Whether you pop a multivitamin daily (or at least when you remember to take one) or you religiously swallow a whole cluster of vitamins that range from A to zinc, there’s no denying that there’s a lot of misinformation surrounding these little pills.
Get the facts behind 10 common supplement-taking scenarios, as well as expert advice on what you should (or shouldn’t) do when it comes to getting the most out of your vitamin supplements.
Situation: You just started taking vitamins and your urine is an orangey yellow.
You think: Yikes, this means I’m peeing out all the good stuff!
The truth: This is actually quite normal when taking multivitamins or B-complex vitamins. “Your urine will often turn a bright yellow or orange color due to the presence of vitamin B2, also known as riboflavin,” says Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., clinical associate professor of medicine at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. The vitamin’s name gives you a hint: Flavin comes from the word flavus, which means yellow. “Your body just excretes what it doesn't need—it’s perfectly harmless,” says Dr. Low Dog. If the color bothers you, simply drink more water to dilute your urine, suggests Esther Blum, R.D., author of Secrets of Gorgeous.
Situation: You hate the taste of most veggies and can barely choke down broccoli.
You think: I’ll just get those nutrients from supplements—it’s the same thing.
The truth: To get all of the healthy, disease-fighting benefits from vegetables, it’s always best to eat the real deal rather than a pop a pill. A recent study from Oregon State University found that an important phytochemical in broccoli and other similar veggies is poorly absorbed and much less beneficial when taken in supplement form. When it comes to these crunchy vegetables—as the song goes—ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.
Situation: You’re still using the same bottle of multivitamins that you’ve had for over a year.
You think: Vitamins don’t really go bad, so it doesn’t matter how old they are.
The truth: You should check that expiration date and buy a new bottle if it’s already past its prime. “Vitamins lose their potency over time, by as much as 10 to 20 percent,” says Susan Dopart, R.D., co-author of A Recipe for Life by The Doctor’s Dietitian. Taking expired vitamins may not be dangerous, but it’s less beneficial—and possibly a waste of time.
Situation: You just found out that you’re pregnant.
You think: Now I should start taking folic acid!
The truth: “You should actually already have adequate levels of folic acid in your system at the time of conception,” says Dr. Low Dog, who recommends starting to take 400 micrograms of folic acid per day at least one month before trying to conceive to reduce the risk of birth defects. That said, since 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, Dr. Low Dog also notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all sexually active women take 400 micrograms of folic acid per day, even if you’re not actively trying to conceive.
Situation: You choose supplements with the term "all natural" on the label.
You think: They must be healthier and safer.
The truth: “Unlike the term organic, ‘all natural’ is not an official term that is regulated by the federal government and does not offer any guarantee as to the product's safety,” explains toxicology expert Lori Bestervelt, Ph.D., chief technical officer and senior vice president at NSF International, a public health and safety organization that tests and certifies consumer products, including dietary supplements.
Situation: You try to find vitamins with the terms “pharmaceutical strength” or “pharmaceutical grade” on the bottle.
You think: This means they’re more potent and therefore, more effective.
The truth: This is another term to watch out for, notes Bestervelt. “There’s no such thing as ‘pharmaceutical strength’ or grade for dietary supplements,” she explains. In other words, if you see these terms on labels, don’t take them too seriously.
Situation: You keep all of your supplements in the same place in your kitchen.
You think: They’re all in closed bottles, so it doesn’t make a difference where I store them.
The truth: Some supplements like flax oil, fish oil and probiotics need to be kept in the fridge to maintain their quality and shelf life. They can actually become rancid faster if kept elsewhere. Most vitamins will do fine stored in a dry, dark place with a steady temperature, such as a drawer, according to Jeanette Bronée, a certified holistic health coach and founder of the wellness center Path for Life. But you should never store vitamins on top of microwaves or fridges, as those locations typically give off heat and may reduce the effectiveness of your vitamins. The bathroom medicine cabinet is also a place to avoid because of the moisture levels, notes Dopart.
Situation: You’ve upped the amount of supplements you take over the years—and you’ve forgotten why you take each one.
You think: No big deal. It’s hard to get too much of a good thing, right?
The truth: Wrong. The problem with this approach: You can end up ingesting duplicates since pills often contain more than one vitamin or nutrient—and more isn’t necessarily better and can even be harmful. Taking too much of one nutrient can cause a deficiency of another, explains Dopart. For example, if you’re taking too much iron, you may be heading for a zinc deficiency since both minerals have similar binding sites in the body, according to Dopart. Talking to a dietitian or nutrition counselor in addition to your health care provider can help you sort through potential dangers and pare down your supplements to the ones you actually need.
Situation: The only time you remember to take your vitamins is at night, right before you go to bed.
You think: Timing doesn’t really matter, as long as I get them into my system at some point in the day.
The truth: You might be lessening their effects by taking supplements sans food. “Almost all supplements should be taken with food for optimal absorption because nutrients work in conjunction with each other,” says Blum. “What’s more, if you are taking any fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E or K, then you'll need to have some fat with the meal to enhance their absorption.” This is another reason why you should steer clear of fat-free diets since you don't absorb fat-soluble vitamins without some fat in your meals, notes Blum. Another reason to pair your supplements with a meal: “They’re less likely to cause stomach upset,” says Dr. Low Dog.
Situation: You’re on prescription medications and plan to start taking some supplements.
You think: Vitamins and supplements are generally safe so there’s no need to talk to my doctor about it.
The truth: Actually, a number of supplements can interact with both prescription and over-the-counter medications. For example, fish oil has the ability to thin your blood, so if you're taking a blood thinner such as coumadin or an aspirin regimen you may want to avoid taking another product that will have the same effect, explains Bestervelt. Be sure to chat with your physician before you start taking a supplement—however harmless it may seem—to make sure it doesn’t interact with any of your medications.
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