Stop! Before you spend your hard-earned cash on the latest health supplements, read our expert Q&As

Pop into any pharmacy healthfood shop or supermarket and you’ll see shelves heaving with pills and potions designed to boost your health. If you took them all you’d not only be broke, you’d rattle! So which to choose and how to take them for maximum benefit? We put your questions to nutrition experts to find out the best way to use supplements.


Description: Take your supplements with food to maximize nutrient absorption

Take your supplements with food to maximize nutrient absorption

Can I overdose on supplement?

“Some people worry that if they take a single-dose nutrient alongside a multinutrient formal they’ll take too much,” says nutritionist Rob Clark. “But it’s highly unlikely. For a start, most formulas adhere to the recommended daily amounts (RDAs) which are the minimum needed to prevent deficiency, rather than the safe upper limit. Unless they contain particularly high doses, it’s highly unlikely you’d exceed this even by combining supplements.

“Water-soluble vitamins, such as B and C, can’t be stored in the body, so any excess you consume will simply be flushed out. Pregnant women should avoid supplements containing vitamin A (stick to a pregnancy-specific formula) and anyone with blood-clothing issues (such as those on Warfarin or about to go into hospital for an operation) should avoid vitamin E as it thins the blood.”

If in doubt, check the safe upper limit of a nutrient (go to hsis.org) and compare it to your product labels. If you experience any unwanted symptoms while taking supplements, get them checked out by your health practitioner.

I found a packet of supplement at the back of my cupboard but they’re past their sell-by date. Should I take them?

“Liquid supplements are best thrown out as they may have a bacterial overgrowth,” says Clark. “An out-of-date tablet or capsule is unlikely to do you damage but its potency may well have diminished, so you might not reap many benefits”

What’s the best time of day to take my supplements?

Description: What’s the best time of day to take my supplements?

“Whenever you’re most likely to remember!” says independent nutritionist Ian Marber (ianmarber.com). I’ve never read any convincing evidence that nutrients are better used by the body at different times of day. And for some people, it’s hard enough to remember to take them in the first place, let alone taking one with breakfast, another with lunch and more in the evening.

“That said,” he continues, “it makes sense if you’re taking something stimulating – such as a sports supplement containing green tea, say – you shouldn’t take it before bed. Likewise, a relaxant such as rhodiola or valerian, is one for you besides table”

Bone resorption (when bones break down minerals into the blood stream) peaks at night, so, according to experts at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, Australia, taking calcium before bed and first thing in the morning can be beneficial for those women at risk of osteoporosis.

Should I take them on an empty stomach or with food?

“Take them with food, because eating improves blood flow to your digestive systems, and will maximize nutrient absorption,” says Clark. “Unless the supplement is made from a food source – such as a blue-green algae or wheatgrass – in which case it’s fine on its own.”

“Some supplements, such as zinc, can make you feel a little nauseous if they land in an empty stomach,” adds Marber. “The fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and essential fatty acids are best absorbed if there’s fat in the diet at the same time so, again, taking them at mealtimes is best.”

Probiotics are best on a full stomach as their chance of surviving is better when the pH level of the stomach is less acidic.

Are there any foods pr drinks that work best?

“Most people need some liquid to swallow tablets and capsules,” says Clark. “Having a drink of water at the same time will help supplements disintegrate in the stomach so the nutrients can be absorbed.”

“Coffee and tea reportedly interfere with the absorption of iron,” says Marber. “But don’t worry too much – better to down your multivit with a swig of tea than not at all. Avoid hot drinks with fish oils though as it could melt the gel capsule as you swallow – cue nasty fish taste repeating on you for the next half hour!” 

Where should I store my supplements?

“Somewhere cool, dark and dry is best,” says Clark. “Most supplements come in dark plastic or glass containers, but make sure they’re not on a windowsill in direct sunshine. A kitchen or bathroom cupboard is ideal, as long as it’s not one that gets too hot or moist, for example it it’s next to a radiator or above the hob.

“Store liquid and live probiotics in the fridge – if in doubt, check the label.”

Our favourite supplements for…

Sporty women

Description: Vitabiotics Wellwomen Sport & Fitness

Vitabiotics Wellwomen Sport & Fitness. $14 for 30 tablets; boots.com

A multivitamin and mineral formula with added nutrients including co-Q10 and guarana for sports performance and recovery.


Bionorica Cyclopret, $13 for 30 tablets; boost.com

Hormone-balancing herb agnus castus helps relieve symptoms such as mood swings and breast tenderness.

Boosting mood

Nature’s Plus Super B-50, $17 for 60 casules; revital.co.uk

The B vitamins are important for mood and work best in synergy, so choose a combined supplement like this one.


Pukka Red Ginseng, $25 for 90 capsules; pukkaherbs.com

A blend of organic red ginseng, seaweed, spirulina and ginger for added get-up-and-go.


Patrick Holford Optimum Nutrition Pack, $62; hollandandberrett.com

Contains 28 blister strips, each with a multivitamin and mineral formula, antioxidant immune-booster and omega 3 supplement. Handy for weekends away.

All-round health insurance

Nature’s Plus Source of Life Gold Vcaps, $36 for 90 capsules; nutricentre.com

The ultimate daily multivitamin and mineral, made from concentrated whole foods for better absorption.

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