Are You Absorbing Your Nutritional Supplements?

Many of us have the best intentions when choosing to take a nutritional supplement for our healthcare needs; however, what assurances do you have that the nutrients or medicinally active compounds you’re consuming are absorbed into your body and utilized at the cellular level? The old saying, “You are what you eat,” should be rephrased to say, “You are what you absorb.” Many supplement manufacturers that operate within our industry and sell exclusively online or through drug stores, convenience markets, and conventional grocery stores aren’t interested in formulating their products according to the newest innovations in nutrient assimilation. They are not concerned with sourcing the most bioavailable, therapeutically effective raw materials and employing manufacturing techniques that enhance absorption, ensuring the consumer receives the expected medicinal benefits. The ultimate priority for these supplement manufacturers is the percentage of profit and capturing market share.

Many online sellers and mass marketers either do not have the interest or refuse to invest in the infrastructure to hire experts that determine whether or not a supplement manufacturer is complying with all federal legal obligations, sourcing quality raw material, employing pharmaceutical testing methods for potency, purity, and contamination, and enhancing absorbability of nutrients and plant compounds that are difficult for the body to assimilate. Amazon and Walmart have been scrutinized for selling nutritional supplements that don’t meet label claims for their active ingredients—in an analysis of brands selling a berberine supplement, 18 of the 33 brands tested contained less than 40% of labeled potency. None of these brands contained berberine in its most absorbable form, which is crucial because the body poorly absorbs berberine. Even more concerning, Amazon was recently criticized for selling fraudulent nutritional supplements from overseas companies that were filling capsules with rice starch and impersonating several national brands.

I don’t recommend spending money on nutritional supplements if they have not been adequately vetted for safety, potency, purity, and absorbability. It is the jurisdiction of the FDA to identify and eliminate fraudulent companies operating within the dietary supplement industry; unfortunately, enforcement is not keeping pace with fraudulent activity for various reasons. Any well-operated and responsible supplement department in a health food store, co-op, medical office, independent pharmacy, or natural foods grocery store will consist of supplement vendors properly vetted and held to a higher standard.  Management expertise within these departments will ensure that supplement selections are high quality, safe, free of contaminants, and formulated to maximize absorption. At the Oregon Natural Market, we take this a step further by touring the manufacturing facilities of our vendor partners to validate authenticity in raw material sourcing, pharmaceutical testing, formulating, and nutrient absorption innovation.

The proper absorption of nutrients is not only critical for human survival, but necessary for every biochemical reaction that drives metabolic function. There are a variety of reasons that you may not be absorbing nutrients from your diet or nutritional supplementation; the most common are:

  • Age-related decline in gastrointestinal function.
  • Pancreatic insufficiency
  • Enzyme deficiency
  • Microbiome dysbiosis
  • Drug interactions or depletions
  • Diseases of the GI tract
  • Hypochlorhydria
  • Cholecystectomy
  • Improper formulation of nutritional supplements

If you suspect you’re not absorbing essential nutrients, I recommend conversing with your healthcare provider, preferably an integrative/functional medicine doctor or a naturopathic physician. They are well-trained to order the appropriate lab work and evaluate nutrient status. I would be happy to answer any questions if you need clarification or education about which nutrients or phytochemicals have absorption issues and which forms are the most bioavailable.

The following guide should help you determine the most biologically active forms for a variety of nutrients:

Vitamin A

  • Supplements should contain a combination of retinol and beta-carotene, with the highest percentage being beta-carotene in its non-synthetic form.

B Vitamins

  • It’s advisable to use the co-enzyme (methylated) forms, as they are the most bioavailable. This is especially true if you have the SNP for the MTHFR gene.

Vitamin C

  • While ascorbic acid has historically been absorbed well, it doesn’t remain in the body long. Liposomal or LipoMicel vitamin C is utilized in both water-soluble and fat-soluble environments and is retained at the cellular level for longer.

Vitamin D

  • Supplemental vitamin D exists in cholecalciferol (D3) and ergocalciferol (D2). The D3 form is sourced from lanolin and is much better absorbed.

Vitamin E

  • Always look for the natural form of d-alpha tocopherol. The synthetic form, which is found in most grocery or drug stores, is dl-alpha-tocopherol. You can only absorb 50% of this form.

For specialized plant compounds like berberine, curcumin, propolis, quercetin, and ginseng, and specialty antioxidants like glutathione and CoQ10, the most absorbable and therapeutically effective forms will use liposomal, LipoMicel, and Phytosomal technology. This is the “new frontier” in nutrient absorption. These technologies use naturally occurring phospholipid-based structures to safely transport water or fat-soluble nutrients through the stomach, preventing degradation from enzymes and gastric acids and delivering them across multiple cell membranes where they enter the blood circulation. From there, the phospholipid-bound or encased nutrients are delivered directly to specific cellular receptor sites, where they are absorbed 6 to 10 times better than the standard forms.

While the body readily absorbs many nutrients, some could be better absorbed. Poorly absorbed nutrients have limited therapeutic value due to early degradation and poor solubility in the gastrointestinal tract, extensive metabolism, and rapid excretion from the body. These absorption issues could severely impact the bioavailability  of a compound. The absorption of a bioactive nutrient in the body is determined by its physicochemical properties (e.g., water and fat solubility, molecular weight) and formulation. A bioactive compound must cross several cell membranes before it reaches the circulatory system and enters your tissue. This requires a balance between water and fat solubility to penetrate our cell membranes. Liposomal, LipoMicel, and Phytosomal formulations achieve this solubility goal so you can be assured that your body is receiving therapeutic levels of nutrients where they are best utilized.

Michael Chase, MS, NTP
Nutrition Science and Dietetics

DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this post is for educational purposes only, and should not be construed as personal medical advice or instruction. No action should be taken based solely on the contents of this information. Individuals should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being. The statements made in this informational document have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any product discussed is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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