When is the best time to take a multivitamin
Multivitamins are supplements that contain a combination of vitamins and minerals, with some products also made with added ingredients such as herbs, fatty acids and amino acids. Sometimes they’re simply called multivits or, to shorten their name even further, multis. They’re also incredibly popular. According to a survey by marketing research company Mintel, of the six in 10 British people who have taken vitamin and mineral supplements, well over half take multivitamins (i).
For many of us, a healthy balanced diet should provide all the nutrients we need. However, there are a number of different reasons for taking a multivitamin:
A good-quality multivitamin may help increase your intake of important nutrients, which can be especially helpful during times when – for whatever reason – you can’t get the nutrients you need from food alone.
Different types of multivitamins may be helpful for those who have specific health problems (though while they may support overall wellbeing they haven’t been proven to actually prevent, treat or cure any health condition).
Certain groups may benefit from taking multivitamins too, including pregnant women, people who are very active and older people.
There are also no official rules as to what a multivitamin should or shouldn’t contain, so manufacturers are free select the ingredients they put in their multis themselves. However, some of the most common nutrients in multivitamins include the following:
When Should You Take Yours?
If you take a multivitamin – or you’re considering taking one – one of the things you may be wondering is what time of day you should take it so your body has the best chance of absorbing its nutrients. Should you take it with food, for instance, or on an empty stomach? And what’s the best time to take your multivitamin so that you’ll remember to take it every day?
There’s no absolutely right or wrong time to take a multivitamin. However, generally speaking it’s a good idea to take a multivitamin with a meal, as this may reduce the likelihood of it causing any stomach discomfort or nausea. But which meal is best?
Since multivitamins contain fat-soluble vitamins, it’s advisable to take them with a meal that contains fats or oils. Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D E and K, and – as their name suggests – they’re called fat-soluble because they dissolve in oil. So if you take them on an empty stomach, they may not dissolve very well, which means they may not be absorbed effectively either.
Many people take a multivitamin with their breakfast as it’s easy to get into a routine at that time of day, which means you may be less likely to forget to take it. But while breakfast may seem like an ideal time, if – like many people – you tend to eat a fairly low-fat meal most mornings you may not absorb all of the fat-soluble vitamins in your multi.
For most of us, the meal that’s usually the highest in fat is our evening meal. And for that reason, it could be the best meal to take your multi with – though, admittedly, if you’re eating out there’s always a chance you’ll forget. However, if you take a multivitamin that’s designed to give you extra energy, taking it during the evening may not be a great idea as it could interfere with your sleep.
Some of the ingredients in a multivitamin may interfere with the absorption of some medicines, which means you should avoid taking your multivitamin and your medicine at the same time. For instance, calcium and iron can interfere with the body’s absorption of thyroxine, a medication taken by people with an underactive thyroid. The best time to take thyroxine is usually first thing in the morning, before breakfast. And that’s why, in this particular scenario, it’s advisable to take your multi later in the day, after your thyroxine has had a chance to be absorbed.
Indeed, if you’re taking any regular prescription medication, always check the patient information leaflet to check for interactions with any of the vitamins or minerals in your multi or ask your pharmacist for advice.
Some people also take other supplements alongside a multivitamin, including vitamins and minerals that are often found in multivitamins but in larger amounts. Since these larger doses can compete with the amounts of the same or similar nutrients in multivitamins, taking them at different times of day is usually advisable. High doses of calcium, magnesium and other vitamins may also reduce the absorption of plant-based nutrients called carotenoids (beta-carotene, lycopene and astaxanthin, for example), so if you’re taking both it’s best to take them with different meals too.
Which Multivitamin Should I Take?
There are many types of multivitamins available. Some of the most popular ones are basic, one-a-day products that contain a good range of vitamins and minerals, most of which are provided in the recommended amounts (or close to the recommended amounts).
These recommended amounts are measured as nutrient reference values (NRVs). NRVs have been set by the EU for 13 vitamins and 14 minerals, and are the daily amounts of those vitamins and minerals the average healthy person needs to prevent deficiency. You can find out the percentage of the NRV value for each of the relevant ingredients in a multivitamin by checking the label (for instance, if a multi contains 80mg vitamin C, it will state ‘%NRV 100’ on the label, meaning it contains 100 per cent of the NRV for vitamin C).
Meanwhile with other, higher-potency, multivitamins that provide some of their ingredients in higher amounts than the NRV, you may need to take two or more tablets a day.
Multivitamins also come in a range of different formulations designed for people of different ages and with different wellbeing or lifestyle concerns. Some of these include the following:
Multivitamins for the Over 50s
As people get older their bodies develop different needs, with some nutrients becoming more important for their wellbeing. For example, multivitamins designed for people aged 50 and older often include higher levels of calcium and vitamin D, since older people are more likely to need these nutrients to strengthen their bones and prevent osteoporosis. A multivitamin product for people of this age may also contain antioxidants such as lutein, which is thought to support eye health. It may include higher levels of some B vitamins such as folic acid and B12 too (according to the NHS vitamin B12 deficiency is more common in women aged around 60 (ii)).
Multivitamins for Women
Adult men and women need the same vitamins and minerals to support their health, but women have an increased need for some nutrients at certain life stages. When women are of reproductive age, for example, they may benefit from an additional intake of nutrients that help regulate the hormones involved in their menstrual cycle. They also need more iron – according to the NHS, women aged 19 - 50 need 14.8mg iron a day, while all adult men and women aged 50 and older need 8.7mg a day (women who experience heavy periods are particularly at higher risk of iron deficiency and may need extra iron).
Multivitamins for Pregnancy
Multivitamins developed for women who are trying to get pregnant, pregnant or breastfeeding aim to support their overall health as well as that of their babies. Arguably the most important nutrient in pregnancy multivitamin products is folic acid, which reduces the risk of central neural tube defects such as spina bifida in unborn babies (iii). Pregnancy multivitamins do not usually contain vitamin A, however, since large amounts of vitamin A can harm an unborn baby (this is why pregnant women are also advised to avoid eating foods that contain a lot of vitamin A, including liver and liver products such as paté) (iv). Meanwhile taking a pregnancy multi may be useful for pregnant women who experience pregnancy-related nutrient deficiencies – iron, for example.
If you’re pregnant, ask your doctor or midwife for advice before starting to take a multivitamin supplement.
Multivitamins for Active People
If you’re an athlete or you do a lot of exercise, you may need a specialised multivitamin that’s tailored for your needs. For instance, when you exercise your body naturally produces free radicals – chemicals that can damage cells and even your DNA. Thankfully your body also produces antioxidants, which are compounds that help protect against the damaging effects of free radicals. Doing a lot of exercise, however, can deplete your body’s own store of antioxidants. And while you can top up your antioxidant levels by eating lots of antioxidant-rich foods such as colourful fruits and vegetables, you may also find it useful to take a specialised sports multivitamin with added antioxidants.
Sports multivitamins often include nutrients designed to provide energy too, such as magnesium and B vitamins, as well as nutrients that support bone health such as vitamin D and calcium.
Multivitamins for Hair Health
There are many multivitamins that aim to support a specific health goal – heart health, joint health, eye health, immune health or weight loss, for example. One type of product that’s becoming increasingly popular, however, is multivitamin and mineral supplements for hair health. These usually contain a range of essential vitamins and minerals in significant amounts including the B vitamins and biotin, which may help keep hair healthy.
If you’re concerned about hair loss, there’s more information in our articles on hair loss in women and hair loss in men.
Multivitamins for Children
Many multivitamins formulated for children are available, which include levels of nutrients that are suitable for specific age groups. A good multivitamin for children should include all the important trace minerals and vitamins, including nutrients that are needed for normal growth and development such as vitamin A, the B vitamins, calcium and iron. Since many children have difficulties swallowing tablets, supplements manufacturers make chewable multivitamins – though some products may contain high levels of sugar (look for a tooth-friendly product, ideally one that contains xylitol instead of sugar).
Children aren’t the only ones who may have difficulty swallowing tablets, which is why some manufacturers make fizzy multivitamin supplements. These dissolve easily in water to make a pleasant drink, while providing a range of vitamins and minerals. Some use sweeteners instead of sugar, making them kinder to your teeth. If you have raised blood pressure (or you’re trying to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level) you may also want to look for a dissolvable multivitamin that’s low in sodium.
For more information on a wide range of health and wellbeing issues, visit our pharmacy health library.
Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-b/
Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-a/
Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.