Many people struggle with low energy and wonder whether this might be related to their diet. In particular, nutritionists are often asked about vitamins and energy. Before diving into the answer, let’s start with a couple of definitions.
What is a vitamin?
First, what is a vitamin? Nutrients in our diet are broadly divided into two categories: macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Vitamins are essential for health and growth but are only required in relatively small amounts, and thus “micro” nutrients. There are two classes of vitamins: water-soluble (Vitamin C and all the B vitamins) and fat-soluble (Vitamins A, D, E, and K).
The second important definition is “energy”. Biochemically speaking, energy is created when your body breaks down the food you eat. “Mitochondria” are the primary energy producers in the cell and healthy mitochondrial function is key for maintaining cellular energy and optimal functioning of the body. Of course, when most of us talk about energy, we’re not talking about biochemistry, we’re talking about the way we feel: Are we always tired and run-down, or do we generally feel a sense of vitality, aliveness, and stamina? Vitamins are one factor that can influence the answer to this question.
When it comes to vitamins and energy, B vitamins are often top of mind as they are central to energy production in cells and help reduce muscle soreness. There are several different B vitamins, labeled by number ranging from vitamin B1 to vitamin B12. Although all B vitamins are important for energy, there are a couple of standouts:
- Vitamin B1 (thiamine) is important for turning carbohydrates into energy. If you exercise a lot (which requires carbohydrates) or drink alcohol regularly, you may need more vitamin B1.
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) is essential for producing energy in muscles, including the heart. Like B1, exercise and alcohol intake increase your need for vitamin B2.
- Vitamin B3 (niacin) is not only involved in energy production but is also necessary to make thyroid hormone, an important hormonal regulator of energy. Niacin is also a precursor to the power molecule NAD+, which is being studied both for its role in energy metabolism and as a factor in longevity and healthy aging.
- Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), in addition to converting food to energy, is involved in the production of the stress hormone, cortisol. Chronic stress can deplete this vitamin, leading to less ability to handle stressors and more fatigue.
Foods that are high in B vitamins include whole grains (brown rice, barley), eggs, legumes (beans and peas), citrus fruits, avocados and meats, poultry, and fish. It’s important to eat a variety of foods to get all the different B vitamins as they work best together.
Another vitamin that is important for energy is vitamin C. Vitamin C is an essential factor in the body for transporting certain types of fats to the mitochondria to make energy. One large study in the UK found that people who had lower blood levels of vitamin C had significantly lower physical function and vitality scores than people with adequate or higher blood levels. 3 Vitamin C is found abundantly in fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits, bell peppers, berries, tomatoes, and cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cabbage.
Vitamin D and K
Among the fat-soluble vitamins, both vitamin D and vitamin K have been linked to energy. Vitamin D affects the efficiency of mitochondria, especially in muscle tissue. As a result, low vitamin D levels can result in greater muscle fatigue and feelings of low energy. Low levels of vitamin D are also associated with depressed mood, which can cause fatigue. Food sources of vitamin D include fish, egg yolks, and fortified milk or cereals, but the best source is sunlight. Living in a northern climate? You may need to take a supplement to get enough vitamin D, but get your blood levels checked to be sure you need it since it’s possible to get too much of this vitamin.
Vitamin K is also important in mitochondrial function and energy production, and deficiencies in Vitamin K are associated with fatigue and low energy. Food sources of vitamin K include green leafy vegetables as well as certain vegetable oils (soybean and canola oil).
If you are experiencing low energy, it’s important to realize that there can be many causes other than vitamin deficiencies – both lifestyle-related and biological causes. Biologically, aging is associated with lower energy production in the cells. Furthermore, older individuals are more likely to have insufficient levels of the nutrients necessary to power the mitochondria and vitamin supplementation may help with energy levels. Hormones also influence energy. Hormonal changes with menopause often cause fatigue and low energy in midlife women. And low levels of thyroid hormones are associated with low energy.
On the lifestyle side, the first place to look is obviously sleep. Are you getting 7-8 hours of good quality sleep most nights? Being sedentary can also lead to feelings of fatigue, as can chronic stress. From a nutrition perspective, apart from vitamins, it’s important to get adequate calories and macronutrients (especially protein and carbohydrates) and to avoid skipping meals to maintain good energy levels throughout the day.
Energy and Hydration
Something that many people don’t think about in the context of energy is the importance of hydration. When you are dehydrated, your mitochondria don’t work as efficiently to produce energy from food, which can leave you feeling sluggish. Furthermore, without enough fluid in the body, your heart has to work harder to pump blood, and this can lead to fatigue. Drinking water and other fluids throughout the day is important every day, especially if you are exercising or when the weather is hot. In addition to water, electrolytes are also important for hydration. In a study conducted at Montana State University’s Human Performance Lab, NION Electrolyte Drink Mix was shown to improve hydration to a greater extent than plain water. We can attribute this to NION's strong negative charge and negative ions.
In summary, vitamins are important for energy but there are many other factors to consider. If you think you may have a need for additional vitamin intake – if you are an older adult, an athlete, a vegan, or under chronic stress – talk with a healthcare professional trained in nutrition who can assess your nutritional status and make personalized recommendations.
Jennifer Lovejoy, PhD, spent the first part of her career in academia doing clinical research on obesity, diabetes, and women's health. More recently, she served as Dean of the Nutrition and Exercise Science department at Bastyr University and held executive leadership positions at several lifestyle medicine and scientific wellness startups. She currently does research, speaking, and writing through her consulting
company, Integral Science, LLC (integralscience.net).
1. Tardy AL, et al. Vitamins and Minerals for Energy, Fatigue and Cognition: A Narrative Review of the Biochemical and Clinical Evidence. Nutrients 2020;12(1): 228. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7019700/
2. DePeint F et al., Mitochondrial function and toxicity: role of the B vitamin family on mitochondrial energy metabolism. Chem Biol Interact. 2006;163(1-2):94. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16765926/
3. McCall SJ, et al. Plasma Vitamin C Levels: Risk Factors for Deficiency and Association with Self-Reported Functional Health in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer-Norfolk. Nutrients 2019 Jul; 11(7): 1552. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6682997/
4. Michels AJ, et al., Multivitamin/Multimineral Supplementation Prevents or Reverses Decline in Vitamin Biomarkers and Cellular Energy Metabolism in Healthy Older Men: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study. Nutrients 2023; 15(12): 2691. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10301451/