Energy drinks have become the “rage” over the last few years. More than 500 brands are now on the market, and it is estimated that it is now a five-billion dollar a year industry in the US. Furthermore, many of the most ardent fans of the drink are teenagers, and much of the advertising is directed at them. According to a recent survey, almost half (43%) of teenagers have tried the drinks, and many of them use them regularly.
There’s no question about it: everyone needs a lift once in a while, and most people turn to coffee. In increasing numbers, however, people are turning to energy drinks, particularly younger people. Students are using them to stay awake while they cram for exams, and young athletes are using them in hopes of improving their athletic performance. And they are frequently coupled with energy (food) bars, to get even more of a boost.
Do they work? There’s no doubt that they do — sometimes too well. As many people have found after using them late at night, it’s very difficult to get to sleep after they go to bed. And if they are used to cram for an exam, the sleep you missed may be as critical as the cramming. Numerous studies have shown that you lose a considerable amount of cognitive power when you lose sleep.
So what are they? To give you a boost, they have to do two things: produce more glucose and get it to your cells as quickly as possible, and stimulate your nervous system. And energy drinks do both well. They are made up mostly of sugar and caffeine; the sugar supplies the glucose and the caffeine stimulates your nerves. But they contain many other things along with the sugar and caffeine, and some of them worry health experts.
Even though energy drinks work well, they come at some cost. They increase your energy quickly (sugar is turned into glucose almost immediately) and they make you feel great, but this high is relatively short-lived. As the sugar enters your blood stream you get a “blast” of energy, but a half an hour or so later you undergo a “crash” (when all the glucose is used up). You begin to feel weak and dizzy, and as a result, many of you reach for another drink. This brings us to the question: are they safe? Most health experts agree that they are relatively safe if used in moderation. After all, you get the same stimulation from coffee, and there’s no evidence that coffee, if used in moderation, is unsafe.
As in coffee, the main problem for energy drinks is the caffeine. Several studies have shown that for most healthy adults, up to about 400 milligrams (mgs) per day is safe. Over that, however, it can have a number of side-effects: it is a diuretic, and can cause fluid loss, and in excess it can cause jitters, upset stomach, headaches, and sleeping problems. So how much caffeine is in these drinks? Let’s begin by looking at a cup of regular coffee; it has an average of about 100 mgs (but it can range from about 72 to 175). And it’s well-known that for most people, more than about 5 or 6 cups of coffee a day can cause problems. We’ll assume that the same thing applies to energy drinks. So, how much caffeine is there in energy drinks? In a single serving it ranges from about 72 to 150 mgs, which doesn’t sound like too much. One of the problems, however, is that many energy drink containers contain two or three servings. Some of these “supersized” drinks therefore contain as much as 294 mgs, which is a lot.
Another problem is that although 400 mgs per day is safe for adults, it is not necessarily safe for children and adolescents. Furthermore, coffee is hot and most people sip it slowly; energy drinks are cold and are usually downed fairly fast. The major problem with caffeine, however, is that it dehydrates your body, and this dehydration can be serious — it can even kill you. After drinking several energy drinks, people begin to feel thirsty (the first sign of dehydration) and they therefore drink more to relieve their thirst, which only makes them more dehydrated. In addition, caffeine is addictive, and as you drink more and more, you need more and more to give you a high.
Next we have the problem of the sugar. Although there are a few sugar-free energy drinks on the market, most are full of sugar, some containing as much as 30 grams per serving. To give you a better feel for 30 grams, it is approximately 4 teaspoons full, with each teaspoon containing about 15 calories. The total calories for the serving is therefore about 120, which isn’t too bad, but as I mentioned earlier, many energy drink containers now contain 2 and 3 servings, so you could get 700 calories in a container. With the obesity problem, particularly among children, an extra 700 calories is something they could do without. If it is added to their regular (balanced) diet, it could add a pound of weight in a week.
Let’s look now at the other things in energy drinks. They vary from drink to drink, but some of the more common ones are given in the following list:
Guarana: It is a source of caffeine
Taurine (an amino acid): It is added to enhance the caffeine’s effect.
Glucuronlactone: Effects are generally unknown, but it may assist in excreting toxins.
Inositol: Effects are generally unknown, but some may be positive.
Vitamin B: No problems.
Carnitine and ginseng: Generally considered to be safe.
Ephedrine: When mixed with alcohol it is hard on the heart.
Pyruvate: Added as a “performance” booster, but in large amounts it can make you sick.
Glutamine and argenine: Amino acids, no danger.
The biggest problem with these extra ingredients is that, in some cases, the long-term effect of them is not known. Most are safe if used in moderation, but others are questionable.
This brings us to the question: Who is most at risk? Because of the danger of dehydration, people with high blood pressure and heart problems are definitely at risk. Furthermore, children and even adolescents should be careful, and limit their use. Athletes also have to be careful; they should not use them during competition because of the danger of dehydration.
But many people will say, “I thought sports drinks were good for athletes.” And indeed, they are, but it’s important to distinguish sports drinks such as Gatorade from energy drinks. They are quite different. Sports drinks are designed to overcome dehydration; energy drinks cause dehydration. In particular, sports drinks replace electrolytes that are lost during perspiration, and these electrolytes, in turn, maintain the salt and potassium balance in the body.
I’ve left the major problem to the end. Many people mix energy drinks with alcohol, and it’s now well-known that this can spell disaster. Mixing energy drinks with alcohol gives a person the feeling that he (or she) is not intoxicated. But in reality, he is; he cannot perform the usual test tasks for intoxication any better than a person who drank only alcohol. Furthermore, because he doesn’t feel intoxicated, he thinks he can drink more — and usually does. And he may end up very drunk without realizing it.
So, although energy drinks are generally considered safe if used in moderation, you have to be careful.