by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.D./N.
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A lot of new energy drinks on the market these days contain big doses of B12, thiamin, riboflavin, and other nutrients in the B-vitamin family. Supposedly, they give you a big burst of energy. The presence of all those vitamins also suggests that these drinks are a good source of nutrition. In reality, however, mega-doses of B vitamins in energy drinks are little more than window-dressing.
Do B Vitamins Give You Energy?
Like most nutrition myths, the idea that B vitamins “give you energy” has a basis in fact—but the facts have gotten sort of twisted. (Marketing tends to do that.) Here’s the scoop: B vitamins are essential to the conversion of food energy into ATP, which is the form of energy your cells use. And by essential, I don’t mean that it’s nice to have them around. I mean that without them, it won’t happen.
Converting food into cellular energy takes a lot of steps—literally hundreds of chemical reactions. B vitamins act as co-factors—or helpers—in many of those reactions. However, that doesn’t mean that taking a big dose of B vitamins will make you feel more awake or more energized.
Increasing B Vitamins Doesn’t Increase Energy Production
Think of it this way: You can’t drive your car if the gas tank is completely empty. (Of course, if you drive an electric car, you can, but can you just bear with me for the sake of my analogy?) You need some gas in the tank to make your engine run. But your car won’t drive any faster on a full tank of gas than it will on a half a tank. And if your gas tank is full and you keep pumping in fuel anyway, it’ll just run out all over your shoes.
If you feel a burst of energy after drinking one of these drinks, you’re probably feeling the effects of sugar and caffeine rather than the B vitamins.
That’s much the way it works with B vitamins: If you are completely deficient in one or more B vitamins, your cellular energy production will be impacted—and you’re probably not going to be feeling very well. However, if your B vitamin status is even moderately good, taking extra B vitamins won’t increase your cellular energy production. And if you take in more B vitamins than your body can use or store, the excess will simply spill over—in this case, into your urine. With any luck, it ends up flushed down the drain (and not all over your shoes).
B Vitamins and Energy Drinks
With the price of gas these days, no one is going to be pumping it onto the ground if they can help it. Synthetic B vitamins, on the other hand, are cheap. That’s why manufacturers can afford to load up energy drinks with 12 times the daily allowance. It’s mostly for show.
Seeing that something contains 1200% of the recommended intake of a nutrient certainly makes it sound awfully potent. But if you feel a burst of energy after drinking one of these drinks, it’s very unlikely that it’s due to the B vitamins. More likely, you’re feeling the effects of sugar, caffeine, or another herbal stimulant like guarana…no doubt helped along by a healthy dose of placebo effect.
What Causes Vitamin B Deficiencies?
As I said before, the only way that B vitamins are going to improve your energy levels is if you have a serious deficiency going on—and even then, you wouldn’t feel the effects immediately; it would probably take a day or so.
B-vitamin deficiencies are pretty uncommon, but some of the things that could make you more vulnerable are:
But if any of these situations apply to you—or, for that matter—if you suspect that you’re suffering from beriberi, pellagra, burning feet syndrome, anemia, or other diseases associated with severe vitamin deficiencies, you’d better not be trying to treat the problem with an energy drink. Get yourself to a doctor.
Can B Vitamins Help With Stress?
Another common myth about B vitamins is that they can help buffer the effects of stress. As far as I can tell, it all started when a large supplement company brought out a high-potency B-complex supplement under the brand name Stress Tabs along with some story about how being stressed causes you to burn through your body’s B vitamin stores …and a myth was born.
It was a stroke of marketing genius and billions of dollars of supplements have been sold on the strength of it. However, there’s very little scientific support for the idea that stress increases your need for B vitamins or that taking big doses of B vitamins will somehow make you more resilient to the physical or emotional toll of stress.
You know what really works for stress? Yoga. Meditation. Exercise. Journaling. Pottery classes. Couples therapy. Baby-sitters. Vacations. Getting enough sleep. And, of course, a healthy, balanced diet—one that follows the principles I’ve been exploring and explaining since I began writing this column three years ago—is a great foundation for mental and physical health. As a general principle, I think your nutritional dollar is much better spent on nutritious, whole foods than on stress tabs or energy drinks.
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Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!
B Vitamins Don’t Boost Energy Drinks’ Power (Healthy Skeptic)
Small Drinks Promise Big Energy (CNN Health)