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Supplements

What’s The Best Way To Take A Dietary Supplement?

Posted on 22 January 2024

Dietary supplements have the potential to improve general health and wellbeing and prevent disease. While these compounds are naturally present in our food, it is not always realistically possible to ingest the optimal dose of a supplement through food alone. Dietary supplements are available in many different forms, and it’s not always clear why one would be preferable over another. Let’s take a look at the different ways of taking a supplement and their strengths and weaknesses.

Key term: Bioavailability
Absorption of supplements by the gut is not 100% efficient. Some supplements are broken down before they reach the blood, while others are precursors that need to be broken down to form the active compound. Bioavailability is the proportion of the consumed compound that reaches the blood.

Tablets

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Pros:

  • Cost-effective
  • Long shelf life

Cons:

  • Lower bioavailability

Tablets are pills that are made from compressed powder, lacking any form of capsule. They are generally cheap, but don’t really have any advantages health-wise compared to other forms of delivery. Because the active ingredients are not shielded from the conditions within the gut, they are more prone to being broken down by acidic/alkaline conditions or by gut microbes before they can be absorbed into the bloodstream when compared to some other delivery methods. This is more of a problem for some supplements than it is for others.

Capsule Pills

Pros:

  • Improved bioavailability

Cons:

  • Higher cost
  • Shorter shelf life

In a capsule pill, active ingredients are encased in a shell that is designed to completely break open after it has reached the intestines. This protects the active ingredients from degradation to some extent, which means that a larger proportion of the dose may be absorbed into the blood. This makes capsule pills superior to regular tablets, especially for compounds with low bioavailability due to degradation in the digestive tract. Not all capsule pills have hard shells – some are made of soft gelatine and can contain compounds in liquid form.

Powder

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Pros:

  • Easier to ingest
  • More flexible dosing

Cons:

  • Lower bioavailability

Some supplements can be purchased in the form of powder. In terms of the effectiveness of the supplement, powder has similar pros and cons to regular tablets, which are simply compressed powder. The advantage of powder is that it can be mixed with fluids for easier ingestion. It is also easier to control the dose by measuring out powder as opposed to cutting pills.

Granules:

Pros:

  • Easier to ingest
  • More flexible dosing

Cons:

  • Lower bioavailability

Granules are formed from powder that has aggregated into larger particles. This is usually done for manufacturing or practical reasons, not to change the way the compound works inside the body. For example, granulation may be used on a mix of powders of different sizes to prevent those powders from separating out over time, which would result in an uneven distribution of compounds throughout the container.

Liquid

Pros:

  • Increased bioavailability for some supplements
  • Easy to ingest

Cons:

  • Cost
  • Shorter shelf life

Some supplements can come in liquid form. This has similar advantages to powder and granules, but may also improve the bioavailability of certain supplements in comparison to their solid form.

Lozenges:

Pros:

  • Can deliver compounds that are absorbed through mucous membranes

Cons:

  • Less effective for delivering supplements absorbed in the gut
  • Can contain sugar

Lozenges are dissolvable tablets that are placed under the tongue, and are effective for delivering certain supplements, such as zinc and melatonin, that are absorbed through mucous membranes. They are unnecessary for other supplements. They can also bad for your teeth if taken too frequently, as they often contain sugar.

Gummies:

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Pros:

  • Pleasant and easy to consume

Cons:

  • Lower bioavailability
  • Sugar content

Gummies and gummy bears are sweets with a soft, chewy texture. They are made with gelatine, sugar, and sometimes added flavouring. Unlike gelatine capsules, gummies do not encapsulate their contents within a gelatine shell and are designed to be chewed instead of being swallowed whole. This means they do not protect compounds against degradation by the digestive system. The main advantage of gummies is that they are easy and enjoyable to take. As with lozenges, they are bad for your teeth if taken too often, as they contain sugar.

Liposomals:

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Pros:

  • High bioavailability
  • Potential for targeted delivery

Cons:

  • Cost
  • Variable quality
  • Higher risk of fake products

In liposomals, active compounds are encapsulated in tiny spheres made from lipids (liposomes). This protects them from degradation in the gut and facilitates their absorption into cells, as it allows them to fuse directly with the cell membrane. It is also possible to target liposomes to specific tissues by modifying the composition of the lipid layers. However, manufacture of liposomes for oral use is challenging, expensive, and tends to produce large variability from one batch to another, leading to inconsistent effects. This is why some manufacturers cut corners, producing fragile liposomes that will not survive the gut, or will be cleared from the blood by the liver and spleen before they can do any good. In fact, unless you own an electron microscope, there’s no way of telling whether a product actually contains liposomes at all. Unfortunately, because the supplement industry is not tightly regulated, it’s quite easy for companies to get away with this kind of misadvertisement, so proceed with caution.

Intravenous Drip

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Pros:

  • Enables delivery of compounds that don’t survive the gut

Cons:

  • Risk of severe complications if not performed correctly
  • High cost
  • Poorly studied
  • May actually make some supplements less effective

Intravenous delivery is the most unusual way of delivering a dietary supplement. In this way, any number of compounds can be simultaneously delivered directly into the blood via a venous catheter. Such a procedure usually lasts between 30 minutes and an hour. Because ingredients are delivered directly to the blood, there is no possibility of them being broken down first. Doses delivered intravenously also reach their targets much faster than those taken orally. Because of these advantages, IV drips containing dietary compounds are used to address deficiencies in conditions like malabsorption syndrome, in which the gut is unable to absorb nutrients from food.

While it might sound like intravenous delivery would also make supplements more effective in healthy people, things are not that simple. We’re going to study this topic in more detail in a future article, but for the moment there’s very little evidence that intravenous delivery is preferable to oral delivery for the vast majority of dietary supplements. The best argument for intravenous delivery is for dietary supplements with very poor bioavailability. However, the potential benefits still need to be weighed against the risk, expense and unpleasantness associated with being hooked up to an IV drip.

Which Method Is Best?

There’s no definitive answer to this question, as the best delivery method varies depending on what type of supplement is being taken. For supplements with high bioavailability, regular tablets may be perfectly fine, while others may require specific delivery methods. Reputable providers may be more likely to pick suitable delivery methods for their supplements, but it’s advisable to understand as much as you can about a supplement before you take it, which means consulting with a doctor and using reputable online sources.


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    References

    Title image by pina messina, Upslash

    Capsule or Tablet? Pros, Cons, and Prices Explained https://www.goodrx.com/drugs/medication-basics/capsule-or-tablet

    Lozenges Formulation and Evaluation: A Review https://ijprajournal.com/issue_dcp/Lozenges%20Formulation%20and%20Evaluation%20A%20Review.pdf

    Intravenous vitamin injections: where is the evidence? https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37640530/

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