Taking vitamins can be a great way to support your nutritional needs — but there is a right way to do it.
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“When people don’t take vitamins the proper way, they don’t see improvement,” says family medicine doctor Rodolfo Perez-Gallardo, MD. “Your body can’t fully absorb vitamins unless you know the best time to take them.”
Dr. Perez-Gallardo says it’s less about time of day and more about syncing the habit with your eating and drinking schedule. He explains how.
When is the best time to take vitamin C and vitamin B12?
Vitamin C and vitamin B12 are water-soluble vitamins, which means you need water to absorb them. “Take water-soluble vitamins on an empty stomach with a glass of water,” recommends Dr. Perez-Gallardo.
And since it can be energizing, Dr. Perez-Gallardo says that the best time to take vitamin B12 is in the morning, so it won’t affect your sleep.
When is the best time to take vitamin D and other fat-soluble vitamins?
Fat-soluble vitamins require fat for your body to absorb them. They include:
For maximum absorption, the best time to take vitamin D and other fat-soluble vitamins is after you’ve eaten foods that contain fat. And you don’t need much: Dr. Perez-Gallardo says even small amounts of low- or whole-fat milk or yogurt will do the trick. So will eating food cooked with oil.
When is the best time to take multivitamins?
Multivitamins can be trickier: They often contain both water- and fat-soluble vitamins. “The best time to take a multivitamin is with food so any fat can help with absorption. You can also drink a water-based beverage to wash it all down,” notes Dr. Perez-Gallardo. “But the drawback is that your body won’t absorb the water-soluble vitamins as well as fat-soluble ones.”
The reverse is true when you take a multivitamin on an empty stomach with water — your body can’t properly absorb the fat-soluble vitamins. You could also end up with an upset stomach. So for full absorption, Dr. Perez-Gallardo recommends taking water- and fat-soluble vitamins separately.
When is the best time to take prenatal vitamins?
While they are important throughout pregnancy, the best time to start taking prenatal vitamins is before you’re pregnant — when you’re planning to conceive, says Dr. Perez-Gallardo.
And while you’re at it, also take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily three months before you plan to get pregnant. “Folic acid is essential for the development of your baby’s neural tube. Not having enough can lead to neural tube defects,” he says.
When’s the best time to take prenatal vitamins and folic acid?
- Folic acid: Since it’s a water-soluble vitamin, take it with a glass of water on an empty stomach.
- Prenatal vitamins: Take these with water and a meal for optimal absorption. It’s best to take them with breakfast or lunch, which lowers the chance of an upset stomach and acid reflux.
When is the best time to take calcium?
Many people consider calcium to be a vitamin, but it’s actually a mineral. So, you’ll want to be careful and not overdo it with calcium. Most people can get a sufficient amount of it from food. But if you’re not eating enough calcium-rich foods or you’re postmenopausal, Dr. Perez-Gallardo says you’ll need to take calcium the right way to decrease bone loss and osteoporosis.
Calcium supplements come in two forms: calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. The best time to take calcium depends on the kind you take, explains Dr. Perez-Gallardo.
- Calcium carbonate: To be properly absorbed, this type requires acid in the stomach. Take it with a meal because you produce stomach acids when you eat.
- Calcium citrate: You can take it with or without food because your body can absorb it with or without acids. Doctors often recommend calcium citrate for patients who take antacids.
Should you take vitamins?
Before you start a daily vitamin habit, Dr. Perez-Gallardo emphasizes that not everyone needs them. “If you eat a nutritious, balanced diet, you do not need these supplements. The best source of vitamins and minerals is a plate that is one-quarter fruits, one-quarter vegetables, one-quarter protein, such as fish and poultry, and the other quarter grains.”
If you can’t eat this way at least one meal a day, you may benefit from taking vitamins. Doctors may also recommend taking vitamins if you:
- Eat a vegetarian diet.
- Eat less than 1,200 calories daily.
- Have a medical condition, such as cancer, that makes it hard to eat nutritiously.
- Have a chronic intestinal condition that causes malabsorption, including celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome.
- Have alcohol use disorder.
- Had gastric bypass surgery.
- Had a partial colon resection, especially if doctors removed part of your ileum (where vitamin B12 is absorbed in your intestine).
“But talk to your healthcare provider first,” says Dr. Perez-Gallardo. “Your provider can check your levels to see if and where you are deficient, then get you what you need.”