Your best friend mentions the new supplement she started taking recently – her skin is glowing.
A popular influencer touts life-changing results from their favorite new product.
The top article on a reliable wellness site shouts “This vitamin is the key to the best sleep of your life.”
Whether based on advice from a family member or a tip from an expert, we’ve all started a new supplement with high expectations. More energy. Stronger nails. A happier gut!
A week goes by; maybe a month. You feel the same. What’s going on? Are you doing something wrong? Or were you just duped by hype?
Widening the definition of “work”
Dietary supplements have an official definition. They are designed to provide actual benefits when added to an otherwise adequate diet. But the efficacy of supplements, or how well they “work,” is a more vague reality. While products often promote “guaranteed” results, this claim is more a value proposition than a brand’s ability to predict the specific benefits you will experience.
Supplements can work in both objective and subjective ways and in various degrees based on their intended use. Are you taking extra iron at the recommendation of your doctor based on bloodwork? Do you add a vitamin C supplement when you’re traveling or at the holidays in an effort to stack your immune deck? Perhaps you stocked up on ashwagandha when this stress-fighting supplement met TikTok.
Just because you might not be able to put numbers on how you respond to a supplement doesn’t mean that the benefits you experience aren’t real. Even some clinical symptoms are placed on subjective scales; they’re hardly meaningless. We all bring our own sensitivities and histories into what healthy feels like. But whether measurable or not, improvements in energy, cognition, mood and general wellness are all real evidence that supplements can deliver results.†
In general, the answer to how and how long your supplement takes to work is: it depends! It depends on what you’re taking, why you’re taking it and your individuality.
What supplements are you taking?
Quality aside, various types of supplements do perform differently and are designed to work at different rates. Single-ingredient, high-potency supplements taken to address a specific complaint might have more prompt and direct effects. Often formulated at amounts beyond Recommended Dietary Intakes, standalone vitamin and mineral products are often designed to objectively address nutrient deficiencies.†
On the other hand, many products have wide-reaching effects that might be felt as more subtle improvements in your overall health over time. Multivitamins and wellness formulas that help to fill in nutrient gaps tend to provide benefits with consistent use rather than an immediate boost. Other supplements like omega-3 fatty acids and collagen may support multiple systems in the body and often manifest in long-term strength and resilience.†
The physical form of supplements can influence how quickly and effectively they work. Tablets and capsules often absorb and deliver results more gradually, whether intentionally (such as a gradual-release tablet or enteric-coated capsule) or due to the characteristics of filler ingredients. Liquids and sublingual products are likely to be assimilated more rapidly. Fermented, activated and chelated nutrients are purposely created to hasten your body’s ability to absorb them and put them to use.†
While we’re on the topic of bioavailability, good quality supplement formulas often take into account the inherent traits of nutrients that work with partner nutrients or enzyme cofactors that facilitate or enhance their absorption. Bone health supplements often include calcium plus vitamins D and K, since this trio works in synergy to promote bone mineral balance. Black pepper as piperine is commonly added to turmeric and other herbal supplements based on sufficient evidence that it boosts their absorption and put plant phytochemicals to work for you.†
What are your goals?
We take dietary supplements for many different reasons, but by definition these products are made to support and enhance an already healthy state, rather than prevent, treat, or cure any illness or disease. Still, a large proportion of consumers take specific supplements for specific health goals, and both conventional and alternative medical professionals often recommend them as a therapeutic adjunct or preemptive strategy.†
Many essential nutrients require ongoing replenishment, such as water-soluble B-vitamins that are excreted if not put to immediate use. Others, like vitamins A, D, and E and several minerals can be reserved in tissues. Consequently, supplements used to address potential inadequacies of these nutrients might work at a pace in proportion to your body’s metabolism or level of need.* This is why supplements should always be taken with your doctor’s awareness and advice, so that they can recommend the right amount and frequency of your regimen.
If the goal of your supplement regimen is extra insurance for overall wellness of the whole body or generalized functional support of a particular body system, such as immune or brain health, the benefits you may receive might be best viewed in the rear-view mirror. Probiotics are often a good bet for maintaining a healthy microbiome, but their innumerably beneficial effects may not be evident for months or longer.†
What makes you unique?
In almost every case, the extent to which your supplement works will depend on you: your current health, your age, your diet and your unique metabolism. Your baseline status and level of need often affects how quickly your body responds to supplementation. And your particular response will include things you can and can’t control.
The novel field of nutrigenomics is proving more and more that your genetic code has much to say in what nutrients your body needs, how much, and how well they’re used. One gene variant that we know can have nutrition-based effects is a switch-up that restricts the body’s ability to create the methylene tetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) enzyme. This not uncommon variation influences folate metabolism, potentially limiting its activation and demanding more.†
Your digestive health can also play a significant role in how well your supplement works. Many older adults benefit from vitamin B-12 supplements due to natural declines in the body’s production of critical enzymes and cofactors required to metabolize this nutrient.* The status of your intestinal microbiome is also a critical determinant on the effects of Vitamin B-12 and other dietary supplements. We owe much of our nutrient transformation and absorption to the right balance of gut bacteria, and your individual biome might enhance or limit the benefits of some supplements.†
Work with what you know
So what’s the best way to set your supplement expectations?
It’s always a good idea to take regular stock of what supplements you’re taking and why you’re taking them, gauging your expectations and product claims along with reputable advice. Maximize the nutrient density of your diet first and keep your plate well-rounded. Then add supplements to fill in gaps and complement an overall healthy eating pattern. While it’s tempting to try every food trend, avoid being unnecessarily restrictive unless a health condition or dietary preference limit your options.
While you’re scoping out your daily diet and any known nutrients of concern, think about when and how much caffeine, alcohol and fiber you consume. Each of these can influence nutrient absorption and hence the effectiveness of various supplements. Pay attention to whether your supplement should be taken with or without food – this recommendation is typically informed by potential food interactions.
If your doctor or a registered dietitian recommended supplementation, or you’ve done your research and decided to trial a new product, set measurable goals on the needs and benefits you’re looking to satisfy. Positive, quantifiable effects on blood results, bone mineral balance or medication needs are obvious targets if you’re working with a clinician.†
If you’re self-monitoring, you can still identify real markers of improvement. Note down a few variables on day one of taking your new supplement, then check back in with yourself on a monthly basis. Are you taking fewer sick days? Sleeping better? Killing your workouts lately? Correlation doesn’t always mean causation, but if these personal factors match your supplement goals, it’s good evidence that your feeling its benefits at work.†
Slow & steady wins the race
Keep in mind that even expert-recommended supplements aren’t drugs and will naturally work at a more gradual pace. That said, your healthcare provider should be able to give you a realistic assessment on how quickly to expect results. When taken for a specific deficiency, most research suggests six weeks as a reasonable duration to stay consistent with your supplement before checking back with your doc. In any case, it’s always best to follow label directions; don’t be tempted to take more than recommended amounts to speed up results.
Finally, take customer reviews and influencer approvals with a grain of salt! Remember what we mentioned about your individual needs and responses to supplements, not to mention that endorsements are almost always compensated. And be careful with “clinically proven” or “guaranteed to work” claims – these can be misleading if they’re not based on product-specific data.
What’s the best way to get the most out of your supplements? Stay informed, stay realistic and stay safe.
†These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.