesium citrate (can also help with constipation), or magnesium glycinate.
Zinc Some absorbable forms of zinc are zinc picolinate, zinc glycerate, and zinc monomethionine. Zinc sulfate tends to be the least expensive supplement, but the least absorbable form of zinc.
Selenium Selenomethionine seems to have the highest absorption rate of 90%. Avoid selenate or selenite which can block the utilization of vitamin C and other nutrients and have poor absorption.
Iron The most absorbable form of iron (heme iron) is found in animal meats, however as far as supplementation is concerned, look for the “ferrous” (not ferric) forms of iron which are more absorbable and tolerable (ie, less gastrointestinal upset). Consider ferrous sulfate, ferrous fumerate, or ferrous gluconate.
Chromium Two absorbable forms of chromium are chromium picolinate and chromium nicotinate. Chromium chloride is the least expensive form but also the least absorbable.
Consider the “Purity” of Supplements
When you find that perfect supplement with just the right form and amount of the nutrient(s) you are looking for, next check the “other ingredients” list. If it is a long one, buyer beware! A quality product would be free of preservatives, colors, lubricants and fillers. A few to watch out for are: artificial colors (such as yellow #5), sweeteners such as sucrose, sorbitol, and aspartame, fillers such as starch, vegetable oil, preservatives such as silicon, BHT, or sodium benzoate, or the plasticizer – propylene glycol.
It’s also important to watch out for potential lead toxicity from calcium derived from oyster shell (calcium carbonate). It’s best to opt for other forms of calcium. And avoiding GMO soy, oftentimes contained in vitamin E softgels, is best.
Maximizing Absorption and Minimizing Toxicity
Now that you’ve purchased the most pure and absorbable forms of vitamins and minerals, let’s consider the best ways to ingest them for maximum absorption.
First, let’s look at water-soluble vs. fat-soluble vitamins. The fat-soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E and K. Water-soluble vitamins include the B-vitamins and vitamin C. Fat-soluble vitamins must be ingested along with food containing fat for maximum absorption. Water-soluble vitamins can be ingested without food. Also consider the fact that vitamin D is most utilized when vitamin K status is up to par.
When it comes to minerals, there are combinations which enhance absorption and combinations which reduce absorption. For example, iron is more absorbable when taken with vitamin C or with food containing vitamin C (also note, iron should not be taken on an empty stomach due to the risk of nausea and vomiting). And calcium can prevent the absorption of other nutrients so is best taken 30 minutes away from other supplements. In order to maximize calcium’s absorption, make sure your magnesium and vitamin D status are good (you will find that many calcium supplements also include vitamin D or magnesium to help maximize utilization by the body).
When supplementing zinc, know that zinc and copper compete for storage in the body, so over-supplementation with one can cause a depletion of the other. Copper toxicities seem to be more common than zinc toxicities and studies have shown a correlation between copper toxicity and schizophrenia, among other mental disorders (3). In addition, a zinc deficiency can inhibit vitamin A absorption. There is also a relationship between iodine and selenium balance in the body.
“How much” is Enough?
While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss specific quantities of vitamins and minerals, do consider this: the RDA (“recommended dietary allowance” established by the Food and Drug Administration for each nutrient) is established only to prevent a severe deficiency…not to maxime health. Many nutrients can be taken at a higher level for a more therapeutic effect.
Water-soluble vitamins are safe to take at much higher milligram (mg) amounts than recommended by the FDA, because the body will rid itself of what it does not use and these vitamins will not be stored in the body. And for this reason, breaking up the dosing of these vitamins will maximize absorption. For example, let’s say you want to consume 1,500 mg of vitamin C. Instead of taking all 1,500 mg in one shot, consider breaking it up into three 500 mg doses spread out in the course of the day. Consider the same with the energizing B vitamins.
With fat-soluble vitamins we need to be more cognizant about how much we consume. Fat-soluble vitamins will store in the fat and can build up in the body over time, causing symptoms of vitamin toxicity. However, it can be safe to increase the dosage of these vitamins for a short time for specific purposes. For example, some medical professionals may recommend a very high dosage of vitamin A for a number of days as part of an antiviral protocol. Or a surgeon may recommend a high dosage of vitamin E after surgery to help prevent scar tissue from forming (but not immediately after surgery, as this could increase the risk of internal bleeding…it is best to get the “go-ahead” from your doctor for vitamin E supplementation after surgery). Another example would be an increased dosage of vitamin D during times of high inflammation.
Minerals can also be over-dosed and cause toxicity, so it is best to consult with a healthcare professional when going much higher than the RDA for minerals.
Other Factors to Consider for Maximum Utilization of Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
Certain lifestyle factors can deplete us of nutrients or prevent absorption of them. Try to avoid an abundance of alcohol or caffeine consumption for starters. Also, consider the fact that stress can increase your need for certain nutrients, such as vitamin C (as can smoking) or zinc. Prescription drugs can affect your need for certain vitamins (or should not be taken with certain vitamins, always ask your doctor about combining drugs with supplements). And low-fat diets can decrease your absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Also, some gastrointestinal disorders (and the drugs used to treat them) can reduce nutrient absorption.
Even certain infections can affect our nutrient status! In recent years, it has been discovered that h. pylori infections can prohibit the body from absorbing iron (resulting in conditions such as iron-deficiency anemia or even restless leg syndrome, some believe). An alternative medical professional can either test for h. pylori or look for the symptoms and help to address the infection naturally or with prescription drugs.
So, doing your research before making your supplement purchases can go a long way in getting the biggest health bang for your buck! Even checking out product reviews and talking to friends who use supplements can go a long way in finding out first-hand how certain supplements are making people feel. And don’t forget to include a healthy diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables to also maximize your nutrient intake along the way!
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