Bioavailability and How You Can Affect It

Category: Health  

Bioavailability can be both a confusing term and process.

It is often used in the nutrition, supplement and pharmaceutical worlds, and while confusing the term and process is more simple than realized. According to Miriam-Webster bioavailability is “the degree and rate at which a substance is absorbed into a living system or is made available at the site of physiological activity.”

To put it simply, it is the ability for a substance to be absorbed and used by the body. For our purposes, this is regarding foods and supplements. The process by which vitamin supplements and nutrients from our food is broken down and able to be used by the body and the factors that may inhibit this process.

Bioavailability – The Process

The acronym, LADME is the easiest way to describe the process of bioavailability. Each letter describes the stages a substance goes through to be absorbed and used; liberation, absorption, distribution, metabolism, and elimination.

  • Liberation – The substance being broken down into its individual components by the stomach acid and enzymes.
  • Absorption – The stage that takes place in the small intestine where the substance is taken into the blood.
  • Distribution – The stage where the blood takes the portions of the substances being used to areas where they are needed.
  • Metabolized – The part of the process that takes place in the liver.
  • Eliminated – The body eliminates what is not used of the substance through feces or urine.

This process of bioavailability, while complex, is important for many reasons. The primary, and most obvious, reason for its importance is the consumer of a substance whether vitamin, food, or drug, wants it to be absorbed and used effectively. No one would willingly take a supplement or eat a nutrient dense foods and not be concerned that it is able to bring about the intended purpose in the body.

Vitamins and minerals can have different absorption rates.

Bioavailability – Inhibitors

If bioavailability is so important, then what should we know to avoid inhibiting the process? Bioavailability can be impacted by the foods we eat, the supplements or medications we take, the quality of the product, our uncontrollable factors like age and gender, and a phenomenon we can’t control called first-pass metabolism.

Product Quality:

Manufacturers of supplements who are more concerned with cutting costs and turning a profit may pay less attention to bioavailability. There is one primary way that a supplements bioavailability (absorption rate) can be increased; adding enhancers to the formulation. These enhancers include emulsifying agents, self-emulsifying systems, phytosomes, and enzyme inhibitors.

Uncontrollable Factors:

A person’s age, gender, gastrointestinal health, liver and kidney function, metabolism, and genetics can all play a role in how efficiently a product or nutrient is able to be absorbed and used in the body. As we age, we lose some of the body’s natural ability to breakdown nutrients to their useful forms. The liver and kidneys are two organs that are used heavily in the process of breaking down nutrients to useable forms. When these organs are unhealthy, this process may be impacted.

Drug / Nutrient Interactions:

Some drugs that we take regularly may decrease the bioavailability of certain nutrients. Some common examples include; aspirin can decrease vitamin C, vitamins A, C, E, and folic acid may block lipitors effects, corticosteroids decrease vitamin D and calcium, and diuretics decrease electrolytes. These are just a few examples.

Nutrient / Nutrient Interactions:

Interestingly, certain nutrients can inhibit or decrease the absorption of other nutrients. One example of this process is calcium blocking iron absorption, they compete for the same absorption sites.

While some nutrients can decrease others, the opposite effect is possible as well, by increasing some nutrient absorption. A classic example of this is vitamin C increasing the absorption ability of iron. When tomatoes are cooked in olive oil, it has been shown to increase the absorption of lycopene. Turmeric is an excellent anti-inflammatory and its absorption is increased by adding black pepper to the formulation of recipe. Vitamin D is added to milk because it increases calcium’s ability to reach the bones and be absorbed.  

First-Pass Metabolism: 

This phrase refers to the phenomenon of drugs and supplements passing through the liver and being broken down to such a degree that their active compounds are not able to be used. The active concentrations of the substances may be greatly reduced by the liver and its enzymes before it reaches systemic (blood) circulation.

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Final thoughts

While these factors are very real and should be understood and implemented in some cases, they should not be feared. Taking steps to address interruptions in bioavailability is simple and they are fairly easy to implement. This article did not cover every area where bioavailability is interrupted so we suggest you look into the supplements you take.