Not a day goes by when I don’t see an article claiming some new supplement will change my life. Take this for better sleep! Try that for less anxiety! This is definitely missing from your morning routine. This little pill fixed that crazy-famous celebrity’s super-relatable problem. Trade in everything and try this single supplement superhero!
Is your head spinning yet? Mine is. And my pantry is overflowing with so many tinctures, powders, and cure-all pills that I could honestly open my own holistic pharmacy. From digestive aids to stress reducers to sleep inducers to who the heck knows what that is or what it’s for, there’s no shortage of supplements that can supposedly help with, well, everything.
While it’s important to get to know supplements and what they’re really good for (PSA: don’t believe everything you read), there’s another burning question that’s always on my mind: What’s the best way to take supplements in the first place?
Sure, popping pills is fast and convenient. And yes, mixing powders with smoothies certainly helps mask less than desirable flavors (cough cough, ashwagandha). But does the way I’m ingesting them really make a difference?
What Are Supplements?
For those who have yet to go buck wild adding every vitamin, mineral, adaptogen, protein powder, and magic elixir to your Amazon cart, supplements are products aimed at enhancing (also known as supplementing) your diet. From herbs to amino acids to enzymes to everything in-between, they come in various forms, like capsules, tablets, powders, and even energy bars.
Still not ringing a bell?
It’s likely someone recommended vitamin C or echinacea last time you had a cold, or suggested probiotics when you complained about your out-of-whack gut. Ever taken vitamin D when you were SAD? Or fish oil for that healthy heart? What about adding protein powder to your post-workout smoothie? Yep, all supplements.
Should I Be Taking Them?
In 2004, one in 10 adults reported taking herbal supplements. As of 2016, 71 percent of adults in the U.S.—more than 170 million!—reported taking dietary supplements. As people become increasingly interested in optimal health, curiosity about all-natural remedies, healing diets, and other holistic measures has piqued.
And while the best way to fuel your body is with a healthy diet, supplements can be a great way to give yourself a boost. (Read: Supplements should be complementary to a healthy lifestyle, not used as band-aids for not-so-healthy ones.) But the best way to figure out what you need isn’t surfing the internet.
"I recommend two things," says Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., and founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com. "One, be an advocate for your own health. Do your research on any concerns or conditions you may have so that you understand what may help most."
OK, maybe surfing the internet isn't such a bad idea. Just make sure any "facts" you find are actually that—and that they're backed by science.
"Second, I recommend working with a like-minded medical practitioner," he says. "Your chosen professional should be able to understand the effectiveness and interactions of any supplements you may be (or want to start) taking, and will be able to examine your medical history, symptoms, and any relevant tests to custom-design a supplement program for you, should they suggest you could benefit from it."
That said, consultations and tests don’t come cheap. So if you’re looking to keep things simple, Dr. Axe says that he's seen positive results when people take the following supplement staples. But as always, check with your doctor first before filling your shopping cart:
- Probiotics: These gut-friendly microorganisms have a slew of benefits, like improving the immune system, preventing and treating gastrointestinal issues, and supporting skin health.
- Vitamin D: While you may think that reaching for vitamin C is the way to go when it comes to colds, vitamin D is actually where it’s at. It’s also been shown to help treat depression and strengthen our bones.
- Protein Powder: You're likely no stranger to this well-known post-workout powder. Not only does it help smoothies taste like milkshakes, but it also may help our muscles recover and potentially promote a healthy body weight.
- Turmeric: Golden latte, anyone? This medicinal herb (and popular spice) is anti-inflammatory and may even help treat cancer.
Where Do I Buy Them?
If you’ve ever wandered down the aisles of health foods stores in search of a supplement, you know how overwhelming it can be. Tinctures, tablets, powders, capsules… all with varying doses, sold by countless brands, with prices all over the board, and mixed into so many combos that you end up cross-eyed. I often leave with several bottles and jars and more confused (and broke) than ever.
And it's not just me. Even health professionals find picking the right supplement tricky.
“This is one of the hardest things to tackle," says Tara Coleman, a clinical nutritionist who started her career as a chemist in the biopharmaceutical industry. "Supplement companies are regulated as food rather than drugs so they don’t follow the same rigorous testing and verification that our pharmaceuticals do."
Case in point: A review done by Vox in 2016 showed that more than 850 dietary supplements contained illegal and/or hidden ingredients. Gulp. These included banned drugs, pharmaceuticals like anti-depressants, and other chemicals that have never been tested on humans. Double gulp.
While I’m not convinced we should abandon supplements entirely, I am convinced that buying them from a reputable company is the best way to ensure supplement safety—and effectiveness.
"Products that are available at reputable retail locations (Whole Foods, for example) will often go through a rigorous compliance review," Dr. Axe says. "Products with outside certifications (like USDA certified organic) would also go through more testing. I like to give Whole Foods as a baseline because its standards for manufactured supplements are even stricter than the FDA’s."
As for online shopping... not so much.
"I would be concerned about products available only online (either through the company's own website or a marketplace reseller, such as Amazon) or late-night infomercial products," Dr. Axe adds. "These tend to have the most issues with quality, compliance, and adulteration."
Another pro tip: Look for third-party verification, which is a stamp of approval from a company with expertise in quality assessment that is not associated with the manufacturer. Good ones to look for include United States Pharmacopeia (USP), NSF International, and Consumer Lab.
"Companies that choose to put themselves through additional testing to prove the quality or potency do so at their own expense," Coleman says. "Typically this is a sign of integrity and transparency and speaks highly of the company."
As for the way we take them, that’s a little simpler—and less scary. (Phew.)
The Best Way to Take Supplements
I love adding powders to smoothies and lattes, will occasionally (and begrudgingly) down a tincture, and have been known to swallow up to 10 pills at once (don't worry, just herbal). My choices have mostly been based on flavor and convenience and less so because I thought the way I consumed them actually mattered.
“As a rule of thumb, the order of bioavailability (meaning your body can actually use it) typically goes liquid or tincture, powder, and then capsules,” Coleman says.
But there doesn't seem to be a huge—or scientifically proven—difference.
"Many sources claim that a liquid-based supplement is the most ideal for absorption, but that type of assumption has yet to be proven," Dr. Axe says. "Typically, how you take a supplement depends on how much your body may need or be able to use. For example, a protein powder scoop would typically have to be divided into 30+ capsules for you to get the same amount in one serving."
Protein powder capsules? Maybe not such a great way to give your body what it needs. But for something like ashwagandha, which is often consumed in small servings (typically no more than a teaspoon) and doesn't have the best taste, capsules are just fine. And considering many supplements require prolonged use to see the benefits, bioavailability may not actually be so important—depending on your needs.
As with most health-related things, it’s also about you assessing your own lifestyle and needs. Not everyone can stomach the bitter taste of tinctures, and similarly, not everyone wants to (or can) swallow numerous pills. In fact, some may not even be able to stomach pills.
"The downside to capsules is that there is a small percentage of people that may not react well to the material that the capsule is made from," Coleman says.
And while the material of supplement capsules—and our ability to digest them—is widely contested, it's something to watch out for (says someone who actually showed signs of inflammation in their stomach, which their gastroenterologist guessed was from all those supplements).
So yes, there are a few things to consider, but really it comes down to—surprise, surprise—you. And once you've picked your poison (slash method of choice), here are few supplemental tips to keep in mind:
- To help break up clumps—which is a common frustration when using powders—use a blender, milk frother, or shaker bottle (like a Blender Bottle). They're easy, fast, and (almost) lump-free.
- Mix tinctures with eight ounces of water or a splash of juice to help subdue the flavor. That said, if you’re a 'rip off the band-aid' kind of person, there’s no harm in going straight down the hatch, Coleman says.
- If you're worried about the material capsules are made from, sprinkle the contents into liquid and drink them instead. (Though Dr. Axe says that modern supplement capsules are more easily digestible and break down within seconds.)
- With some supplements, what you take them with actually matters. Fat-soluble vitamins, for example, need fat present to be fully absorbed. Vitamin C also helps iron absorb, so they should be taken together. Calcium, on the other hand, can compete with iron, so calcium supplements should be taken a few hours after an iron-rich meal.
- Additionally, some supplements can negatively interact with medication, making them less effective, and in some cases, even dangerous.
- Have I mentioned that consulting a health professional is really helpful?
Unfortunately, supplements simply aren’t that simple. To get the most out of them, you need to understand what they can actually do and how to best integrate them into your life. And because each supplement is different, as is each individual taking it, it's best to get guidance from a health professional as opposed to trusting the internet.
But I know that's easier said than done. So when it comes to supplements, make sure to buy the good stuff—from the brands that make it well—and make sure to thoroughly investigate before popping any pills or sipping any super drinks.