I’ve never been the least bit tempted by the new rash of “energy drinks” that seem to have flooded the market starting a few years ago. I learned many, many years ago that any caffeine other than in an occasional, once-a-day cup of coffee makes me jittery, and anything more caffeinated than that gives me actual heart palpitations, so I just don’t go there.
But then I’m not young and running with a crowd that likes to dance most of the night, and then stay of the rest of the night to catch up on the studying they should have been doing instead of dancing. In the markets near my house I see high school aged and younger kids buying cans of energy drinks during their lunch breaks and chugging them – one presumes to help them stay awake the rest of the school day. When walking my dogs, I often find empty cans of energy drinks discarded in parks, alongside bottles of alcohol, so I’d sort of gotten the idea that people mix them. So I found myself wondering, “What can this mixture of stimulants and depressants be doing to these kids and young adults who are doing this?”
I don’t wonder about this any more. I’ve seen the research now. These energy drinks are in all likelihood harming their health, and in some cases may be killing them.
The recent furor, and what has caused it
This issue has made the newspapers and Internet forums lately, largely because the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has received over 90 reports that an energy drink called 5-hour ENERGY® shots has been linked to over 30 reports of serious injuries, including 13 deaths. The injuries in question range from convulsions to spontaneous abortions and heart attacks. Another product called Monster Energy has been implicated in five deaths. In 2007, a 28-year-old man with no history of chest pain or heart disease consumed eight cans of an energy drink in a seven-hour period and suffered cardiac arrest.
What could be in these drinks to do this? Well, primarily caffeine, although some of them contain other stimulants as well. For example, each of the 5-hour ENERGY “shots,” whose small 2-ounce size may contribute to overuse and abuse, contains about 215 milligrams of caffeine, or about the same as two cups of strong coffee. Each “shot” also contains taurine, malic acid, niacin, glucuronic acid, and high levels of vitamins B6 and B12, which causes them to be classified by the FDA as dietary supplements, a category that does not require the same stringent labeling requirements as beverages.
Caffeine and some of these other ingredients raise blood pressure and heart rate, and caffeine has been shown to cause heart cells to release calcium, which can affect heartbeat and cause arrhythmia. The energy drinks have also been shown to cause disruptions in the body’s natural balance of salts, which is another known cause of arrhythmia.
While the FDA says that it has not seen sufficient evidence to say conclusively that energy drinks cause heart problems, they are looking into the situation much more closely following these recent reports. Until they release their findings, here are some other clinical results that may be useful to you.
The research – what these drinks do to your body and mind?
Several studies have suggested that the common practice of mixing energy drinks with alcohol is even more dangerous than drinking them on their own. Research has proven that – unlike what the “mixers” feel subjectively – caffeine does not “counteract” the sedative effects of alcohol. Instead, what it seems to do is keep people awake for longer periods of time, during which they consume even more alcohol than they would normally. A 2011 study on college students found that those who regularly consumed energy drinks were 2.5 times more likely to meet the criteria for having a dependence on alcohol.
Some researchers have theorized that caffeine plays a role in addiction, and that is supported by a study of 1,600 students, which found that those who consumed energy drinks in their second year of college had a much higher incidence of prescription drug abuse in their later years of college. They theorized that abuse of the energy drinks (which are, after all, legal) led them to believe they could also abuse other drugs (equally legal, as long as the student has managed to secure a prescription for them).
A 2010 study found that among students who used energy drinks to study all night for exams, the levels of caffeine they ingested impaired their cognitive abilities. While a small amount of caffeine (40 mg, less than half a normal cup of coffee) improved scores on tests of reaction time, ingesting more than that (for example, the amount in one can of an energy drink) significantly worsened their performance.
Another study in 2006 on the effects of caffeine on miscarriage found that pregnant women who ingested over 200 milligrams of caffeine per day were two times more likely to have a miscarriage than women who do not drink caffeinated drinks. To balance this, a 2008 study found no correlation of miscarriage due to caffeine at 20 weeks of pregnancy. This kind of contradictory research is why the FDA is having trouble sifting through the evidence on energy drinks, although the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has responded by recommending that pregnant women limit their caffeine consumption to under 200 mg per day.