Energy Boosters: Can Supplements and Vitamins Help?

You have countless choices in energy supplements. But what works?

Take a walk through your local supermarket, and you might come to the conclusion that Americans are in the grip of an energy crisis. There are the countless bottles of energy supplements, the coolers of energy drinks, and the racks of energy bars at the check-out counter.

“Energy [supplements have] become one of the fastest-growing categories of supplement,” says Andrew Shao, PhD, from the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade organization in Washington D.C. “And that’s because everybody -- whether you’re a man or a woman, young or old -- wants more energy.”

Whether it’s true or not, it sure seems like life is more hectic than it once was. For people always on the go, the idea of an energy pill is compelling.

But do they work? Experts are generally cautious. Some energy supplements may help some people to a degree. Still, you have to know what you’re looking for. Otherwise, a trip to the supplement store could just leave you hundreds of dollars poorer and no less sluggish.

To help guide you toward the energy you need, WebMD talked to the experts. Here’s a rundown of some of the most popular energy supplements -- what’s likely to help and what isn’t.

What Is Energy – and How Do Supplements Work?

Before you start filling your shopping cart with products that have “energy” in the name, consider what the word really means. What sort of energy are you after?

“The definition of energy depends a lot on the context,” says Paul M. Coates, PhD, director of the Office of Dietary Supplements. Are you an elite athlete, a sprinter trying to shave seconds off your best time? Or are you an average person just hoping to make it through a whole movie without dozing off? The type of energy supplement that could benefit the former might do nothing for the latter.

The ingredients may not tell you much. You’ll see dozens and dozens of substances, ranging from the familiar (caffeine) to the exotic (kola nut) to the puzzling (coenzyme Q10). Unless you’re a botanist or a chemist, it’s hard to know what many of them actually do.

To make things simpler, we’ve divided energy supplement ingredients into three categories: stimulants, which rev up the metabolism; substances that affect metabolism -- specifically how the cells derive energy from nutrients; and calories, which are the basic fuel our bodies use to run. They work in very different ways, though many energy products will combine ingredients from all three categories.

Energy Supplements: Stimulants

  • Caffeine
  • Herbal sources of caffeine and related compounds like guarana, yerba mate, and kola nut
  • Green tea (also a source of caffeine)
  • Capsaicin (red pepper)
  • Asian Ginseng
  • Bitter Orange (specifically, the ingredient synephrine)

Energy Boosters: Can Supplements and Vitamins Help?

You have countless choices in energy supplements. But what works?

Energy Supplements: Stimulants continued...

If you’re feeling groggy after lunch, what you really want is a stimulant. And for all the exotic herbs and amino acids sold as energy supplements, one of the most potent stimulants is also the most familiar: caffeine.

“Caffeine is a common ingredient in just about any product marketed for energy enhancement,” says Coates. And while an energy drink might have 25 other ingredients, the one you really feel is likely to be caffeine. “The amount of caffeine just swamps everything else,” Coates tells WebMD.

So how does caffeine work? “Caffeine and similar compounds do step up the metabolism temporarily,” says Roger Clemens, PhD, spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists. “That can make people feel better.”

Shao says that there’s pretty good evidence that caffeine can temporarily improve mental focus and, in athletes, help stave off exhaustion.

Although some products are seen as natural alternatives to caffeine, many actually contain caffeine itself or similar chemical substances that have similar effects. These include kola nut, yerba mate, and guarana. Green tea also provides a dose of caffeine and a related compound, theophylline, as well as the antioxidant epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). It is possible that, because of these specific compounds, green tea may have unique effects on mental and physical energy.

Asian ginseng is not a caffeine derivative, but it may also serve as a mild stimulant. Will it help boost energy? There’s a lot of historical use of the different species of ginseng as tonics, says Coates. And a fair amount of scientific evidence exists for the three main “ginseng” species and their effects on psychological and physical health. For example, the effects of Siberian ginseng (eleutherococcus senticosus, often just called eleuthero) were studied in the Russian cosmonauts. The results indicated that there may be some benefit to stamina and “physical” energy. Capsaicin -- the ingredient that makes chili peppers hot -- is also sometimes used for its purported stimulant properties, but more for a metabolic boost than for obvious improvements in physical or mental energy.

Bitter orange, an extract from the rind of a different citrus species than that used for classic orange juice, is another energy supplement unrelated to caffeine. Though it hasn’t been studied much, some experts are concerned about potential risks. Its active ingredient -- synephrine -- is chemically similar to ephedrine, the active ingredient in ephedra, which was pulled off the market in 2004 because of its life-threatening health risks. Some preliminary reports have documentation concerning heart and vascular effects with the use of bitter orange. Coates says that bitter orange may prove a less harmful successor to ephedra, but more research needs to be done.

Bottom line: Will these supplements boost energy? Yes. Stimulants like these will probably rev up your metabolism temporarily and give you a lift. Are their effects superior to -- or even different from -- what you’d derive from a cup of coffee? Probably not.

Energy Boosters: Can Supplements and Vitamins Help?

You have countless choices in energy supplements. But what works?

Energy Supplements: Substances that Affect Energy Metabolism

  • Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
  • B vitamins, like vitamin B6, vitamin B12, folic acid, thiamine, niacin
  • Creatine, carnitine, and amino acids like tyrosine, phenylalanine, taurine

Many energy supplements are derived from the nutrients, proteins, fats, and amino acids that are already in our bodies or that we get from food. And they do work -- in a sense. “Research has clearly shown that these compounds support the energy metabolism process,” says Shao. They affect how the body processes the nutrients we eat and converts them into energy.

But while these compounds have a role in the body’s metabolism, will taking them as supplements actually boost an average person’s energy? That depends.

If you eat a well-balanced, healthy diet, you likely get enough of these vitamins and amino acids from food, and probably don’t need supplements, says Coates. “If you’re not medically deficient in substances like CoQ10 or carnitine, there’s virtually no evidence that taking more will enhance your energy.”

But people who are deficient in CoQ10, carnitine, and B vitamins may benefit from the supplements, says David Leopold, MD, director of Integrative Medical Education at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine. “And deficiency is much more common than we think,” he notes.

Who is likely to be deficient? Athletes who push themselves hard might be depleted in these nutrients, says Shao. Plus, people who have poor diets or take regular medications, such as acid blockers, anti-inflammatory painkillers, or antibiotics, says Leopold.

Paul R. Thomas, EdD, RD -- a scientific consultant at the Office of Dietary Supplements -- says that creatine does have the potential to increase energy output under particular circumstances. For instance, a sprinter running a 100-yard dash might benefit from it.

But the effects are that specific. In fact, creatine might actually decrease athletic performance in longer-term physical activity, and it carries some risk. Leopold says that creatine can interfere with sweating, thus contributing to dehydration, muscle strain, and cramps.

Bottom line: Will these supplements boost energy? If you are deficient in these nutrients or are an elite athlete, you might benefit from some of these supplements.

Energy Supplements: Calories

Many of us have a skewed impression of what calories are -- we see them as villains who lurk in food and make our pants too tight. But calories are the measurement of the energy potential in any food we eat.

So the third category of energy supplements consists of calories, usually carbohydrates (like sugars), which our bodies can easily break down and absorb as energy. They’re in energy drinks, energy bars, energy gels -- and even so-called enhanced waters. In addition, these are usually high-glycemic index carbohydrates, quickly entering into the bloodstream, spiking blood glucose and causing a reactive insulin surge. The result? Over the long-term, these responses may cause an increase in inflammation and pain, and other adverse effects.

Energy Supplements: Calories continued...

“These are really attractive to athletes,” says Shao, “especially ones who might be in the middle of a marathon.” Easily absorbed carbs can give them the fuel they need to keep going. After exercise, these carbs may also help athletes to recover more quickly from a heavy workout.

But what if you’re not running in a marathon? Will a dose of sugar in a sports drink give you a boost after a day of sitting in an armchair? Maybe a little.

“If there’s a lot of easily metabolized sugar in a product, it could raise your blood sugar and rev you up a little,” says Coates. But that benefit fades pretty quickly. As the blood sugar drops again, you’re liable to feel sleepy.

And in the long-term, relying on high-calorie energy drinks and foods for a boost is a bad idea -- especially if you don’t get much exercise. Calories you don’t burn just become fat. Carrying around excess weight will probably leave you feeling less energetic.

Bottom line: Will these supplements boost energy? For athletes, yes. For everyone else, an occasional energy drink or energy bar might give you a brief blood sugar boost. Taken regularly, they can lead to weight gain and inflammation.

Energy Supplements: Keeping Perspective

So there’s the rundown. Of course, if you’re suffering from serious fatigue, you should check with your doctor before you start taking an energy supplement to make sure a medical condition isn’t causing your fatigue. Then, after ruling out a problem, here are some questions to consider:

Is this supplement safe for me? If you already have a medical condition or take regular medication, some supplements might be dangerous. Remember that we just don’t know much about their risks. They aren’t tested and approved by the FDA, like drugs.

How good is the evidence that this supplement works? “Many of the energy supplements aren’t supported by much in the way of science,” says Coates. That’s not to say that they don’t work, necessarily. It’s just that there haven’t been enough studies to say one way or another.

Do I really need this supplement? A well-balanced diet should give most people the minerals, vitamins, and nutrients they need, says Coates. Are there deficiencies in your diet? If so, why?

Finally, always follow the recommended dosing instructions -- or get guidance from your doctor or a dietitian. “The mentality in the U.S. is often, if some is good, more must be better,” says Clemens. “That’s not the case when you’re taking supplements.”

Boosting Energy with Lifestyle Changes

Although they might seem quaint when compared to the newest formulation of energy drink, there are more conventional ways to boost your energy.

Sleep. Start with the stone-cold obvious: if you’re feeling tired and low on energy, sleep more. Getting into good habits before bed -- called sleep hygiene by the experts -- really might help. Aim for seven to eight hours a night. Quick naps during the day -- just 20-30 minutes -- can also leave you feeling energized.

Exercise. “Really, the best way to have more energy is to have a more active lifestyle,” says Clemens. It might seem counter-intuitive, but exerting yourself will make you feel more energized, not less. One review looked at 70 different studies of the effects of exercise and energy levels. The result? More than 90% of the studies showed the same thing: sedentary people who started an exercise program had less fatigue and more energy.

Eat a healthy diet. There’s no special energy diet. But for overall health, experts recommend a diet with lots of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins. Avoid high-glycemic index carbohydrates. Eat a reasonable amount of “good fats”, primarily monounsaturated fats like olive oil and omega-3s. As a rule of thumb, Clemens recommends following the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines

Boosting Energy with Lifestyle Changes continued...

Alas, none of these are quick fixes. They take some dedication and work. But they’re also the only approaches guaranteed to help. Although there’s nothing wrong with the occasional energy supplement -- or for that matter, ventilatte -- they’re not a long-term solution to your low-energy problem. For that, you’re left with the boring old truth.

“You’ve heard it before,” says Clemens, “but better health includes appropriate diet, moderation and variety of foods, and appropriate exercise.”

WebMD Feature

By R. Morgan Griffin

Reviewed By David Kiefer, MD