The claim: B vitamins give you energy.
The facts: The claim that B vitamins are the go-to solution for low energy remains popular—but is just as misleading today as it has always been. That doesn’t stop dietary supplement manufacturers from loading up their capsules and tablets with these vitamins. B-complex supplements often provide several thousand times the Daily Value of various B vitamins. Energy drinks and shots—marketed to “vitalize body and mind”—also tend to contain high doses of B vitamins.
As with so many claims, there is some twisted “truth” behind this one, which marketers use to spin the story to their own advantage. In this case, it’s true that B vitamins—thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid, pyridoxine (B6), B12, biotin, and folate (B9)—are all involved, one way or another, in energy production. But the vitamins don’t provide energy directly. Only food provides “energy” in the form of calories, from carbs, fat, and protein. Rather, B vitamins help convert dietary energy into ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the form of energy that your body uses, in a series of complex chemical reactions carried out by the mitochondria in cells.
Your body only needs a certain amount of B vitamins to function normally. And if you’re getting adequate amounts in your diet, as most people do, additional B vitamins won’t provide a surge in energy. In fact, unless you’re severely deficient (because of illness, extreme dieting, or alcohol abuse, for instance), your energy levels won’t be affected at all. That is, taking B vitamins only benefits people who are very deficient in one or more of the vitamins to begin with. Actually, B vitamins are water soluble, and any extra that you take simply pass through the body and get eliminated in your urine.
Also, not a lot is known about the potential negative effects of taking B vitamins at the high amounts many supplements provide—but one new study, in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, raised concern that high daily doses of B6 might increase the risk of hip fractures in older people.
So why might you feel a kick of energy after having an “energy drink? It’s not from the B vitamins, as we’ve established, but rather from the caffeine or other herbal stimulants that these products contain.
The good news is that it’s relatively easy to get enough B vitamins if you eat a healthy and balanced diet that includes green leafy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, mushrooms, and other plant foods. Many foods, like cereals, are also fortified with B vitamins. Vitamin B12 is found primarily in animal-based foods, such as meat, dairy, and eggs, so vegans run the risk of being deficient unless they eat fortified vegetarian foods or nutritional yeast or take a multivitamin. But most people don’t need even a multivitamin, let alone a B-complex supplement, to feel “energized.”