Form + Function: Kinds of Supplements

Most nutritional supplements are available in several forms-as tablets, capsules, or liquids. Choosing one type over another depends on a number of factors, including cost, digestibility, ease of swallowing, and availability. Read on to learn about the differences.

Tablets
Supplements in tablet form are usually less expensive than capsules, but they're sometimes tougher to swallow. Another drawback is they may pass through the digestive system without completely breaking down.

"The key is that the tablet must be manufactured according to good manufacturing practices that ensure quality-control tests for tablet hardness, disintegration, and dissolution," says Michael T. Murray, ND. Also, trusted brands usually list ingredients (such as lactose, yeast, and gluten) that can be potentially troublesome for some people. Tablets can be a good option for vegetarians who want to avoid gelatin capsules.

Capsules
You're likely to see two varieties of capsules: A "hard" cap made from two pieces that can be filled with powders or liquids, or the "soft" variety made as a single sealed unit filled with liquid or semisolid formulations.

Because of their shape, capsules are easy to swallow. They also mask odors and tastes. Capsules are water soluble and are designed to dissolve in the stomach, releasing their contents minutes after swallowing, so they're generally regarded as easier to digest and absorb than tablets.

A word of caution for vegetarians: Capsules may be made from gelatin, an animal product, so read labels carefully. Those made from all-vegetable sources (usually starch) have labels stating that they're vegetarian formulas.

Liquids
Have difficulty swallowing pills? Try liquid supplements. Even for those who don't have trouble, a daily supplement regimen-multivitamin, fish oil, calcium, magnesium, and whatever else you may take-can be a lot to swallow. Liquid supplements are typically absorbed by the body quicker than capsules or tablets. They require little or no breakdown in the gastrointestinal system, which is particularly helpful for those with impaired digestive systems.

There are some limitations, though. It can be difficult to maintain the stability of some ingredients in liquid form, so they may lose potency. Be sure to check labels for expiration dates.

Timing is Everything
You should always follow label instructions, but there are some general rules about when to take supplements.

Fat-soluble nutrients (vitamins A, D, E, essential fatty acids, CoQ10) are best taken with food.

Most minerals are best taken with food. One exception is zinc, which should be taken on an empty stomach last thing at night.

Most probiotics should be taken without food, first thing in the morning or last thing at night, with (or in) warm water.

Herbs, depending on the type, may be best taken with or without food, so follow label directions.

"Liquid Vitamins vs. Pills: Does One Work Better than the Other?" MayoClinic.com, 4/27/05 Personal communication: Michael T. Murray, ND; User's Guide to Nutritional Supplements edited by Jack Challem ($19.95, Basic Health, 2003)

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