Take a walk through your local supermarket, and you might come to the conclusion that Americans are in the grip of an energy crisis. There are the countless bottles of energy supplements, the coolers of energy drinks, and the racks of energy bars at the check-out counter.
“Energy [supplements have] become one of the fastest-growing categories of supplement,” says Andrew Shao, PhD, from the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade organization in Washington D.C. “And that’s because everybody -- whether you’re a man or a woman, young or old -- wants more energy.”
Whether it’s true or not, it sure seems like life is more hectic than it once was. For people always on the go, the idea of an energy pill is compelling.
But do they work? Experts are generally cautious. Some energy supplements may help some people to a degree. Still, you have to know what you’re looking for. Otherwise, a trip to the supplement store could just leave you hundreds of dollars poorer and no less sluggish.
To help guide you toward the energy you need, WebMD talked to the experts. Here’s a rundown of some of the most popular energy supplements -- what’s likely to help and what isn’t.
What Is Energy – and How Do Supplements Work?
Before you start filling your shopping cart with products that have “energy” in the name, consider what the word really means. What sort of energy are you after?
“The definition of energy depends a lot on the context,” says Paul M. Coates, PhD, director of the Office of Dietary Supplements. Are you an elite athlete, a sprinter trying to shave seconds off your best time? Or are you an average person just hoping to make it through a whole movie without dozing off? The type of energy supplement that could benefit the former might do nothing for the latter.
The ingredients may not tell you much. You’ll see dozens and dozens of substances, ranging from the familiar (caffeine) to the exotic (kola nut) to the puzzling (coenzyme Q10). Unless you’re a botanist or a chemist, it’s hard to know what many of them actually do.
To make things simpler, we’ve divided energy supplement ingredients into three categories: stimulants, which rev up the metabolism; substances that affect metabolism -- specifically how the cells derive energy from nutrients; and calories, which are the basic fuel our bodies use to run. They work in very different ways, though many energy products will combine ingredients from all three categories.
Energy Supplements: Stimulants
- Herbal sources of caffeine and related compounds like guarana, yerba mate, and kola nut
- Green tea (also a source of caffeine)
- Capsaicin (red pepper)
- Asian Ginseng
- Bitter Orange (specifically, the ingredient synephrine)