Do Energy Supplements Really Work?
The Rumor: Some energy supplements really do work and can provide a quick, healthy pick-me-up.
If you've ever had a mean case of the 4 p.m. blahs, it’s probably safe to say you’ve considered downing one of the countless over-the-counter canned drinks, pills, snack bars or "five-hour shots" that are available today. They promise to provide a quick boost of energy, so what’s not to love?
The Verdict: Supplements are useful for endurance athletes and during extreme workouts, but most of us don't need 'em.
Unless you’re signed up for something like the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, you can skip the energy supplements. "Technically, only ingredients that provide calories, such as carbohydrates, can give you energy," says Tod Cooperman, MD, founder of ConsumerLab.com, a website that conducts independent testing on health, wellness and nutrition products. Offered in the form of energy bars, gels and sugary drinks, consuming these extra calories can help you pack on extra pounds if you're not careful. They’re meant for athletes who need quick-digesting carbs while they’re in the middle of a competition. So if you’re not burning off what you’re ingesting fast, prepare to use the extra energy shopping for a larger pair of jeans.
Stimulants like caffeine fall into another category of energy products. "They'll make you feel like you have more energy by the way they act on your brain," Cooperman says. Sometimes they’re combined with a controversial amino acid called taurine in canned, low-calorie drinks that promise to make you more alert. Since we don’t know the long-term effects of taurine just yet, it’s safer to grab a simple cup of coffee or green tea for a temporary pick-me-up.
Herbs like ginseng and rhodiola are also said to reduce fatigue. Ginseng has been shown in studies to boost energy, even for those battling illnesses like cancer. Rhodiola is a newer kid on the block. It's "inconclusive whether rhodiola [is] effective for combating physical or mental fatigue," says David W. Grotto, RDN, LDN and author of 101 Optimal Life Foods and The Best Things You Can Eat.
Lastly, some vitamin and mineral supplements are said to up your energy. But B vitamins and magnesium can be found safely and naturally in foods like leafy green veggies, dairy and meats. Some companies claim that supplementation can boost energy. Experts aren’t too sure. "B vitamins are sometimes added to energy drinks and supplements, but probably do little or nothing, as most people are not deficient... particularly younger people," says Cooperman. "They are needed, in small amounts, to release energy from foods." Unless you’re elderly or are on a restricted diet and may not be getting the recommended dietary allowances, you can skip these pills too.
So which quick pick-me-ups are safe? Here are few ways to get a healthy energy surge:
Get more sleep. "If you have trouble getting to sleep, you can try a low dose of melatonin 45 minutes before you want to go to bed, but use it just to get your sleep schedule back on track, not every night," says Cooperman.
Eat a well-balanced diet. You’ll get all the B vitamins and magnesium you need if you consume varied, wholesome foods like nuts, whole grains, leafy green vegetables, legumes, fish, dairy and meat products.
Don't overeat. "Three meals a day supplemented with a few snacks is ideal," says Grotto. "Big meals sap energy and can make you feel sluggish."
Get moving! A 2011 CDC report found that only 20 percent of Americans abide by the U.S. Health and Human Services guidelines of doing 150 minutes of moderate exercise and two episodes of strength-training each week. That may sound like a lot, but imagine using the extra energy it creates to shop for smaller jeans.