You may have heard many opinions about times of the day you should eat: Eat first thing in the morning, don't eat at night, eat every three hours, eat every five hours, and so on and so forth. But how about supplements and are there opinions on the best time to take vitamins?
There's no specific time of day when it is best to take multivitamins, but certain nutrients are best absorbed when they're taken with a meal, in multiple doses throughout the day or at a different time from another nutrient.
The decision to start taking a supplement could be a smart one on your part, depending on your nutritional needs. With the guidance of a doctor or dietitian, you'll want to start administering your multivitamin at a time and in a way that it will be most effective.
Why Take Vitamins?
Although most experts, including those at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, agree that you should strive to meet your nutritional needs through a well-balanced diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, there are times when taking a supplement — either a multivitamin or a supplement of a specific vitamin or mineral — could be beneficial.
For example, some people might eat fewer than 1,600 calories a day because they have a poor appetite or trouble eating. A supplement can help them get all the vitamins and minerals they need even if they aren't eating a lot of food.
Certain people have increased needs for certain nutrients, such as elderly adults or pregnant women. Then there are people who can't eat certain foods, such as vegetarians, who don't eat meat, or people with celiac disease, who don't eat gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley products.
Some people will supplement certain vitamins and minerals for specific purposes, such as calcium or vitamin D for bone health, or omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil to stave off heart disease. But bear in mind that having more of a nutrient than you need won't necessarily make you ultra healthy — that excess could be unnecessary or even dangerous in some cases.
Best Time to Take Vitamins
If the directions on the supplement container don't give you any specific details about when to take the product, you are probably left wondering about the best time to take vitamins. There's not a one-size-fits-all-answer.
In general, timing isn't important in terms of the hour of the day — you will absorb nutrients the same way whether it is morning or evening. But there are a few factors with regard to timing you might want to consider, such as whether you're taking supplements with a meal, spacing your doses out or taking your supplements in conjunction with one another.
For example, although there is no definitive best time to take vitamins, the Cleveland Clinic recommends not taking your supplements first thing in the morning before you eat anything, as this can upset your digestive tract. It could also be a bad idea to take supplements right before exercising. This could cause your stomach to produce gastric acid, giving you heartburn or reflux.
The UT Southwestern Medical Center agrees with this advice and encourages people to determine whether they're taking their supplements with or without a meal. Some nutrients are absorbed better on an empty stomach. Just as importantly, some nutrients will affect the way other nutrients are absorbed.
Iron and calcium are two examples of nutrients that affect each other's absorption. If you are supplementing your diet with both of these minerals, you should be sure to take them at separate times of day. In addition to iron, calcium can affect the way the body absorbs magnesium and zinc.
The Mayo Clinic actually offers specific recommendations about calcium supplements and taking them with food. The best time to take calcium, it turns out, depends on the form of calcium in the supplement.
If it's calcium carbonate, the best time to take calcium is at mealtime because the stomach acid produced during eating is important for absorption. On the other hand, if you're taking calcium in the form of calcium citrate, you can take it at any time that's most convenient.
You should also consider whether you're taking your daily supplementation all at once or whether you're spacing it out during the day. Smaller doses of nutrients are easier for the body to absorb, so you would reap more benefits if you took one dose in the morning and one dose at night.
This is also important for vitamins and minerals you do not want to overconsume. Again, look at calcium as an example. When you have to consume more than 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day, the best time to take calcium varies because you need to space your calcium supplements throughout the day in two or more doses.
What About Other Supplements?
Like vitamins and minerals, there is not a best time to take fish oil. It can be taken with food or without it, so doctors recommend that the best time to take fish oil is a time when a patient can regularly remember to take it. However, if you want to avoid fishy-tasting and smelly burps, you should take fish oil at night.
Even if there isn't a specific best time to take fish oil, does that rule apply to every natural product? In short, no. In some cases, you might want to take a natural product only to achieve a certain effect.
In the case of the hormone supplement melatonin, which is taken by 1.3 percent of the population, you are taking a supplement with the hopes it will help you sleep. Johns Hopkins Medicine recommends taking melatonin two hours before you want to go to sleep and to take it in conjunction with other steps that will encourage its effects, such as limiting your exposure to light.
Not all vitamins, minerals and supplements have the same rules. Although most can be taken at any time, there are factors that affect the way some of them are absorbed or when they affect you. In these situations, your doctor will be able to give you the best advice. There will also likely be directions specified on the product's container.
- Mayo Clinic: “When Should I Take Calcium Supplements? Does the Timing Matter?”
- UT Southwestern Medical Center: “5 Signs You’ve Chosen the Right Multivitamin”
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Vitamins, Minerals and Supplements: Do You Need to Take Them?”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Get Nauseous After Taking Vitamins? 6 Tips to Make Them Easier to Stomach”
- National Institutes of Health: “Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know”
- Food and Drug Administration: “Fortify Your Knowledge About Vitamins”
- University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health: “Fish Oil”
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Using Dietary Supplements Wisely”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Melatonin for Sleep: Does It Work?”