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Over the last decade there has been a rapidly growing interest in the area of nutritional supplementation prompted to a great extent by large volumes of published medical and scientific research showing the proven health benefits of many nutrients. More and more people are becoming aware of how difficult, or perhaps impossible, it is to meet all of their optimal nutritional requirements by diet alone. This has prompted them to turn to supplementation, either to fill the deficiencies left by their diet, or perhaps to gain a therapeutic effect for a health problem. Whatever the reason, in order to get the greatest benefit from a supplement, it is important to ensure that the supplement will be used as efficiently as possible by the body. Not all supplements are created equal. There is often a considerable difference in the potential effectiveness of one calcium-to another, or one vitamin E to another, for example.

The ability to make use of a supplement depends on many things: the breakdown, or digestion of the supplement, how well it is absorbed, the simultaneous intake of antagonistic substances, and the manufacturing process which can increase or decrease the utilisation of the supplement.

Digestion and Break Down
Logically, in order bra supplement to work, it must break down. Where it is supposed to be broken down depends on the type of supplement. With the vast majority of supplements, this is intended to occur primarily in the stomach, by the action of hydrochloric acid and pepsin content and undulation of the stomach. Accurate tests of a tablet’s ability to disintegrate provide a similar environment of enzymes plus undulation to mimic conditions in the stomach.

Tablets have been considered to be the least efficient of dosage forms to break down. This is true, but it does not generally hinder absorption provided the tablet is manufactured properly. Tablets require greater digestive capability, but properly manufactured tablets will break down adequately in the vast majority of people, usually within 30 minutes. The exception to this is people who have low stomach enzyme activity, for whatever reason. Women over 50 years of age and the elderly, in general, tend to have more difficulty digesting tablets. When tablets are compressed too tightly, for example when a company tries to make an ultra high potency supplement into a normal sized tablet, this can cause incomplete digestion, even in those with good digestion.

Timed-release tablets can be a problem, often due to their very tight compression and/or layers of protein coatings, especially in people with poor stomach acid production. Various types of binders and coatings may inhibit proper absorption as well. In general, cellulose fibre-type coatings or glazes may be much easier to break down.

Certain substances are destroyed by stomach acidity. When these substances are taken as a supplement it is necessary to protect them from exposure to acidity, otherwise their effectiveness is lost. An enteric coating, or acid resistant coating should be used in these instances. The following is a list of some of the major substances, which should be enteric coated:

SOD (superoxide dismutase)
All mineral orotates
P 5-p (pyridoxal 5-phosphate/co-enzyme of B6)
Dibencozide (co-enzyme of B12)
Pantethine (co-factor of pantothenic acid)
Riboflavin 5-phosphate (co-enzyme of B2)
Co-carboxylase (co-enzyme of 81)

A few supplements are manufactured in sublingual forms. This can involve either a lozenge tablet or a liquid, which is intended to be dissolved or held under the tongue. The premise is that absorption of certain nutrients is improved when absorbed through the mucous membranes in the mouth. This is particularly valid for substances such as B12, which are not very well absorbed and/or utilised through the digestive tract. Sublingual supplements should include a carrier to ensure better absorption through the mucous membranes. As alcohol is often not desired, substances such as sorbitol are often sufficient for this purpose.

As a rule, capsules require less digestive strength than tablets, however, absorption of a capsule and a tablet will be about the same provided the tablet breaks down properly before it reaches its absorption sites. Previously, the two-piece capsules have always been made with animal gelatin, which is proteinous. Recently, non-animal two-piece capsules have been created, which break down somewhat faster. Generally, though, there is little reason why any type of two-piece capsule should not break down adequately. With the exception of a few supplements, which have been put into vegetable based soft caps; the soft gel capsules are also made of protein-based gelatin. The soft gels require a bit more digestion than two-piece capsules, but should generally break down with little problem. One difference worthy of mention is that amino acid supplements may be better utilised in non-gelatin capsules due to possible interference from the protein content of gelatin.

For those with digestive weakness, powders and liquids will be more likely to be absorbed properly, but once again, if a tablet or capsule is broken down in the appropriate amount of time the absorption should be very similar. One distinct advantage to powders or liquids is that there no binders are required, however, there may still be added excipients, which may not be desirable. Do check the small print.

Many people would understandably assume that if the tablet or capsule breaks down in the digestive tract, then the supplement would automatically be effective. One might assume that powders or liquids are guaranteed to be effective as well. The truth is, that the proper breakdown of any dosage form is NO guarantee of efficacy. This is primarily the case because efficacy of a supplement is dependent on the proper absorption of its active constituents. The complete utilisation of a particular substance can mean many things and can involve many processes. What is required for this to take place depends entirely on the type of substance.

For instance, a nutrient or nutrients from a supplement must be released from a tablet through digestion. The process continues, as the nutrients then need to be properly received and absorbed through particular absorption sites in the intestinal tract. From this point, they can then enter the blood stream, although certain nutrients may take different paths before entering the blood. Then the nutrient eventually needs to be either utilised inside or outside the cell.

There are many pitfalls along the pathways travelled by nutrients, which can inhibit these stages of absorption and utilisation. Here are the main factors to consider.

Minerals are found in the earth attached or chelated to an inorganic substance called a salt. The actual amount of the mineral is classified as the elemental value.

The body finds it very difficult to use minerals in an inorganic form for many reasons. In order for a mineral to make that long journey into the cell, it must first be taken there. This process typically involves a particular mineral being absorbed through the tiny arms in the small intestine called villi. Once past this stage, it can enter the blood stream. Unfortunately, mineral ions are not able to make the journey unaccompanied. It would be like leaving a person who spoke no English in the middle of London with no map and no vehicle. It wanders aimlessly and cannot get where it has to go. At any rate, inorganic salts are not appropriate taxis for mineral within the human digestive tract. We will now look at the main reasons why.

The small intestine’s wall has a magnetic charge. Most minerals are metallic and have a charge as well. (A charged mineral is called an ion). If the charge of two magnets is opposite to one another, then the magnets stick together. If the charge is the same, then they repel one another. Where mineral ions and the intestines are concerned, this also applies. However, regardless of whether their charge is the same or opposite, a mineral ion cannot be properly absorbed through the villi. The mineral either sticks to the intestinal walls, or is repelled and gets eliminated as waste. What needs to happen in order for a mineral to be absorbed efficiently is for the magnetic charge to be masked. Inorganic salts cannot do this properly, however, certain organic substances can. These various organic agents are bonded to mineral ions through sometimes elaborate manufacturing processes.

Attaching certain substances such as amino acids and other organic acids with mineral ions is called mineral chelation from the word chela meaning claw’. When mineral ions are properly de-attached from their inorganic salt and are re-bonded to certain organic compounds, the utilisation of the mineral ion is greatly increased due to a partial or a complete masking of its magnetic charge. This allows the mineral to be better absorbed by the intestinal villi.

Another great value of organic mineral chelation becomes apparent later on in the mineral’s journey through the body. The mineral ion needs something to carry it properly into the cell as well. The organic chelating agents are capable of carrying the mineral into the cell in an efficient manner, whereas inorganic salts are not. Whenever organic chelates are used, the mineral will be carried into different portions of the cell depending on which organic agent or agents are used. Mineral chelates also tend to show reduced toxicity at high intakes. This is partly because some inorganic compounds are irritating to the digestive tract in large quantities, while chelates are masked and transported into the body.

The efficiency of absorption and utilisation or organic mineral chelates varies depending on several factors such as:

What mineral is used
What organic substance or substances are used
Whether the chelate is manufactured properly or not
Factors in the individual’s digestive tract
Various factors in the person’s blood and cell chemistry, i.e. nutrient levels, endocrine activity, chemical or free radical activity etc.

Picolinates seem to be particularly effective for chromium and zinc. Zinc citrate is also well absorbed. Calcium citrate is a very good form for older people and post-menopausal women. It requires considerably less digestive acidity to be utilised compared to other forms of calcium. This is particularly important due to the fact that women often suffer with lack of stomach acid production as they reach their 40’s or 50’s. Calcium citrate is also much preferred if one either suffers with, or has a high risk of kidney stones. This is primarily due to the fact that citrate itself dissolves calcium oxylate stone formation.

Vitamins, unlike minerals, do not need to be bonded to anything in order to be utilised by the body. As a matter of fact, they are best utilised in their free form state, meaning isolated from their source. However, this does not mean that they should be taken away from food. When one considers that one of the main purposes of vitamins is in metabolising food components, it only makes sense that they are often most useful to the body when taken with food - but NOT molecularly bonded to food, because the body would just have to go to the effort of breaking the bond.

Most vitamin absorption takes place in the small intestine, but at several different points. For instance, fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, and E wait until the last portion of the small intestine before efficient absorption takes place.

This is one of the main difficulties manufacturers of sustained released multivitamin supplements encounter. If the tablet is releasing gradual amounts of mixed nutrients as it travels through the digestive tract, then nutrients, which are released beyond their required absorption site, will not be absorbed properly. The B vitamins can generally be absorbed reasonably well, with the notable exception of B12, which is dependent on a long list of events to take place before it can be of use. This problem can be eliminated or reduced considerably by using B12 sublingual lozenges or if necessary, injection. It is important to avoid using individual B vitamins in large amounts unless true in order to avoid imbalance, but it is also important because certain B taking in reasonable amounts of the rest of the B complex. This is not only vitamins need others in order to become biologically active in the body. Vitamin C can be absorbed at different sites in the intestinal tract, however, if diarrhoea occurs upon ingesting excessive amounts, then the absorption is greatly reduced. Buffered vitamin C such as calcium ascorbate can reduce this concern.

Natural or Synthetic?
While, biochemically, there is no inherent difference between natural and synthetic water soluble vitamins, there is certainly a likely advantage to adding potentially synergistic food substances to supplements containing synthetic vitamins. For instance, vitamin C as a supplement is manufactured and isolated to the extent that the source of the vitamin C becomes irrelevant. It also has equal activity to vitamin C derived from food. However, the vitamin C in certain foods such as citrus fruits has bioflavanoids, which enhance the activity of vitamin C in the body. This is why bioflavanoids are often added to vitamin C supplements. There definitely appears to be a difference between natural and synthetic vitamin E. It is generally reported that natural vitamin E is approximately 36% more active than synthetic vitamin E.

Amino acids are generally best absorbed in their free form state. Pharmaceutical grade amino acids may be of more consistent quality than lower price food grade or feed grade amino acids. It is important to note, that from the standpoint of absorption, isolated or combined free from amino acid supplements should be taken on an empty stomach, or at least away from protein This way they will not have to compete for absorption with large amounts of amino acids from foods containing protein.
Inorganic Mineral Chelates
Organic chelates





Amino acid chelates






This is intended to give a clearer picture of the comparison between different types of supplements. What is clear is that one cannot always tell the true difference between one supplement and another merely by looking at the potency. Supplements which utilise the state of the art in a particular area of manufacturing research are generally well worth the cost and the effort that it takes to find out which is best.


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