Does your body really absorb supplements? Learn about bioavailability

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Knowing whether our bodies are able to absorb the supplements we swallow is fundamental. Lately, we have learned a lot about bioavailability – and how to spot it.

What is bioavailability, and why does it matter?

Yes, but do they actually do anything?” – the first question we ask when someone tells us about the new supplement they’re taking. Yet we rarely use the same measure for skin creams or haircare – just twist the lid of a new serum or moisturiser and you’re already envisaging your skin’s incoming glow. Why don’t we feel that same optimism for supplements – and is our cynicism justified?

In a word, yes.

First, there’s the distinct lack of scientific evidence published on supplements, but also there’s the unnerving fact that there is no autonomous governing body in place to hold supplement brands accountable. Most of us will take supplements to fill in the nutritional gaps in our diets, only here’s the kicker: multivitamins have never been proven to work, and nor have fish oils, and these two make up the largest proportion of the industry. So, it falls to us to assume the role of savvy consumer and understand how and what, the body can absorb.

pills on sand

How does the body take in supplements? The bioavailability breakdown.

Put simply, bioavailability means the extent to which what you are slathering on or swallowing is being used by body. Sometimes it’s a case of the body breaking it down too quickly, sometimes the dose is too low to count and occasionally, our complex biological systems just can’t process it. Most nutrients are taken in by the small intestine and absorbed into the blood but if the body doesn’t recognise it or see it as useful, it will be broken down by digestive juices and swiftly passed out again. It’s possible for doctors to test the blood for what’s been effectively used but also you should also be able to gauge it yourself. “The thing about supplements is you should be able to feel them working. After all, that's why you're taking them,” advises Functional Medicine Nutritionist, Dana James. “Admittedly, there are certain nutrients working on a cellular level that you won't necessarily feel on a day-to-day basis such as probiotics but if you’re taking a supplement containing Ashwagandha, which gives a deeper level of sleep, you should notice an improvement in sleep quality as immediately as a week or so.”

woman holding vessel

The power of the patent. 

The slogan of ‘scientifically proven’ can be used by anyone and therefore in reality, means very little. To know if an ingredient has a genuine nutritional benefit, it needs to be patented. “Patented ingredients have had millions of pounds invested in them and a decade of research and development has gone into qualifying them as a medicine. In their organic form, many ingredients are not able to be absorbed by the body. Instead, patented ingredients will have been designed to overcome this, survive the digestive system and deliver proper benefits,” says Lucy Goff, founder of Lyma. “Patented ingredients will have been infused with high-tech delivery systems, and have undergone pre-clinical and clinical studies to have reached the performance level required to be published in medical journals. The reason why they’re patented is to protect all that hard work and investment. With that patented version, you can prove its toxicity, stability and bioavailability.” This is why Goff insisted that all ingredients in LYMA are patented - scientifically adapted from their organic states to be fully bioavailable, and dosed at the correct amount proven in published medical journals.

As you’d expect, this makes patented ingredients very expensive and why many nutraceutical brands shy away from using them for fear of eroding profit margins. To give an idea, turmeric as an organic ingredient costs £1 per kilogram, but HydroCurc®, the world’s most bioavailable and patented version, is £300 per kilo. But if you scrimp and stick to off-the-peg turmeric, you don’t get any of the benefits. “The turmeric industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars, but the truth is that turmeric is a placebo and you’ll never get an active level into your plasma to have an anti-inflammatory effect because it’s not absorbed by the body,” explains Goff. “Some companies put black pepper in to increase the bioavailability of turmeric. This works to a certain extent, but still not enough to have an anti-inflammatory effect.”

Pills on table

Calling out collagen – why it’s rarely the real deal.

Your social feeds are likely filled with ads for new collagen pills, drinks and droplets, but can you pop a collagen capsule and it travel seamlessly to your skin to plump out wrinkles? Unsurprisingly, no. “We don't know how collagen actually works. When you consume collagen, all of those amino acids in the collagen protein powder go into an amino acid pool in the body and the body decides what it's actually going to do with it,” says Dana James. “So no one can say that the collagen is specifically improving their hair, skin or nails because your body may decide it’s needed for neurotransmitters instead.”

What’s more, collagen comes from many not-so-glamourous sources. For the most part it originates from remainders of animal products. Bovine collagen is most prolific, closely followed by fish scraps; neither of which are always compatible with human collagen.

Supplements should show their workings.

When it comes to checking the bioavailability of the supplements you take, the only way to find ultimate assurance is to dig deep into the ingredients. Firstly, find the patented name of each ingredient, input them into the PubMed website and find medical studies on the brand of ingredient, at that exact same dose.

Feel free to be a supplement sceptic, as with no governing body to pull companies into line, it’s a wild west of lawless marketing claims. If you’re dubious, there’s no rule against calling a brand and asking them what sort of trials their formulas have undergone and where the evidence is. After all, if a supplement is truly bioavailable and able to provide a real health benefit, they should want to shout about it.

Originally published Sep 2, 2021.
Written by Jess Lacey, Beauty Editor.

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