Energy Drinks: Useful or Dangerous?
Energy drinks like Red Bull, Monster and Rock Star are a visible part of many college student diets. They are so popular that, in 2005, sales reached almost $2 billion. College students use energy drinks as study aids, for general energy, for sport performance, to mix with alcohol and to treat hangovers.
They may boost alertness, performance and focus in the short-term, but these benefits can be accompanied by undesired effects on overall health. In this letter, we consider the evidence in a balanced way to draw conclusions about the effectiveness and safety of popular energy drinks.
Most people have heard the Red Bull slogan “it gives you wings” or Monster’s call to “release the beast.” What does the advertising really mean? The drinks are promoted to improve performance, reaction time, and concentration. Many college students use energy drinks to help get through their many daily tasks.
Students often don’t get sufficient sleep and when they wake up exhausted; they rely on energy drinks. When they need to stay focused while working deep into the night, they rely on energy drinks. To maintain high energy during a night of fun, they rely on energy drinks. What do these drinks contain that makes them effective for these purposes? After considering the published literature, it is clear that the effects are mainly due to large quantities of caffeine and sugar.
Caffeine is a stimulant that can improve mental performance, focus and mood for several hours. However, frequent use of caffeine can lead to caffeine dependence. Dependence is a major concern with energy drinks because many contain two to three times the caffeine that is present in a large cup of coffee.
Diet and sleep patterns can be altered when people regularly consume energy drinks. The drinks may mask a lack of sleep, tricking the person into staying awake and getting less sleep, further perpetuating the need for energy drinks to get through the day. Energy drinks affect behavior, especially when consumed with alcohol.
A 2009 paper from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) showed that this mixing energy drinks and alcohol increases the risk for accidents and injuries. Mixing alcohol and energy drinks can deceive the student into believing they are less drunk than they really are, increasing chances the person will believe it is OK to drive. In a 2008 study from the Journal of American College Health, frequent consumption of Red Bull and other energy drinks were linked to risky behavior, an effect that has been referred to as “toxic jock syndrome.” These damaging social behaviors need to be taken into account when considering the risks versus rewards of using energy drinks.
In addition to other uses, college athletes use energy drinks to boost energy for practice or competition. Although caffeine and sugar can both contribute to athletic performance, there are clear downsides. Caffeine increases loss of water from the body and can lead to dehydration, especially in hot conditions.
The large amounts of sugar in most of the drinks (the equivalent of 12 tablespoons of sugar in a single can of Monster) contain hundreds of calories that can make it difficult to maintain optimal body weight for performance. This nutritional concern – hundreds of “empty calories” that contribute almost nothing to overall good health – may be even more of a concern for non-athletes who don’t practice several hours a day to burn off those extra calories. Although there are varieties of energy drinks that are low in sugar or sugar-free, the few studies available suggest these drinks do not have benefits for athletic performance.
Consuming more caffeine than the body can handle can cause a range of problems related to caffeine toxicity. Common symptoms of caffeine toxicity are anxiousness, nervousness, difficulty sleeping and irregular heart beat. Sound familiar? In rare cases, excess caffeine consumption can lead to serious injury and even death.
Frequent reliance on energy drinks regularly can also result in caffeine withdrawal when you stop using them. Withdrawal symptoms include minor to serious headaches, irritability, depression, fatigue and difficulty concentrating. To avoid withdrawal symptoms, people will consume energy drinks even when the reason for using them is gone (for example, during breaks between semesters).
As with most things, energy drinks are rarely harmful if used in moderation. But there are other choices that could be more beneficial. Caffeine in small-moderate quantities in the form of coffee is generally assumed to be safe according to most of the evidence. For athletes, water or diluted sports drinks help with hydration and can provide extra carbohydrate energy for hard exercise.
Overall, energy drinks might boost mood and increase cognitive performance but they also contribute to caffeine dependence, a “crash” that occurs hours later, and, when mixed with alcohol, potential for poor decisions and dangerous consequences.
In the long-term, consuming hundreds of extra calories per day makes it more difficult to manage body weight. Most students have not carefully considered the balance between the rewards and the risks of frequently consuming energy drinks. We hope this letter helps students make a more informed decision.
This column was a collaboration of 238 UMass undergraduate students in Professor Barry Braun’s Fall 2009 Kinesiology 110 Human Performance and Nutrition. Due to space constraints, the 238 student e-mails cannot be listed.