ronstik / Thinkstock
Taking supplements has always been controversial, 30 years ago and today. Many people start taking supplements because they’ve heard good things about a particular herb or they’ve read that a certain compound might ease their aches and pains. Although benefits do happen, this approach can be a little hit and miss, and it ignores a common predicament: vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which are widespread—yes, even in the United States, according to 2014 USDA data.
Rest assured: Most recent and new research does support supplements’ benefits. Here’s what to take when you’re starting out—or how to fill gaps in your current regimen.
Multivitamin. For decades, a multi-vitamin supplement was simply considered dietary insurance; now, substantial scientific evidence shows that it can reduce inflammation (involved in all disease processes) and the risk of heart disease and cancer (also see study on multivitamins and cancer-prevention in men; and research on multivitamins improving homocysteine and LDL oxidation). Even though a multi might feel like the nutritional “kitchen sink,” it really does provide broad-spectrum protection against deficiencies.
Recommended now: Opt for a moderately high-potency supplement, which will contain more than 100 percent of the Daily Value (DV) for most of the vitamins. As a guide, it should contain at least 20 mg of vitamins B1, B2, and B3.
Multimineral. Often included with multivitamin supplements, but there’s a catch: Some minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, are so bulky that the amounts in multis tend to be lower than recommended. It’s best to take a separate multimineral supplement or to select a product that offers a vitamin-mineral combo in three or four capsules daily. Depending on your personal needs, you may want to bone up on extra calcium, magnesium, or other single minerals. Magnesium, in particular, might lower your heart disease risk by a third.
Recommended now: For health maintenance, look for a multimineral or multivitamin-mineral product that provides 100 percent DV for minerals.
Vitamin D. Thirty years ago, today’s recommended vitamin D intake would have been considered toxic. That was before a surge in research and the grim finding that three of every four Americans have low levels of this crucial vitamin, in large part because we spend more time indoors and consciously avoid the sun. No other vitamin offers the diverse benefits and preventive health care properties of D; deficiency is directly linked to risk of heart disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, compromised bone health, and depression.
Recommended now: For adults, 2,000–5,000 IU daily. For children, 600–1,000 IU, depending on weight.
Omega-3s. In the 1980s, few people knew about omega-3s; now, they’re nutrition superstars, lauded as nature’s best anti-inflammatories. Two omega-3s in particular—eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—are essential for easing perinatal depression, postpartum depression, and anxiety; improving memory and normal brain development; and reducing the risk of heart disease, atherosclerosis, and breast cancer (click for another study on breast cancer and improved chemotherapy outcomes)—and that’s just for starters. If you don’t want fish oil capsules, try algae-source EPA and DHA.
Recommended now: For inflammatory disorders, seek out a supplement that contains 360–800 mg EPA and 100–500 mg DHA daily. For memory issues, reverse the EPA:DHA ratio.
What about other supplements I've heard about?
Every body is unique and can benefit from a tailored approach to supplementation. If you have some health concerns or risk factors, take the time to read up on other supplements that might address your health issues. For example: vitaminlike coenzyme Q10 for heart disease (100–300 mg daily); chromium for high blood sugar (250–1,000 mcg daily); or probiotics for regularity and to resolve diarrhea, including infectious diarrhea and antibiotic-induced diarrhea in infants and children (1 billion–10 billion CFU daily).
Should I take more than one supplement?
If you take more than a couple of supplements each day, it’s important to pay attention to the fine print because you could end up with overlapping ingredients, such as vitamin E. A little extra of any supplement is not likely to hurt you, but you may be taking more than you want or paying for extra for something you don’t need.
What time of day should I take supplements?
That depends on the supplement. Fat-soluble nutrients (such as coQ10 and vitamins A, D, E, and K) should be taken with food, to enhance absorption. Though water-soluble nutrients such as vitamin C and the B complex can be absorbed without food, the body assimilates them better when taken with food. Digestive enzymes should be taken before a meal and probiotics right after eating.
The big exception is individual amino acids, such as L-tryptophan, which should not be taken with food. Swallow them about 15 minutes before breakfast or at least an hour before or after any other meal.