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How do energy supplements work?

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Lacking vitality? Most of us wouldn't say no to a bit more energy. Whether it's just a positive mental attitude or something more, there are plenty of supplements lining the shelves that may have the potential to help - but do they actually work?

First things first. When we think of having 'energy' we think of feeling alert and invigorated, ready to face the day ahead. Yet often the reality is very different. Feeling down, lack of sleep, not drinking enough, and even some health issues can all sap our energy levels. Think of any glaringly obvious causes for your tiredness. But if you've ruled all these out, and your doctor has ruled out medical causes, then perhaps you need to consider whether supplements could help - or not.

Different energy needs

What even is energy? It's defined as the power and ability to be physically and mentally active. Work out what sort of energy you are looking for. Are you a serious runner needing to shave time off a personal best or do you just want to get through the day without an afternoon slump?

It's often the case that you've got a busy life and feel a bit depleted and drained and are looking for a pick me up.

Types of supplement

"There are three main types of energy supplement," says Dr Sarah Brewer, medical nutritionist and author of over 60 health and nutrition books, "vitamin, mineral & co-factor blends, herbal remedies, and caffeine based supplements."

"There are 15 vitamins and minerals with a European Food Safety Authority approved claim that they could contribute to normal energy-yielding metabolism," says Sarah. "They are biotin, calcium, copper, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), phosphorus, riboflavin (B2), thiamine (B1), vitamin B12, vitamin B6 and vitamin C."

"So just about any blend of vitamins and minerals could carry an energy-yielding label claim," adds Sarah.

B vitamins

Many of the energy products on the market contain a blend of B vitamins especially vitamin B12. The B group of vitamins help your body to use and create energy from the things that you eat.

"Vitamins and mineral supplements contain no measurable energy per se although some vitamins, particularly B vitamins are vital components of energy producing pathways." says Dr Jane Naufahu, lecturer in human nutrition and performance at the University of Westminster.

As well as their role in helping energy release in our cells, B vitamins also have specific health roles. Vitamins B12 and folic acid both help prevent anaemia (which can cause tiredness) and are essential for nerve health and function. Folic acid is especially important when planning a pregnancy and in early pregnancy, helping ensure the new baby has enough to make a healthy spinal cord and nerves. All women considering pregnancy should take a folic acid supplement whilst trying to become pregnant, and when pregnant take a daily folic acid supplement for the first 3 months of pregnancy.

Apart from vegetable oils, B group vitamins are found across a wide range of food and drink, so having a varied diet ensures sufficient for health. Riboflavin (vitamin B2) is used as a natural food colour, and is added to foods like margarine where it has the 'E' number E101. Vitamin B12 is only found in meat, dairy, and fish, and can leave someone deficient if they eat a purely plant based diet.

"If you are a vegan you might be interested in taking a supplement of vitamin B12 and iron," says Sophie Claessens, registered dietitian and British Dietetic Association spokesperson. The Vegan Society website has detailed information on vitamin B12 and how to avoid deficiency.

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