Mental energy supplements – do the claims stack up?

The IntroductionEnergy Drinks on Shelf

The marketers of certain food, drinks, and supplements convincingly claim their product will increase mental energy. Mental energy is a three-dimensional thing consisting of mood (transient feelings about the presence of fatigue or energy), motivation (determination and enthusiasm), and cognition (sustained attention and vigilance). Often, as in most things ‘too good to be true’, I wonder if the marketing claims are based on science or just marketing hype. Here is what science is saying about four of the most common mental energy supplements pushed onto the unsuspecting public. The bottom line is they appear to work, but only in certain groups of people.

The Research

The review focused on four dietary constituents/supplements:

  1. Ginkgo biloba is a Chinese medicinal product taken from the maidenhair tree. It may have several biological effects including increased brain blood flow, reduced blood viscosity, and free radical scavenging (an antioxidant).
  2. Ginseng may have positive effects on blood pressure and immune function, but is unsafe in pregnant or breastfeeding women and in patients taking anticoagulants.
  3. Glucose is a simple sugar and is the main energy source for the brain. It is required to perform thinking tasks but the potential benefit of supplementation beyond normal dietary intake is unclear.
  4. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids  found in fish such as salmon, herrings, mackerel and sardines have been shown to help lower blood fats and the risk of heart disease when eaten 2-3 times per week or as supplements at around 2-3 grams per day.

But do these four supplements have any scientific basis to be used as dietary supplements to improve mental energy. This literature review suggests they may – in certain groups!

The Results

The strongest evidence suggests effects of Ginkgo biloba on certain aspects of mood including alertness and calmness and on the speed of brain processing in healthy young and older people.  The research is inconsistent regarding the effects of ginseng, most likely due to the wide variability in the quality of the key ingredients. The research suggests that certain populations, such as the elderly or those with poor ability to regulate glucose, are more likely to show improvements in memory and alertness after glucose intake. Finally, the available research suggests links between omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline in ability to learn and memory in those suffering from memory loss.

 The So What?

It certainly appears these guys do benefit mental energy, but only in certain groups. So if you feel the need to improve mental alertness and memory, look at the results above and decide cost-benefit wise if one of these supplements might help you. If not, save your dollars!

Gorby, H., Brownawell, A. and Falk, M. (2011). Do specific dietary constituents and supplements affect mental energy? Review of the evidence. Nutrition Reviews, 68(12): 697 – 718.

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