Pill Popping 101: When To Take Supplements.

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When To Take Supplements

With all the buzz about nutritional supplements and sports performance aids, one neglected topic is when you should actually take these supplements.

When should you swallow fish oil? Before breakfast? After a workout?

What about antioxidants? Do they actually hurt you during exercise, or are they helpful?

Are there some supplements you should avoid with others, like a high fiber supplement and a multi-vitamin?

This post will answer all those questions and more, addressing popular supplements in no particular order of importance.

Multi-Vitamins

The most commonly used supplement among both athletes and the general population, a multi-vitamin compound typically contains the major fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and water soluble vitamins B and C. Compounds that contain fat-soluble vitamins should ideally be consumed with food that contains fat, since you absorb these vitamins best when animal or vegetable fat is present in the stomach.

The B and C vitamins will often cause some mild nausea or acid sensitivity when taken on a light stomach, so they should also be consumed with a meal. However, a heavy, greasy meal can interfere with absorption of these vitamins. While this may seem this a paradox, since you just learned that fat soluble vitamins should be consumed with a fat based meal, the type of meal that would interfere with absorption of water soluble vitamins would be a butter soaked omelette served with gravy and sausage – a meal most triathletes aren’t consuming on a typical day.


One exception, vitamin B12, is actually best absorbed on an empty stomach. So if you are taking an energy powder or energy drink, which usually contain high doses of B12, you’d be best served by using it in the mid-morning or afternoon on an empty stomach, or mid-training session.

Take-Away Message: Take a multi-vitamin with your main meal of the day, unless that meal is directly prior to a workout or race, in which case you should take your multivitamin with dinner. If you’re going to take a multi-vitamin at all, I recommend a liquid version.

Fish Oil

The beneficial cardiorespiratory effects of fish oil are proven, but fish oil, or any other omega-3 fatty acid supplement, doesn’t need to be taken immediately prior to a workout or race for this effect. As a matter of fact, while carbohydrates empty from the stomach 30 minutes to 2 hours after consumption, protein can take 1.5 to 6 hours, while fat can take much longer, since only 10 grams of fat can be processed by the digestive tract each hour.

For this reason, fatty acid supplements like fish oil may actually cause gastric distress and indigestion when consumed immediately prior to a big workout. For this reason, you should take a fish oil at the same time you take your multivitamin, with your primary meal of the day. If you don’t take a multivitamin, then take your fish oil with Vitamin D.

Take-Away Message: Take fish oil with your main meal of the day, unless that meal is directly prior to a workout or race, in which case you should take your fish oil with dinner. 

Iron

For many active individuals, and especially female exercisers, iron may be a necessary supplement. It should ideally be taken on an empty stomach for the best absorption, and taken separately from other supplements that may interfere with absorption, especially calcium and vitamin E. Some individuals experience nausea or upset stomach with iron intake, in which case a very light meal would be acceptable.

Take-Away Message: Take iron in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon on an empty stomach, and include a light snack if you experience stomach upset.

Minerals

Calcium and magnesium are the two most common and beneficial minerals for active individuals. During exercise, energy is produced by the conversion of fatty acids and amino acids with calcium-dependent enzymes, and magnesium should always accompany calcium in an approximate ratio of 1:2 prior to a workout. Since absorption of both minerals is enhanced by consuming with meals, your pre-workout meal is the perfect time for mineral intake.

Both calcium and magnesium can also assist with sleep and muscle relaxation, so prior to bed or with dinner, additional magnesium supplementation can be beneficial (I take Natural Calm before bed, and use topical magnesium before workouts).

Take-Away Message: Take minerals with the main pre-workout or pre-race meal, and take magnesium again before bed.

High-Fiber Supplements

Many health conscious people utilize superfood blends or “greens” supplements, (like Enerprime, CapraGreens or SuperGreens, which you can find here)which contain ingredients like powdered broccoli, spirulina, kelp and inulin. While these can be beneficial nutrient-dense energy sources, the high fiber in these supplements will significantly slow gastric emptying, and may also cause gas, bloating or bowel movements. For this reason, their use prior to a workout or race will necessitate eating the pre-workout meal 1-2 hours earlier than usual, or taking much earlier in the day.

Since fiber can decrease the absorption of fat, you may also benefit from taking a greens supplement at a different time of day as a fatty acid supplement. Finally, since many of these nutrients are stored by the body, it is fine to simply use a green supplement before bed, provided it does not contain caffeinated compounds like green tea or yerba mate extract.

Take-Away Message: Take high-fiber containing supplements with the main pre-workout or pre-race meal, but move meal 3-4 hours prior to competition or exercise or take the high-fiber supplement early in the day prior to an afternoon or evening workout.

Proteolytic Enzymes

Proteolytic enzymes like bromelain, papain, trypsin and chymotrypsin are found in many recovery capsules and pills, such as Recoverease or Capraflex, and for recovery and anti-inflammation will work best on an empty stomach. If taken with a meal, these supplements simply serve as digestive enzymes, but will not significantly enhance muscle recovery.

Take-Away Message: Take proteolytic enzymes on an empty stomach in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon, preferably after the day’s workout has already taken place.

Probiotics

Probiotics (like Caprobiotics) include elements such as acidophilus and lactobacillus, and are important for a healthy digestive system and useful for treating Candida (a big problem in high-calore consuming active individuals) and for replenishing the intestinal flora, especially after taking prescription antibiotics. They should be taken on an empty stomach.

Take-Away Message: Take probiotics at night, prior to bed, 2-3 hours after final meal of the day.

Antioxidants

The antioxidant family includes compounds such as coenzyme Q10, bioflavonoids and phytochemicals, quercetin, resveratrol, and Vitamin C and E (although the levels of Vitamin C and E in a typical multi-vitamin is relatively low compared to an antioxidant supplement). Interestingly, several studies have observed that antioxidant intake prior to exercise actually decreases insulin sensitivity and eliminates activation of the body’s natural defense mechanism against oxidative damage.

By shutting down the body’s need to for natural antioxidant activity that helps adapt to stress and respond to exercise, antioxidant consumption in high doses of a single isolated antioxidant (like Vitamin C or Vitamin E) could potentially blunt the workout benefit.

For this reason, antioxidant beverages and capsules should be A) full spectrum (like LivingFuel SuperBerry) and B) consumed only in moderation, and not as a consistent part of the pre-workout or during workout nutrition protocol.

Take-Away Message: Take antioxidants with a pre-race meal, and only before very difficult workouts. Otherwise, limit antioxidant to low to moderate intake only, and attempt to consume as far as possible from an exercise session.

If you’re confused about when to take what, simply use the table below to help you navigate through the timing of your daily supplement intake, and remember you’ll get benefits no matter what, but ideal benefit from following these rules!

Supplement Timing

And finally, what about those “shotgun” supplements that give you every possible vitamin, mineral and nutrient in one convenient capsule or powder? Be careful. While convenient, these all-in-one products can inhibit you from receiving full benefits from your supplementation.

Below, you can leave your comments, questions or feedback about when to take supplements!

P.S. Since there wasn’t a podcast this Wednesday, I didn’t have a chance to mention it, but on Thursday, December 15th, at 6pm I’m teaching a USA Triathlon webinar, in which you’ll learn how to transition like a pro triathlete, even if you’re just getting started! You’ll learn tips and tricks to shave seconds and even minutes off your swim-to-bike and bike-to-run transition times. You’ll also have ample opportunity to ask your questions about faster transitions. Here’s the link to register for “Lightning Fast Transition Secrets”.


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91 thoughts on “Pill Popping 101: When To Take Supplements.

  1. Jiezel Torreon says:

    Hi is it okay to take a fish oil with vitamin c?

  2. Beth Armstrong says:

    Hi Ben – I drink a very strong coffee(2tbls not teas) with milk first thing in the morning. It is the only coffee I drink. Can you please tell me when and how long before or after I can drink my coffee without it interfering with the absorption of my morning supplements of L-Theanine, Inositol, 5-HTP 100 mg, Boron 3mg, Thompson’s Brand Multivitamin, Vit C, Magtien Magnesium, and Vit E. Some of these supplements are repeated again at night, but I need the morning ones to fully count as well.I really appreciate your advice Ben as there is so much conflicting information on the net. I look forward to your reply…

  3. Robyn says:

    Your comments regarding taking iron on an empty stomach totally contradict all advice given by the medical profession which is to take it with a meal and supplement of Vitamin C for extra absorption.

  4. Joanne says:

    Hi Ben, when you are to take supplements after a meal, should it directly after or 15-20mins after eating? I’m aware that by drinking lots of water (in order to take the supplements) it would dilute the digestive enzymes that are at work after the meal. Pls advice on this. Same for before meals supplements m, should you leave 20 mins after taking the supplements?

    For food supplements like omega 3, spirulina, turmeric powder, garlic powder, fruit blend (high in vitamins A, C, E), I assume you can take them during the meal? But again that’s a lot of water involved!

    1. Typically You want to wait for gastric emptying to occur… And this typically takes a good 2 to 3 hours for most meals. Otherwise, for supplements that can be taken along with meals, you can just take them all the same time and you don't have to drink very much water when you take the supplements.

  5. Keenan says:

    I have the Onnit gut health packs. It’s got probiotics, enzymes, boulardi, etc. It says to take the whole pack with the largest meal of the day. Do you agree? It’s the onnit total gut health pack. I’ve heard you mention using them when traveling.

    1. Yes, this one you would take with your largest meal of the day!

  6. Deborah says:

    Morning Ben,

    I had taken a multi Vitamin with Calcium and Iron. It clogged me up horribly. I went for a colon cleansing and need 2 or 3 more. I was told to take probiotics 2xday, morning and night. Also, Calm product 2xday. Is this sufficient for my condition. Also, I have MVProlapse and need to be sure of what I take. Any suggestions?

  7. merry joy says:

    Hi ben,

    My husband told me that he take his supplements like fish oil and centrum at the same time,and some time with herbal like barley,,he take it in the morning after breakfast,,is it ok to take all of that at the same time? looking forward for your reply thank you so much,and god bless

  8. Ahmed Madani says:

    Hi ben, Can you please send me the articles that suggest taking Multivitamins like B12 on empty stomach or other vitamins with meals. Thank you

  9. Bonnie Placek says:

    I take a thyroid med (Levothyroxine) in morning on empty stomach. Before bed I take a multi vitamin, B-12, vitamin D, calcium, fish oil and probiotic. I have problems sleeping past 4:30 -5:30 am. with going to sleep at 10:30 pm. I used to sleep 9-10 hours no problem. I am a retired female in early 60’s. Wondering if all the supplements are too much and causing the problem of an overload with not being able to sleep. My labs have been always very good. Thanks!

    1. What I would do is ONE packet of sleep remedy when you wake at that time in the morning. The rest of this stuff shouldn't be affecting sleep too bad: https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/2015/12/sleep-co…

  10. Janice Miles says:

    My lab results came back showing I am anemic & deficient in Vit D. If I take EXOS Multi AM/PM Complex would I need to take a separate iron supplement?

    1. Yes, you would want a form of iron called iron bisglycinate. It is the only non constipating form. You can get it here: https://greenfieldfitnesssystems.com/product/iron…

      1. Aqua says:

        NO its not the only non constipating form of iron.

        Afteryears of incredibly heavy periods fibroids and poor diagnosis, I am an expert on iron supplementation.

        Iron bisglycinate is far better than some, but the all round most easily absorbable easy on the gut, most effective iron supplement is Spatone.
        https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nelsons-Spatone-Natural-…

        All women should be told about this at their mothers breast.

  11. amal tahir says:

    i love how you explained it Do you know of the Gnc ultra active women supplement?

    i am taking that nowadays not sure which multi is the best? Also i am soooo confused to when to take my supplements. How many supplements should i take? thats a big

    question. I am a female and i am completely over whelmed. please help

    p.s i know you are not a doctor!

    1. It completely depends and I would need to see lab work + genetic testing. But on the whole I take:
      https://greenfieldfitnesssystems.com/product/livi… https://greenfieldfitnesssystems.com/product/supe… https://greenfieldfitnesssystems.com/product/mult…

      The only multi I can vouch for is the one above. If you want to go into detail, feel free to book a consult at <a href="http://www.greenfieldfitnesssystems.com/ben” target=”_blank”>www.greenfieldfitnesssystems.com/ben and choose 20 or 60 minutes and we'll get you scheduled.

  12. allan says:

    hi ben can i take ultra omega 3 and probiotics in a same day

  13. Pechie Macayan says:

    Hi!

    My father is taking the following supplements:

    1. Lagundi

    2. Garlic

    3. Fish oil

    He was diagnos with tuberculosis last november 2015 and completed the 6 months medicine – fixcom 2 and 3.

    But after 6 months, he still feels he has so much phlegm. That’s why I bought him lagundi capsules and other supplements.

    My question is what is the best time to drink the above-mentioned supplements?

    Looking forward for your advise. Thank you very much.

    More power!

    1. Firstly, I am not a doctor and nothing I say should be taken as medical advice. If you want to go into detail feel free to book a consult at greenfieldfitnesssystems.com/ben and choose 20 or 60 mins and we'll get you scheduled. Most of the supplements are actually intended to be taken with the meal so would be best to time them, for example, with breakfast.

  14. iStillDontKnow says:

    The table is misleading with the x mark. I guess a check would be good unless you’re going to read the whole part of every supplement. Good blog anyways..cheers

  15. I am 72 and taking glucosamine .. When is the best time to take this supplement after breakfast, mid day or at night before or after dinner. Thank you.

  16. Refilwe says:

    Good day

    Trying to conceive..is it safe to take zink.iron and follic acids supplements at the same time

    1. I am not a doctor – please consult your physician.

  17. Chrissy Graettinger says:

    I’ve had roux-n-y gastric bypass surgery. I take multivitamin i 4 divided does, and there are meds i’m supposed to take with meals. Also a probiotic/prebiotic. Extra cacium citrate & extra vit. b12. I was having a problem with constipation so i’m using Melaluca fiber drink supplemen (provides 10 grams fiber daily) Would like to know when is best time to use fiber? Thank you for your time.

  18. John Ladd says:

    Hi Ben, great article.

    When is best to take Glucosamine and Chondroitin supplements?

    Kind regards, John

    1. Empty stomach for these most often!

  19. Fardin Zahiri says:

    Hi Ben.

    my question is I take vitamin B12 B9 B5 and omega 3 two capsule together every night. is that fine for me or not because the Dr recommended me just vitamins B12 B9 but I am taking vitamin B5 for my hair problem and omega 3 what is your idea for me thanks.

    1. Omega 3 will be BETTER absorbed with food, so take it with a meal. The B vitamins are fine solo or with food.

  20. mlkagan says:

    Great information. I used to take my Omega-3 first thing in the morning after brushing my teeth and then again before going to bed until I was told that unless it was taken with a good fatty meal (what you call 'main meal') it simply passes out of the system unused. Is that true? And why?

    1. Yep, fat soluble vitamins and fats are best absorbed with calories in a fat-based meal!

  21. Linda Fortune says:

    I just found your site and want some info. I developed a strange condition that has been diagnosed as Polymyalgia Rheumatica. I have lost 10 pounds which I couldn’t spare due to the relentless excruciating pain. There has been muscle wasting since I was almost crippled and unable to exercise. I thought it was malabsorption due to gut issues that brought it on, and have thought taking protein supplements would be a good idea to bring back my muscle mass. I got a product called Amino Balance that can be taken sublingually. I want maximum absorption. It requires an hour before I can eat after taking it, so I thought taking it before bed would make the most sense because I don’t like to wait that long before I can eat after taking a supplement. At night I would have an empty stomach and not need to eat again. Would that be a good idea? Thank you for your reply.

    1. I'm not too familar with amino balance: https://greenfieldfitnesssystems.com/?s=aminos&am… – Theoretically if aminos are indicated for your condition, then 10g at a time would be about the most for absorption, but you can do that multiple times/day (I'm not a doc so don't misconstrue this as medical advice).

  22. liz says:

    ben you are smart good job

  23. Sebnem says:

    Hello Sir,

    I’m writing from Turkey.I have a doughter.She is thirteen..She has got anemia.I want to use sprulina for her.How and how many capsuls can she use(after meal or before meal).Thank you for reading my email.Bye

    1. Doses of up to 10g have been used effectively in adults, but I'm not aware of any research on maximum doses in teenagers. The possibility of toxicity is relatively low, so I'd start at 1-2g if it were my kid. But again… not sure on the research on this one.

  24. Gillian says:

    Hi Ben,

    I have a couple of supplements that need to be taken on an empty stomach. If I take them together does that constitute an empty stomach?

    Thanks, Gillian

    1. You bet! Just avoid the breakfast burrito and you will be fine.

  25. Charlotte says:

    Hi there;

    I take magnesium at bed time and quite often zink at the same time. Is this a good idea?

    Due to back problems i take a calcium and magnesium pill during day with equal amounts of both. Is it a problem that i end up taking more magnesium than calcium at the end of day?

  26. vilcunatalie says:

    when to take zinc and when to take one-alpha. and what exactly is one alpha ?

  27. Tra says:

    Hi Ben I’m was taking omega 3-6-9 fish, flax, and borage along with calcium, magnesium, and zinc pill along with a garlic pill could take those 3 pills together or should I take them at separate times

    Thank you

    1. Follow the recommendations above and you will do great!

  28. jasonthebuc says:

    Ben,thanks for the link.If I could take the question a step further.I use both Maqui and Camu Camu on a daily basis.Since these are food derived sources, taking them in the pre/post workout window,shouldn't be a problem,am I correct?

    1. Both of those would be better timed pre-workout by 30-45 minutes.

  29. jasonthebuc says:

    With regards to taking antioxidants,how much of a window pre and/or post workout should I give myself before consuming?And does timing matter at all,on non workout days?Thanks,Ben!

    1. You should take a look at this video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHjSqOFmpQs it'll tell you what is what!

  30. Gary says:

    Interesting stuff! I’m mainly taking it for my joints with Glucosamine Chondroitan. Thanks again for all your help!

  31. Gary says:

    Thank you so much for the timely reply! Was I correct about the MSM stuff? And BCAAs with the Whey are okay?

    1. BCAA's with Whey are redundant. But you can indeed add the MSM! I personally do that topically, using this: http://www.magneticclay.com/120-19-3-49.html

  32. Gary says:

    I have a whole slew of supplements that have been recommended to me and this article has helped a lot!

    However, wondering your take on when to take whey protein for example. Would taking something like Green Superfood (I use the Amazing Grass brand) mixed with Almond Milk and Whey be okay to sip during a workout (before/during/after)? Or should I separate the greens? Asides from potential stomach issues, will the effects of the protein be less w/ the superfood present? Thanks!

    1. Gary says:

      Oh and to be clear, I’m talking in the morning. I heard about having a good protein intake first thing in the morning and find if I eat a full breakfast, I’m less likely to workout.

      Also… Same goes with BCAAs and any sort of MSM stuff (I figure the latter can be treated as minerals and taking it with my latest meal or before bed may work).

      You mention that minerals can help before bedtime but absorption is best with a meal. So if I take it before bed, do I lose some of those benefits?

      Thanks again and hope this isn’t too much!

      1. You'll lose out on SOME absorption, but if you are for example using a good rock salt or sea salt on your food throughout the day, you'll be fine.

    2. For an IDEAL stack for muscle building, you'd do 10-20g of whey both before and after. If just for recovery, 20-30g of whey within 2 hours post-workout, and you can mix with carb sources such as the almond milk and alkaline sources such as the greens for even better effect! Protein can be ENHANCED by that superfood, not held back.

  33. Lyn says:

    Can i take the same time fish oil,vitamin c and multivitamins with iron?

  34. kf_86 says:

    Is there anything wrong with taking Multi vitamins, iron and probiotics together?

    1. well the Thorne is one of the few multis that actually has iron bisglycinate, so I would not use other forms of iron with a multi: https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/multi – Then take probiotics separately, after a meal…

  35. littleeve74 says:

    Is there anything wrong with taking iron + probiotic right before bed?

    1. No issues there that I have ever seen in research!

      1. littleeve74 says:

        Thank you. :)

  36. Winsome says:

    Does taking omega 3 cause one to urinate more often?

    1. That is NOT something I've seen before!

  37. Winsome says:

    Thanks Ben for your advised appreciate it.

    Is it truth that calcium can cause heart attack, I am a little scared about this. I bought some on the week end taken only one and have not taken any more since.

  38. Winsome says:

    Hi Ben,

    Is it safe to take calcium supliments while taking omega 3

    1. Yes, but you need to balance the calcium out with magnesium…

  39. meg jerao says:

    hello ben,..so,.. in the morning im taking a diet pills before breakfast ,.. and at the night time im taking vitamin c after my work out at the gym ,.. question is am i taking it in a right way? please help im confused ,….

    1. Yes, that is OK for timing, Meg!

      1. Tim says:

        Vit C does not not last long in your body, which means whatever dose you take should be taken 2-3 times a daily. Also, in determining how much, just know that it is a water based vitamin and any amounts beyond what the body needs get passed thru the urine. As with any supplements, drink way more water than you think you need, with a balance of a sport drink to offset side affects.

  40. Shouvik says:

    Hi Ben,

    Thanks for the great explanation and info. I had a quick question. I have also begun taking Folic Acid supplement in the morning with my coffee. I am not sure when would be a good time to take it or if it is absolutely essential (for men). Please let me know your views on this.

    Thanks!

    1. There can be issues with folic acid, as it is very synthetic and not processed/absorbed well. Go for "folate" food sources like romaine lettuce, spinach, asparagus, turnip greens, mustard greens, parsley, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, and lentils. If you're adventurous calf’s liver and chicken liver are also good.

  41. John says:

    Ben what about Juice Plus? They seem to have a lot of peer reviewed research and some of it on elite athletes? Www.wholefoodnutrition.ca

    1. Yes, Juice+ is good too! Not a lot of "crap" in their stuff…

  42. Tara says:

    Always great content, Ben. Thanks for teaching me something new and for the "rules" of when to take them.

  43. Jerry says:

    Ben, I take Race Caps regularly, as do you, I believe. Given the advice above regarding CoQ10/antioxidants, do you suggest NOT taking Race Caps daily, as I do now?

    1. I take CoQ10 more for anti-aging than I do for performance, so I still recommend….

  44. Robert says:

    Ben

    Iron absorbtion is dimished if taken with coffee, eggs and improved when taken with orange juice.

  45. Jane Byrne says:

    What about CO-Q10 ?

    1. Treat that like an antioxidant.

  46. Brandon says:

    Ben, is there a general formula that we can use to determine how much fish oil active individuals should take?

    1. Most studies use 1.5-4.0 grams and most capsules are about 1gram, so around in the range of 2-4 capsules is fine for most. I have yet to see good research to support a gram/lb equation, but if there's a study out there I'm unaware of, I'd love to see it.

  47. Living Simple says:

    One thing that you forgot to mention is to make sure you actually need a supplement–i.e. you're low on a particular vitamin or mineral–before you actually take a supplement. Otherwise, this sounds like a great way to create expensive urine. And with things like magnesium, there is no benefit to taking it if you are not deficient in it. There is little, if any, evidence that people who eat a healthy, varied diet actually need supplements. But, hey, the nutritionists complain about big pharma and then try to encourage you to spend money on their supplements rather than big pharma's drugs. Remember, the "Freakonomics" guys warn about people who have an informational advantage and an incentive to exploit it.

  48. lucia says:

    hi Ben
    you didn't mention the solar synergy. The company says take it after a workout as a sports drink replacement. Have you ever used it during a workout?

    1. Frankly I usually have a real meal after a workout (typically my workouts are in later afternoon and finished up close to dinner), so I usually have solar synergy as a midmorning drink, or post-workout for really long, hard workouts where I'm losing lots of minerals.

  49. PDPswim says:

    Great info! Ben

    You anticipated my question and answered it superbly. Thanks.

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