The popularity of energy drinks over the last 15 years is astounding but not surprising. Targeted at a market segment of the young and on the go, the drinks promise increased alertness and stamina. A single major brand whose name is recognized by everyone recently announced that they sold more than 4 billion cans worldwide in over 150 countries. That was just one brand in one year!
Although their primary demographics are young adults and athletes, the average person on the go is often looking for a morning boost or mid-afternoon energy. So why not grab an energy drink? Is it really a good boost or a bad bust?
The active ingredient that provides energy is typically caffeine and lots of it. It is very common for an energy drink to contain 2 to 5 times the caffeine in a cup of coffee or an average soft drink. There is also a lot of sugar as well. The amount of sugar is equivalent to 4 to 8 teaspoons of sugar in a single 8-ounce serving. There are other ingredients that contribute to the energy effect including guarana, an herb that metabolizes to caffeine. Other herbs such as ginseng have an energizing effect in humans although somewhat inconsistently. Naturally occurring amino acids taurine and carnitine have variable effects in different people. Some of the B-vitamins can provide a pick-me-up in some individuals. The amounts and sensitivity to these effects vary a great deal across the population.
There is no argument that energy drinks provide “energy” – temporarily; however, it is short-lived and typically results in a rebound “lack of energy” from caffeine withdrawal and the blood sugar level plummeting following the ingestion of concentrated refined sugars such as high fructose corn syrup and sucrose. Too much caffeine can be very harmful, especially in selected individuals or under specific circumstances of strenuous exercise or relative dehydration. It has a direct effect on increasing blood pressure to dangerously high levels, rapid heart rate, anxiety and insomnia. This clearly puts people at risk for heart attack or stroke.
A disturbing trend is to mix energy drinks with alcohol. The combination has potentially dangerous side effects. Caffeine does not change the amount of impairment from alcohol. One may feel more alert and less sedated but remain as slow to react or make poor decisions due to the effects of alcohol.
There is little protection or warning for consumers about potential side effects. According to the Food and Drug Administration, energy drinks are supplements and not subject to the same regulations as medications, soft drinks or even food products. They are not obligated to disclose how much an active ingredient is contained in a single serving. Soft drinks are required to have no more than 71 mg of caffeine per serving and most contain much less.
As dangerous as the short-term effects are, there is no research regarding the long-term effects of regular use of energy drinks. It is very possible that regular consumption of high doses of sugar and stimulants leads to bigger problems. One has to doubt the wisdom and safety in the regular use of these products.
What is the alternative? There is no substitute for adequate sleep, regular exercise and a balanced diet. If you suffer from chronic fatigue, there may be an important metabolic reason, which needs evaluation by a medical professional.
Energy drinks are everywhere and seem seductive, even benign. It is still important to be aware. Is it worth the risk?
– Dr. Bruce Kaler