Do 5-Hour Energy Shots Actually Work?

5-Hour Energy shots are incredibly popular, but do they really provide a reliable energy boost? If so, how?

5-Hour Energy isn't going away anytime soon.

The company now generates roughly $1 billion in annual revenue thanks to the incredible popularity of their "energy shots." You know the spiel: Down a 5-Hour Energy and you'll be greeted with a refreshing, sustained boost in energy and no unpleasant side effects. The product's tremendous success speaks to its appeal, but where exactly does the "energy boost" promised by 5-Hour Energy come from? Let's take a closer look at the ingredients to separate fact from fiction when it comes to this popular product.

*This article focuses solely on Regular Strength 5-Hour Energy shots

What's In a 5-Hour Energy?

5-Hour Energy shots are compact. At just 1.93 fluid ounces, they can be downed within seconds.

It's important to know that 5-Hour Energy shots are defined as "dietary supplements." The government defines a product as a dietary supplement largely based off what they are not—namely, if they are consumed orally and are not conventional foods, medical foods, preservatives or pharmaceutical drugs, they're usually defined as a dietary supplement.

So we can't think of this product the same way we do traditional food and drink—we must approach it as a supplement. Like most dietary supplements, 5-Hour Energy shots don't offer much in terms of major nutrients. In fact, there's no fat, carbohydrates, sugar, protein or fiber inside a 5-Hour Energy shot. That's why each bottle contains just four calories.

But here's what you will find in a Regular Strength 5-Hour Energy shot:

  • Niacin, 150% DV (recommended daily value)
  • Vitamin, B6 2,000% DV
  • Folic Acid, 100% DV
  • Vitamin B12, 8,333% DV
  • Energy Blend 1,870mg (includes 200mg of caffeine)

In terms of actual ingredients, here's what you're ingesting:

  • Niacinamide (Niacin)
  • Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6)
  • Folic Acid
  • Cyanocobalamin (Vitamin B12)
  • Purified Water
  • Natural and Artificial Flavors
  • Sucralose
  • Potassium Sorbate
  • Sodium Benzoate
  • EDTA
  • Taurine
  • Glucuronic Acid
  • Malic Acid
  • N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine
  • L-Phenylalanine
  • Caffeine
  • Citicoline

That's upwards of 20 ingredients in a shot that contains fewer than 2 fluid ounces. What function do these ingredients have?

What Do The Ingredients in 5-Hour Energy Do?

Let's start with the B vitamins. Niacin is another name for Vitamin B3, and Folic Acid is another name for Vitamin B9, so you're looking at very high amounts of four different B vitamins in each 5-Hour Energy shot.

B vitamins help your body turn food into usable energy, so they are incredibly important. If you're severely deficient in B vitamins, you will indeed feel tired, because your body will have trouble executing the chemical reactions needed to turn carbs, fat and protein into energy. But B vitamin deficiencies are not common, especially if you eat a varied, well-balanced diet. If you have adequate levels of B vitamins, ingesting more of them won't further boost your energy levels. And even if you are deficient, simply taking a shot with a ton of B vitamins in it isn't going to magically make you feel energized. Addressing a significant vitamin deficiency takes time and consistent changes in your daily diet or supplementation.

While the extreme amounts of B vitamins (particularly B6 and B12) found in 5-Hour Energy shots may be concerning at first glance, there seems to be little harm in consuming such amounts on an occasional basis (recent research shows consuming high amounts on a regular basis for an extended period of time may put smokers at a higher risk of lung cancer, however). B vitamins are water-soluble, so the vast majority of B vitamins people ingest via a 5-Hour Energy shot are going to end up in the toilet.

That brings us to the "energy blend" found in each 5-Hour Energy Shot. It consists of citicoline, tyrosine, phenylalanine, taurine, malic acid, glucuronolactone and caffeine.

According to Examine, an independent site that collates scientific research and disseminates information on supplementation and nutrition, citicoline seems to have a minor positive effect on cognition. There's little conclusive evidence it boosts energy. Same goes for tyrosine. L-Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid, meaning we must get it via diet or supplementation. It helps build protein inside our body. It's commonly found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. It's been found to be have anti-depressive qualities, but little is known about how it effects energy levels in healthy people.

Taurine is also an amino acid, but a non-essential one. This means our body naturally produces it. It may be helpful for reducing anxiety, but the evidence for its energy-boosting abilities is mixed at best. Malic acid, an organic compound, is the main acid in many fruits. Like B vitamins, it helps us convert food into energy. Per Examine, Glucuronolactone is "a molecule commonly found as a component of energy drink formulations with surprisingly minimal research on it…studies 'disassembling' the constituents of energy drinks suggest (it has) no significant contribution towards energy."

So the first six ingredients in the energy blend shouldn't be expected to provide you with the instant energy boost 5-Hour Energy promises in many of their commercials and marketing materials. That's where the final ingredient of the blend comes in—caffeine. At 200mg per serving, your standard 5-Hour Energy shot contains an amount of caffeine comparable to a grande Starbucks Iced Coffee. While the other ingredients in the energy blend may have a small effect, caffeine is the real secret behind the energy boost people associate with 5-Hour Energy.

Often referred to as the world's most popular drug, caffeine is a "powerful stimulant (that) can be used to improve physical strength and and endurance." Caffeine promotes alertness by attaching to the same receptors that uptake adenosine, a compound responsible for making us sleepy. By blocking that adenosine, the amount of excitatory neurotransmitters in our brain increases. Thus, we feel less tired and more energized.

While caffeine's stimulating abilities are quite well-known, it also has some powerful benefits for athletes. Studies have found a comparable amount of caffeine to that contained in a 5-Hour Energy shot can help reduce pain during exercise, reduce perceived pain after exercise and delay exhaustion.

"Caffeine, studied in its isolated form, has been found to be one of the most tried and true performance enhancing substances of all time. It can basically just help you get that extra push you need during an athletic performance," Ryan Andrews, RD and nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition, told STACK.

A 200mg dose of caffeine has also been found to enhance "memory consolidation" (essentially the process of turning a short-term memory into a long-term memory). The noticeable effects of caffeine typically last four to six hours, hence the name 5-Hour Energy.

While pre-workout caffeine supplementation certainly has some benefit for athletes, they should not fall into the trap of believing a 5-Hour Energy is a sufficient pre-workout snack. Your body needs carbs to fuel exercise, and 5-Hour Energy shots don't contain any. If your body doesn't have sufficient carbs to fuel your activity, you'll feel sluggish and out of sorts. "Human bodies don't necessarily stop when they run out of carbs, but they do slow down," says Roberta Anding, Sports Dietitian for the Houston Astros. 5-Hour Energy shots cannot replace the crucial role real food plays in performance nutrition.

The remaining ingredients inside a 5-Hour Energy shot are purified water, natural and artificial flavors, sucraclose (a no-calorie artificial sweetener), and a host of common food additives that are generally considered safe (potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate and EDTA).

Are 5-Hour Energy Shots Safe?

While the ingredients are all relatively safe, is there any potential danger in consuming 5-Hour Energy shots?

The company says woman who are pregnant or nursing and children should avoid the product, but that's standard procedure for any product that contains significant amounts of caffeine. People diagnosed with phenylketonuria, a condition where the body cannot adequately metabolize phenylalanine, should keep away, as well. They also warn you should check with a doctor before taking the product if you're currently on any prescription medications or have a medical condition.

Additionally, the company warns against taking more than two bottles daily. And if you do take two bottles, they should be consumed several hours apart. The compact nature of 5-Hour Energy shots means they can be downed in mere seconds, making them more susceptible to abuse than a steaming cup of hot coffee, so this is wise advice. Although 400mg of caffeine per day is generally considered safe for healthy adults, and 2.5mg per kg of body weight is generally considered safe for healthy adolescents, consuming too much caffeine too fast can bring about side effects like rapid heartbeat, agitation and nausea. Ingesting extreme amounts of caffeine during a short period of time can even lead to death.

But for healthy people who are not overly sensitive to caffeine, could 5-Hour Energy shots pose any other risks?

Apparently a "niacin flush" is a common enough side effect to earn several mentions on the company's official website. A niacin flush occurs in some people after they ingest high amounts of niacin in a short period of time. The high amounts of niacin cause increased blood flow around the skin, resulting in red skin (most commonly on the face) accompanied by a burning or itching sensation. While a "niacin flush" can be a frightening experience, it's ultimately harmless and typically resolves itself within an hour or two. The company says taking half a bottle of 5-Hour Energy at a time is an easy way to avoid this side effect.

For most people, taking a 5-Hour Energy shot now and again is largely harmless. You'd likely receive much more benefit from a cup of coffee thanks to its abundance of organic acids and antioxidants, but if you're in a pinch and need a pick-me-up, a 5-Hour Energy shot will suffice. However, if you are new to the product, we recommend first attempting it in a low-risk environment so you can monitor any side effects you may have.

While 5-Hour Energy shots can help give you a "boost" of energy the same way a cup of joe can, the best way to keep your energy levels high throughout the day is by eating a varied, well-balanced diet. If you find yourself constantly relying on 5-Hour Energy shots to get through the day, you should examine your lifestyle and diet choices to try to pinpoint the cause of your consistent fatigue.

Photo Credit: jfmdesign/iStock, andresr/iStock, Kieferpix/iStock

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Topics: NUTRITION | PERFORMANCE NUTRITION | CAFFEINE | DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS | ENERGY DRINKS | EATING HEALTHY