Optimizing Supplement Absorption

Shopping for supplements can be a bit of a daunting task. Natural health products can be expensive, and with advertising and fancy marketing terms coined by big-label supplement companies, it’s hard to differentiate which products truly are worth the investment. Although there are an overwhelming thousands of different products from hundreds of different brands on store shelves, there are a few ways to ensure we’re making the best choices.

Always look for vitamins and minerals in their biologically active form. This means that the nutrients are in their most absorbable form and don’t require any conversions or methylation by the body to be utilized. This is important because up to 50% of individuals have a genetic mutation inhibiting efficient methylation – this interferes with nutrient conversion and absorption as well as depressing detoxification pathways. Most people with these genetic mutations are undiagnosed, as testing is uncommon. Biologically active vitamins and minerals to look for include methylated B vitamins (5-methyltetrahydrofolate instead of folic acid; methylcobalamin instead of cyanocobalamin), minerals in biglycinate forms (avoiding oxide forms), buffered vitamin C (calcium ascorbate instead of ascorbic acid), and calcium microcrystalline hydroxyapatite or calcium biglycinate (avoiding calcium carbonate and coral calcium). Ensuring your vitamins are in their active form is especially important for B vitamins and bone complexes, but it is also a good indication of the quality of your multivitamin.

When available, select whole-food based vitamins. Nutrients derived from food are already in a natural form that can be readily absorbed by the body. Most whole-food vitamins will be clearly labeled, but also make sure you read the medicinal ingredients label. Here you should find where each micronutrient is derived from – for example, vitamin C from rosehips, folate from broccoli, and vitamin K from organic fermented soy. Aside from increased bioavailability, whole-food vitamins will often be pressed into tablets made from a base of fruits, vegetables, grains, and herbs to increase antioxidant and micronutrient content, as well as eliminate the need for binders and fillers such as maltodextrin or lactose. Certain vitamins and minerals are available in a whole food capsule or tincture, such as vitamin D from lanolin, bioflavonoids from citrus, and probiotics from fermented soy and herbs.

Consider whether the specific nutrient you’re taking is fat or water soluble. Vitamins A, D, E, and K as well as some antioxidants including Coenzyme Q10 are fat soluble. Look for these nutrients in a liquid or gel capsule, in a base of organic plant-based oil (MCT, olive oil, and sunflower oil are good choices) to further aid with absorption. Water soluble nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin C, and minerals do not need to be in a base of oil, and are effective taken in a liquid, vegetable capsule, or whole-food tablet. 

Health is an investment. Whether you’re taking a high quality multivitamin as an insurance policy, or you’re working with a practitioner using orthomolecular therapy to prevent or treat disease, be aware that spending the extra few dollars per month on a higher quality, bioavailable formula could be the difference between absorbing your nutrients and wasting your money. Choose whole-food based vitamins when possible, and always make sure to ask when the best time to take your supplements are, based on what other products and medications you’re on to optimize absorption and prevent interactions.


Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.

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