"How long does it take a supplement to start working?"
A seemingly simple question with a fairly complex answer to be honest.
First and foremost, for our purposes here, let’s define “working,” as the point when you begin feeling better and the signs and symptoms you were feeling prior to supplementation begin to notably dissipate.
For example, you were tired, cold and cranky all the time and your doctor diagnosed you as having iron deficiency anemia. You took a recommended iron supplement in addition to following your nutritionist’s dietary recommendations. 2 to 4 weeks later, you noticed a bit more pep in your step. What you’re doing is beginning to work!
That example is laden with some passive suggestive hints on how to handle a deficiency.
However, frequently we read an article or blog that mentions symptoms we’re managing daily and then decide to take whatever supplement the mentioned in said article. That can be fine, and in fact if it’s a credible source, this is actually how many start their journey towards health: it’s called self-advocacy.
However, it can also have negative outcomes, most commonly wasting money on unneeded supplements that aren't taken. Careful: supplement companies pay content writers to create content that convinces you to take their supplement.
To answer this question we need to look at all the factors involved and have a long chat about your metaphorical nutrient pools.
Factor 1: Severity of Deficiency
The biggest factor that dictates how long before a supplement kicks in, is how deficient you are to begin with. Let’s say nutrient stores are like pools. If your pool is empty, it’s going to take longer to fill than if your pool is half or mostly full.
Factor 2: Supplement Dosage
The next factor is how much of the supplement you are taking. Going back to the pool, it’s half full, but if you’re only putting in a 5 gallon bucket each day, it’s going to take a very long time to fill. And that’s not counting what the sun will evaporate and if you get sick of the pool never filling and give up.
Factor 3: Supplement Quality
The quality of the supplement comes in next. In the US there is no federal regulation on supplements, meaning purchases of vitamins, minerals and herbs are completely unregulated by the US government, unless the supplement kills someone dead. All supplementation inspection of quality is optional and at the company’s expense. Reputable companies will pay that. If you’re trying to fill the pool with a hose that doesn’t function, it’s not going to fill.
Our friends over at BodyNutrition.org have in depth information on the quality of supplements. Great resource that takes the guesswork out of finding the best supplements.
Factor 4: As Bon Jovi Said, "No Man is an Island."
Then comes the fact no man is an island. All nutrients need other nutrients for their absorption and utilization. If you’re supplementing with calcium, magnesium or zinc, yet deficient in vitamin D, you’re not absorbing those minerals. If you’re supplementing with iron, but deficiency in vitamin A (beta-carotene), several B vitamins, vitamin C or zinc, you’re having issues ranging from absorption to utilization.
Factor 5: Cause of Deficiency
What’s causing the deficiency in the first place? Why is your pool empty in the first place? Is it a genetic situation? Is it a side effect of a medication? Do you need to make dietary changes? Have you been stressed and not realized that essentially drains your body of many nutrients, especially zinc? If you don’t resolve what’s draining the pool, you may never top it off with water, let alone keep it topped off.
Factor 6: Food
Best for last: remember that supplement means “in addition to,” not “in place of.” The nutrients we need for health are the same ones we’re intended to get from our food. If you don’t know how to do so, don’t feel dumb. Millions of Americans aren’t sure of this. Speak with a nutrition professional to pair your supplemental efforts with a healthy diet. While you get the hang of a new way of eating, taking your supplements in addition to what you’re eating will help fill in the gaps.
Bringing it Full Circle
A great example of all this is magnesium. The majority of Americans are deficient in this nutrient that is required in over 300 enzymatic processes in the human body! As many, if not more, people are deficient in vitamin D, which is needed to absorb it.
Learning the signs and symptoms of deficiency, Bobby Lynn decides she’s deficient. She purchases a supplement only to have horrible nausea, cramping and diarrhea within an hour. Magnesium is hard to absorb (it’s a rock) and it’s an electrolyte, which throws off water balance (gastric misery).
Bobby Lynn then stops taking a supplement and 3 weeks later is still feeling unwell. She decides to call a nutritionist, who reviews her dietary intake and feels Bobby Lynn isn’t eating very much magnesium.
She recommends that Bobby Lynn eat seeds, nuts and beans because they are magnesium powerhouses. She also advises Bobby Lynn to have her blood levels of vitamin D assessed and in the interim start taking the standard recommended level.
The nutritionist advises Bobby Lynn to switch to a different type of magnesium supplement at a lower dose, and take it with her last meal of the day. As an additional option to amend Bobby Lynn’s magnesium deficiency, the nutritionist suggests that Bobby Lynn try either Epsom salt bathes or foot soaks, as Epsom salt is a magnesium salt and magnesium can be absorbed through the skin.
Being the bearer of bad news, the sweet, honest nutritionist tells Bobby Lynn because the deficiency sounds as though it has been prolonged, and magnesium is hard to absorb, key nutrients to absorb it may also be low, meaning it may be up to 90 days before Bobby Lynn’s deficiency is amended. However, if she follows the directions, she should start to see changes in 2 to 3 weeks. Keep putting in the work.
The great news for Bobby Lynn is that her homework involves eating delicious foods and taking relaxing bathes, all of which pays of in feeling awesome, better sleep, improved mood, and better all around health.
The bad news is that supplementation no longer sounds like an instant fix. It never was and never will be. Supplements are meant to be taken in addition to eating well and, in certain situations, to help those with medical conditions that affect nutrient status. Any supplement is going to take a minimum of 2 to 4 weeks to begin to work before person feels them 'kick in.' If it's a mineral, you're looking at about 90 days before your deficiency is fully amended because you're asking your body to absorb a rock. That said pairing your mineral supplement with healthy diet, you'll start to feel the difference in 2 to 4 weeks as well.
Supplements only work if you take them.
edited by Brenna Philbrick August 29, 2015