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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.

Comments
4 Responses to “Energy Drinks: Useful or Dangerous?”
  1. Jim Shepherd says:

    I’m noticing a lot more articles in college newspapers about energy drinks. I think that’s great, a lot of young people aren’t even aware of the potential for health effects. I think the worst is likely to come. What are the long term effects of these drinks? Everyone drinking them on a regular basis are ginea pigs, they’ll let us know the answer. I spoke to someone recently who loves red bull and vodka, he didn’t know there were potential health effects, but he did wonder why after 4 drinks he had a pain in his chest, he stopped after our conversation. How about a college student who told me he takes prescription med’s and found himself unconscious for 2 days after just one monster energy drink? He regularily drinks coffee. One doctor recently said to me that we can expect more deaths, I think he is probably right. The problem is when someone suffers an arrhythmic event and dies, it’s often impossible to find the cause after death.
    If anyone has had a reaction it is important to report them, John Hopkins University has an ongoing study, and if your in Canada -Health Canada wants your adverse effects as well. If you have any questions you can contact me at aboutenergydrinks@yahoo.ca I would love to hear of your reactions as well. I have heard of several that occurred to just one energy drink, some of which were by regular coffee drinkers.
    Common sense says that if your tired, rest, or take something out of your schedule. They say that we have the first generation in history among us now, that isn’t expected to live as long as their parents, will energy drinks help play a role in this statistic, my gut says yes?

  2. christin says:

    energy drinkes are so unsafe for any human beeing if you agree with this you have real problems!!!if you had a chiled and they drank to much they could over dose on it and get hurt realy bad you shuld think of what it does to the kids somany kids have deen sent to the emergensy room becuase of it si that that one on!!

  3. Henry says:

    Just watched 16:9’s article on the health risks of energy drinks. Jim if you are reading this I feel sad for your loss.

    Personally I am in my late twenty’s and at my work one time they gave a whole bunch of people around my age and younger some energy drinks for free…I think it was Full Throttle.

    As soon as i drank a few sips my legs started to feel funny in a bad way and I threw the can away right away.

    I am also currently enrolled in College in event planning and taking my final course on Marketing as I plan to become an event planner.

    I realize energy drinks are available at a lot of events and next class I plan on bringing up the subject in class. I really think energy drinks are bad and even Fuze if you read the ingredients are not good for you either as I am quite allergic to many food items and I am now forced to read labels.

    My last point is that more people need to complain about this and don’t you find it funny that when energy drinks came out the news was all over it by suggesting NOT to drink alcohol with energy drinks, and yet they now sell energy drinks pre-mixed WITH alchol in it.

    Just go to almost any bar in Canada and ask for a Jagger Bomb. FYI it’s Jaggermister mixed with Red Bull.

    Thanks for listening.

  4. Henry says:

    Last comment to be made is I don’t drink coffee and when I had my first energy drink I didn’t drink any other caffeine products.

    I will be contacting Health Canada tomorrow and hope other do the same.

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