Choosing the right kind of supplement is extremely important, and yet the choice available can create lots of confusion. I am frequently asked about how to select the most suitable type of supplement. Will the supplement be absorbed properly, and is a ‘natural’ form always better than a synthetic form? Are capsules better than tablets? Which brand is best? Some simple pointers can help you to choose the right supplement for you.
Is Natural better than Synthetic?
Many people prefer to take vitamins in their natural form as they believe that nutrients derived from plants and other natural materials are more effective. Although this is not always the case, there are certainly instances where this belief holds up. Vitamin E, for example, is almost 40% more potent in its natural form that in its synthetic form. The natural form of Vitamin E is called d-alpha-tocopherol and this natural form, usually derived from wheat germ or soya oil, is undoubtedly superior.
Likewise, the natural form of Vitamin D, cholecalciferol or D3, has a more sustained effect on Vitamin D levels in the body than its synthetic counterpart Vitamin D2.
Generally, however, the natural and synthetic forms of most vitamins and minerals tend to behave in similar ways. Synthetic forms of some nutrients, such as Vitamin C, can in fact work out cheaper and can be more concentrated.
Perhaps the most important consideration is that vitamin supplements derived from natural sources may well contain as yet unknown nutrients that help increase their effectiveness. Vitamin C, for example, is more effective when taken alongside bioflavonoids, and these nutrients are almost always found together in nature. Supplement manufacturers can utilise this natural Vitamin C ‘boost’ by combining a potent synthetic Vitamin C supplement with additional bioflavonoids. By replicating this natural combination manufacturers can improve the supplement’s potency.
Improving supplement absorption
Getting the best out of your supplements also means making sure that you are taking them correctly. There are a number of lifestyle and dietary factors that can affect supplement absorption. Supplements should always be taken separately from alcohol, especially if the supplements contain magnesium or B vitamins. Alcohol lowers levels of digestive enzymes from the pancreas, meaning that supplements may not be broken down and digested (1). Alcohol also damages the cells lining the stomach and intestines, impairing absorption (2).
As smoking influences the absorption of minerals such as calcium, it is not recommended to smoke during meal times, especially if you are taking your supplements with a meal.
Stress is another lifestyle factor that can hinder supplement absorption. As stress can effectively shut down digestion, it would be wise to try to take your supplements after a leisurely meal rather than on the run during a busy day.
To ensure maximum absorption, most vitamin and mineral supplements are best taken immediately after a meal. Calcium and magnesium are better absorbed alongside proteins. Vitamins A, E and D are all fat-soluble, and so are best taken alongside a meal containing fats or oils.
Other important factors when choosing a nutritional supplement include bioavailability, the form of delivery (tablet or capsule) and the manufacturing standards of the supplement company.
(1) Korsten, M.A. Alcoholism and pancreatitis: Does nutrition play a role? Alcohol Health & Research World 13(3):232-237, 1989.
(2) Feinman, L. Absorption and utilization of nutrients in alcoholism. Alcohol Health & Research World 13(3):207-210, 1989.