Navigating the Language of Natural Supplements

The world of natural supplements has a vocabulary all its own. Here’s a quick guide to understanding some of the terms that are used to describe dietary supplements that tell us how and why they’re formulated in certain ways.

Bioavailable: This refers to the amount of and the speed with which a nutrient is absorbed by the body. Many things can affect bioavailability; some supplements work better on an empty stomach, while others work better with the inclusion of an additional ingredient (e.g., additional fat can help increase mineral absorption).

The way a supplement is manufactured can also increase bioavailability; a good example is curcumin (from turmeric), which is traditionally poorly absorbed. Supplements like Natural Factors Theracurmin have been clinically proven to be highly absorbable thanks to a unique manufacturing process that reduces the size of the curcumin particles which makes them easier to absorb.

Bioavailability is especially important for herbal products and vitamins that are water-soluble, meaning they break down before they can enter our intestines to be absorbed, or those comprised of molecules too large to pass through to our intestines. To ensure absorption, herbal manufacturers often encase the supplement in an absorption enhancer like liposomes (i.e. fatty acids that aren’t water soluble). For example, Dr. Mercola Liposomal Vitamin C is a good choice for delivering maximum absorption of this water soluble vitamin.

Chelated: Supplements that are chelated have been formulated in a special way to improve their absorption. Many chelated formulations, especially minerals, are combined with protein molecules because proteins are very efficiently absorbed and act as a carrier for the supplement.

Clinically Studied vs. Clinically Proven: Clinical studies are run to figure out if a supplement or drug is safe and effective. Clinically proven means that medical professionals or researchers have deemed the product effective, and works in the way it was intended.

Colloidal: Supplements that are colloids are created by infusing microscopic particles of a substance into a second substance, which will not be separated or settled out. Gels or emulsions (even foods like mayonnaise or jelly!) are good examples of a colloidal substance, since the particles, or ingredients, remain in suspension. In supplements, this allows the microparticles to remain intact until they reach the intestines and are thus better absorbed.

Enteric coated: Enteric coating is when a tablet or pill is coated with a material that allows the supplement to pass through the stomach to the small intestine before dissolving. This coating is often pH balanced so it breaks down in the section of the small intestine where the supplement will be best absorbed. Natural supplements like fish oil or probiotics are usually enteric coated because, if broken down in the stomach, it can decrease the potency or cause unwanted gastrointestinal effects. Enteric-coated supplements should never be crushed, as the coating is intended to release the supplement in a certain part of the GI tract, not the stomach. 

Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP): This official system, promoted by the FDA, ensures products are consistently made according to quality standards that minimize the risks involved in production of a product. GMP includes all aspects of production, from the starting materials, facilities and equipment to the training and personal hygiene of staff. These detailed written procedures are essential for each process that could affect the quality of the finished product. In order to stay in compliance with GMP, a supplement manufacturer must provide documented proof that correct procedures are consistently followed at each step in the manufacturing process, every time a product is made.

Methylation: This process helps our body turn on switches for many bodily systems, such as our cardiovascular, neurological and detoxification systems. Methylated supplements help ensure these switches are turned on, making them the most biologically active, bioavailable forms, so more is absorbed into our bodies. It’s especially beneficial in B vitamins, magnesium, folate and vitamin D.

Nootropics: These supplements, which help enhance brain health, are sometimes called “smart drugs” in that they support cognitive functions like memory, creativity, mental processing speed and even our mood. Some of the most beneficial are brain-supporting amino acids like L-theanine, essential fatty acids like omega-3s, and biologicals including bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) and rhodiola.

Prebiotics: These serve as food for the helpful bacteria and other organisms in the gut, thus enhancing the actions of probiotics to keep our microbiome well functioning. High-fiber foods like wheat, asparagus, soybeans, oats, leeks and artichokes, and other plants (even brown seaweed)—which contain inulin—are good sources of prebiotics. Many probiotic supplements also contain prebiotics to maximize their beneficial effects.

Precursor: A chemical compound preceding another in a metabolic pathway, precursors convert inactive substances into biologically active ones like enzymes, vitamins or hormones. For example, 5-HTP is a precursor for the feel-good chemical serotonin, which sends signals between nerve cells in our brain; the amino acid tryptophan is a precursor to the vitamin B3 (niacin), an antioxidant that helps reduce cholesterol.

Therapeutic dose: An amount of a supplement or drug that’s required to produce a desired outcome. The dose is dependent on the concentration and how long of an exposure it has in the body; sometimes we need small doses over many hours, or sometimes we’re directed to take one larger dose all at once for an expected therapeutic result.

U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) Certified: USP is a non-profit authority that sets standards and certifies that supplements meet certain quality standards. These include verification that the supplement contains the ingredients listed on the label, in the declared potency and amounts, confirmation that it will break down and release into the body within a specified amount of time, and that it has been made according to Good Manufacturing Practices using sanitary and well controlled procedures.