Supplement Timing: Why, When and How to Take Supplements for Maximum Benefit

Updated on October 17, 2021

By David Heber, M.D., Ph.D., FACP, FASN – Chairman, Herbalife Nutrition Institute

They say timing is everything – and that’s true even when it comes to taking nutritional supplements. Many of us grew up consuming a multivitamin at breakfast as part of our daily routine. One pill, once a day. Today, it is not uncommon for people to line up their daily range of supplements and down them all with their morning juice or shake. As a medical doctor and founder of UCLA* Center for Human Nutrition, I have dedicated my career to educating health professionals and consumers about the importance of supplements. While there are endless articles about which vitamins and take, few understand that it is not just what you take but also when you take these supplements that matters.

A recent Changing Health Priorities survey of 13,000 respondents from 24 countries, by Herbalife Nutrition and the Council for Responsible Nutrition, found that 89% of respondents are currently taking steps to improve their health, including incorporating vitamins and supplements into their routine. Even so, 77% of respondents reported wanting to know the different health benefits.

Why before when

First, it’s important to understand that supplements complement a healthy diet but don’t make up for an unhealthy diet. Sometimes people can fool themselves that even though they are eating poorly, they feel they are making up for lost nutritional ground by taking many vitamins. Proper nutrition is core to good health, and vitamins and supplements are valuable in assuring that you get all the nutrients your body needs which enhance, but do not replace, a good program of a daily intake of nutritious foods including the right amount of protein and colorful fruits and vegetables.

Before you load up on vitamins, it is vital to discuss with your doctor any specific goals and recommendations and to determine compatibility of your supplements with any existing medicines that you take. Doctors will factor into their recommendations your age, overall health, and other medical considerations. 

Follow label directions. Many supplements should be taken with food

Always take supplements according to the label directions. Let’s start with a few essential facts. Many vitamins and other supplements can be taken with food and a large glass of water. There are many reasons for this. Eating begins the process of digestion which helps people break down supplements. For some, taking supplements on an empty stomach can make them feel nauseous– some key culprits are known to irritate the digestive tract, including iron, magnesium, and fish oil. Because of these digestive side effects when taking supplements on an empty stomach, some people stop taking supplements and do not get the vital nutrition they need. Many people report feeling better when they take vitamins with food.

Start your day 

Supplements provide what is missing from your diet or what your food can only provide in small amounts. Protein is often deficient at breakfast and lunch and excessive amounts are eaten at dinner. A great way to start your day is with a protein supplement in the form of a healthy shake. Not only does protein supply your body with the energy it needs, but it is also crucial for a healthy immune system. Protein-rich shakes and bars can help you get the protein you need at every meal and after exercise.  

Add a multivitamin to your morning ritual. Multivitamins tend to do best when taken earlier in the day or consumed in smaller doses throughout the day. B vitamins stimulate metabolism and brain function and can be too much for a relaxing evening or before bed. I recommend taking vitamin B in the morning to boost energy at the beginning of your day. Check labels to see if there is caffeine in any of your supplements. If so, it can give you a valuable energy boost – but never take those supplements within six hours of going to bed.

People who are low in Vitamin D may be at higher risk of brittle bones, some types of cancerobesitydiabetes, and other chronic conditions. Vitamin D’s best-known role is to keep bones healthy by increasing the intestinal absorption of calcium. Low levels of vitamin D lead to low bone calcium stores, increasing the risk of fractures. A nutrient dynamic duo you may add to your arsenal is vitamin D to boost calcium absorption and vitamin C to boost iron absorption. 

Snacks, lunch and dinner

An excellent nutrient to take at lunch, before or during your workout, is Leucine, which helps preserve lean muscle by stopping muscle breakdown. Speaking of healthy bones, calcium is essential for bone health. The two most used calcium products are calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Calcium carbonate supplements dissolve better in an acid environment and ideally are consumed with a meal. People can take calcium citrate supplements at any time because they do not need acid to dissolve.  

Rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil from ocean-caught fish and fish oil supplements can reduce excessive inflammation by increasing omega-3 fatty acids in your body which benefits heart health, eye health, and brain health. Take your fish oil supplements right before a meal, to reduce the chance for indigestion.

Fat-soluble Vitamins A, D, E and K are also better absorbed when you have them with a meal or snack that contains at least a teaspoon of fat (about 5 grams of fat). The same goes for your multivitamin, which will typically include these fat-soluble vitamins. 

Vitamins A and C, as well as phytonutrients, are key players in immune system health. As one of the biggest immune system boosters, vitamin C encourages our body to produce antibodies that protect us from infections. Maintaining a daily vitamin C intake is essential as the body does not create or store it. Vitamin A supports our vision, the health of our skin, and tissues of our digestive tract and respiratory system. 

End your day with relaxation and good sleep

According to the Changing Health Priorities survey, not getting enough sleep was the third most common unhealthy habit respondents were trying to break to improve their health. Part of good sleep health is adding supplements that relax your mind and body. Its recommended to take magnesium before bed since it can make you sleepy, supports strong bones, and aids in muscle pain relief. Some studies indicated that it could also ease anxiety, which can also help soothe tired bodies and minds to achieve a deeper sleep. For a good night’s sleep, melatonin is an effective supplement to take to help ease people into sleep. Studies have shown that people who took melatonin supplements fell asleep seven minutes faster and improved overall sleep quality.

Good health involves a routine. Remembering to eat right, get enough sleep, and do plenty of exercise as part of your daily schedule. So too, should be taking supplements and creating a plan of what and when to take them. While it may seem daunting to take all your tablets and capsules simultaneously, learning to space them out enhances absorption, can help you sleep better at night and support your nutritional goals for a healthy life.

*Titles are for identification purposes only. The University of California does not endorse specific products or services as a matter of policy.

The Editorial Team at Healthcare Business Today is made up of skilled healthcare writers and experts, led by our managing editor, Daniel Casciato, who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We offer readers access to fresh health, medicine, science, and technology developments and the latest in patient news, emphasizing how these developments affect our lives.