The claim that B vitamins are the solution for low energy remains popular-but is just as misleading today as it has always been. That doesn’t stop supplement manufacturers from loading up their capsules and tablets with these vitamins. B-complex supplements often provide several hundred or even thousands of times the daily RDA of various B vitamins. And many supplements labeled “high energy” are just B vitamins. Energy drinks and shots also tend to contain high doses of B vitamins.
There is some twisted truth behind this claim, which marketers use to spin the story to their advantage. It’s true that B vitamins are involved in energy production, but the vitamins aren’t the source of energy. 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. B vitamins also are not stimulants like caffeine.
Your body needs only a certain amount of B vitamins. 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, alcohol abuse, or malabsorption, for instance), your energy levels won’t be affected at all. That is, taking B vitamins benefits only people who are very deficient in them. The vitamins are water soluble, and any extra you consume simply passes through the body and gets eliminated in your urine.
Also, not a lot is known about the potential negative effects of very high doses of B vitamins taken long term. A recent study in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research raised concern that high doses of B6 might increase hip fractures in older people. Another recent study, in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, linked long-term use of high-dose vitamin B6 or B12 supplements to an increased risk of lung cancer in men (but not women) and especially in men who smoked.
So why might you feel a kick of energy after having an “energy drink”? It’s not from the B vitamins, but from the sugar or caffeine or herbal stimulants that these products often contain-and very possibly a placebo effect.
It’s easy to get enough B vitamins if your diet includes green leafy vegetables, grains, legumes, mushrooms, and other plant foods. In addition, many foods, like refined flour and many cereals, are fortified with B vitamins. Vitamin B12, however, is found primarily in animal-derived foods, such as meat, dairy, and eggs, so vegans run the risk of being deficient unless they take a multivitamin or eat fortified vegetarian foods or fortified nutritional yeast.
Many older people have trouble absorbing B12 and may also benefit from the amount of B12 in a multivitamin, while those with more severe deficiencies and pernicious anemia (caused by B12 deficiency) need high doses of the vitamin, taken orally or injected, under medical supervision. But most other people don’t need even a multivitamin, let alone a B-complex supplement. For more on B12, see tinyurl.com/B12inWL.