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Deaths Linked to Monster Energy Just the Latest Caffeine Controversy

For decades researchers have investigated the potentially harmful affects of caffeine, even as energy drinks surge in popularity.

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Monster Energy drink-- by Heather Kathryn Ross

A Maryland mother is taking Monster Beverage to court after the death of her 14-year-old daughter from a heart arrhythmia, which was exacerbated, she says, by drinking two large cans of Monster Energy drink. According to reporting by The New York Times, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has received reports of four other deaths and one non-fatal heart attack that may be linked to Monster products.

The question is, can caffeine really kill? According to cardiologist Dr. Sarah Samaan, the answer is a resounding "maybe."

“It is possible, but it would be very unusual for someone who’s fairly healthy," said Samaan, co-director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Institute at Baylor Heart Hospital and author of Best Practices for a Healthy Heart. "You can definitely overdo it, but it would be unlikely to be fatal... But when combined with other stimulants, there have definitely been cases of strokes, and in cases of abuse of caffeine pills, it can be dangerous.”

The Side Effects of Caffeine

Since the mid-1980s, researchers have focused attention on the risks of too much caffeine. A 1985 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that the incidence of heart palpitations, indigestion, tremors, headaches, and insomnia increased significantly when more caffeine was consumed by the study's subjects.

According to the study model, the risk of experiencing these symptoms is up to 70 percent greater for those who drink four to five cups of coffee or tea—or 240 milligrams (mg) of caffeine—per day than for those who don’t drink any caffeine. Just one of the 24-ounce Monster Energy drinks implicated in the Maryland teen’s death is enough to meet that 240 mg threshold.

How Much Is Too Much?

The average U.S. adult drinks 193 mg of caffeine per day, and research indicates that healthy adults can safely consume up to 300 mg during that time, without experiencing harmful symptoms. The real issue is the interaction of caffeine with pre-existing health problems, such as heart arrhythmias.

“For a healthy, normal adult, [a large dose of caffeine] won’t have much effect. But for a young person who has an underlying health problem, it may be more serious,” said Samaan. “You have caffeine interacting with the underlying pathology, and a young person whose body isn’t as used to caffeine as an adult’s might be.”

How Caffeine Affects the Body

Caffeine is a powerful nervous system stimulant. In moderate doses, it can increase mental alertness and decrease fatigue, but in larger quantities it can also trigger a rapid heart rate, dizziness, headaches, increased thirst, anxiety, and sleeplessness.  

“Caffeine can raise blood pressure within 30 minutes, and it can definitely increase the heart rate and make the heart more susceptible to rhythm problems,” said Samaan. “There will be some people who are affected and some who aren’t.”

Caffeine is also habit-forming, and can cause headaches, muscle pain, and fatigue during withdrawal.

“The more caffeine you drink, the more it takes to give you that caffeine buzz, so it’s addictive,” said Samaan. “It’s bad enough for that to happen to adults, but we don’t know what affect caffeine has on the developing brain.”

The Most Popular Drug

Since Red Bull was introduced to the U.S. market in 1997, energy drinks have enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity, especially among young adults.

In 2007, researchers in North Carolina surveyed college students and found that 51 percent consumed more than one energy drink per month to fight fatigue, increase energy, and drink more alcohol at parties. Around 20 percent of users reported weekly jolts and crashes, headaches, and heart palpitations. Shockingly, half of energy drink users surveyed reported regularly having three or more energy drinks with alcohol while partying.

“Combining caffeine with alcohol can mask the affects of alcohol," said Samaan. "You can drink a lot more alcohol before you realize you’re getting drunk, so that is potentially a problem... You might think that you can drive because you don’t feel tired or drunk, but in reality you are.”

Loose Regulation of the Energy Drink Industry

As The New York Times notes, energy drink makers say their products are “not recommended” for children under 12 and those who are “sensitive” to caffeine, but under current FDA rules, they do not have to disclose just how much caffeine is in individual products. And depending on whether drink makers market products as drinks or dietary supplements, different labeling rules apply.

“The problem is we just don’t have enough data to say ‘this amount of caffeine should not be consumed,’ but I do think that warning labels make sense—if you combine caffeine with stimulants, even legal ones, it can be a serious problem,” said Samaan. “There’s very loose FDA oversight of this sort of thing. And there’s just not enough money or people to look into every single manufacturer and make sure their labels are accurate.”

Samaan also stresses the need for further studies concerning supplemental stimulants, such as guarana, that may lurk in energy drink recipes.

Ultimately, the onus is on parents and policymakers to change the caffeine culture.

“Kids don’t realize that they may be taking their lives into their own hands," said Samaan. "There are no regulations as far as at what age you can buy these drinks, and I think that’s dangerous when looking at what happened to this young girl... A lot of parents have no idea what their kids are consuming, and I think it’s time for them to become more aware.”

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Tags: Awareness , Drugs , Public Health & Policy

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