B-vitamin infused energy drinks are an excellent example of what happens when retail companies don’t let science get in the way of making a quick buck (or, in this case, billion). Here’s the grain of truth that sparked all of the B-vitamin hype: Many of them — including folate (B9), B6, and B12, which are found in scores of energy drinks — help enzymes within our cells turn nutrients from food into energy we can use. So, naturally, that means that taking a mega-dose of them should translate into more energy, right? Wrong. “Your blood stream can only accommodate so much — once you’ve met the recommended daily value of B vitamins you pee out most of the rest,” says Ralph Green, M.D., Ph.D., a distinguished professor emeritus of pathology and laboratory medicine at UC Davis who has researched B vitamins. Sure, some are stored in your body — your liver contains a limited supply of B12, for example. “But those stores won’t contribute to an immediate surge of energy because they’re not immediately available,” says Green. “Not that that’s even an issue — chances are, you have plenty of Bs in your system already.”
Recent CDC data shows that only 11 percent of Americans are deficient in B6, only 2 percent are lacking in B12, and just 1 percent are low in folate. The reason: Most people get plenty of all three from their diets. Whole grains are rich in B vitamins, and many products made with refined grains, such as cereals, are fortified with Bs. Plus, they’re present in many fruits and vegetables — bananas and avocados are rich in B6, while spinach and asparagus are packed with folate. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule — people with certain forms of anemia and gastritis are often deficient in B12, and thus may benefit from supplementation. “Vegetarians and vegans are also more likely to fall short on B12, which is only found in meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs,” says Green, adding that such a deficiency can sap your production of red blood cells, causing anemia and general fatigue. Also, if you’re on a low calorie diet, you might not be hitting the right numbers for Bs, but that’s nothing a good multivitamin can’t fix.
Most adults 19 to 50 need 1.3 milligrams (mg) of B6 per day, while women and men 51 need 1.5 mg and 1.7 mg, respectively, according to National Institutes of Health dietary guidelines. You need 2.4 micrograms (mcg) of B12 and 400 mcg of folate. (In all three cases, pregnant and lactating women need more.) It’s also possible to consume too much of some B vitamins. Regularly consuming more than 100 mg of B6 per day — which is easy to do if you take an energy shot on top of a multi-vitamin — has been linked to nerve damage, for example. NIH guidelines also suggest that consuming excess folate — more than 1,000 mcg per day for adults — can increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer.
Research specific to energy drinks hasn’t done much to advance the rep of B vitamins as energy boosters, either. That’s because the B vitamins in these products aren’t tested independently of other potential energizers, such as taurine and choline, not to mention the only proven energizer, caffeine. That makes it hard to figure out exactly what is responsible for any energy boost you might experience. For instance, in a recent study at the University of the Pacific, people who took a caffeinated 5-Hour Energy shot reported a three-hour energy boost, while those taking a decaffeinated version experienced a one-hour spike. What’s not clear is why the decaf version had any effect at all. Was it the taurine, the choline, or something else altogether? “It’s very possible that it’s a placebo effect,” says study author Sachin Shah, PharmD, an associate professor of pharmacy practice at the University of the Pacific. “People might have reported an energy boost because they expected one.”
If you want to perk up, one of your best bets is still caffeine. Not only does it stimulate your central nervous system, enhancing motivation and energy, but it can also boost strength and reduce your perception of pain, according to a study in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. “Caffeine has a pretty good track record of increasing performance, especially aerobic or cardiovascular performance,” says Mike T. Nelson, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., a fitness trainer and consultant near Minneapolis.
Caffeine is particularly effective at boosting performance during morning workouts, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Science in Medicine and Sport. People who consumed caffeine before a morning training session exhibited greater “contraction velocity” (i.e., explosive power) than they did when they consumed it before an afternoon workout. The reason: Your ability to recruit your largest muscle fibers is depressed in the first few hours after waking, and a central nervous system stimulant (like caffeine) can help jump start your mind-muscle connection, say the researchers.
Regardless of when you work out, Nelson recommends consuming up to 200 milligrams of caffeine about a half hour before exercising. A cup of coffee can do the trick!