Is it the energy drink?
Or is it the person?
Or is it both?
Those are some of the questions surrounding a new study that found that college students who consume a lot of energy drinks are more likely to become addicted to other substances as they get older.
Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Public Health surveyed nearly 1,100 college students for five years.
They tracked the students from the age of 21 until the age of 25.
About 51 percent of the students were heavy consumers of energy drinks. Another 17 percent were somewhat moderate users, while 20 percent didn’t consume the caffeine-laden drinks. The rest were students whose use declined over that time period.
The researchers said the students who drank a lot of energy drinks over a long period of time had a significantly higher risk of using cocaine or nonmedical prescription stimulants after they turned 25.
Those students also had a higher risk of alcohol abuse.
However, they did not have a higher risk of tobacco or marijuana use.
Amelia Arria, PhD, an associate professor of behavioral and community health, told Healthline more study is needed to determine the exact causes of this connection.
However, she said the results do raise some red flags.
“I think this is a reason to be conscious of energy drink consumption,” said Arria, who is also director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the university.
So, what’s up with these energy drinks?
Arria points to the energy drinks themselves as perhaps the main culprits.
She said her research took into account things such as past substance abuse to avoid skewing the results.
She also noted that students who either decreased their energy drink use or stopped it altogether had a lower risk of future substance abuse.
Arria said researchers aren’t yet sure how energy drinks might lead to addictions, but she noted the high caffeine levels in these popular liquids.
She said it’s possible the caffeine or other ingredients in energy drinks might in essence mimic the effects of certain drugs.
“It might intensify the feelings to want those substances,” she said.
Arria added this might also explain why the energy drinks didn’t lead to marijuana use or alcohol abuse.
The person and the environment
There’s also the argument that the type of person who pounds down energy drinks is the type of person who is likely to abuse drugs or alcohol.
Alexis Tindall, RD, LD, the lead clinician at the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio, told Healthline a person’s family history or other issues can be a factor.
She said it’s similar to other health-related problems such as eating disorders.
“It’s all about an addiction to something,” Tindall said.
She also noted a college campus environment can fuel an indulgence such as energy drinks.
The product is readily available and lots of other folks are using it.
“The environmental component is huge,” she said.
Tindall added that energy drinks might also seem harmless, even healthy, to these college students.
They perhaps aren’t aware of the ingredients or the side effects of things such as excessive caffeine.
College students’ sleep schedules, she added, might also play a part in energy drink consumption. Students may need a jolt after an all-night study session and crave the caffeine.
The immediate health problems can include heart issues and high blood pressure.
Then, when a student leaves that college environment, they may want to trade their energy drink addiction for something else.
Sometimes, something as dangerous as cocaine.
“There’s an alarming and scary component to all this,” said Tindall.
Arria hopes the study helps get the word out.
“The public should be aware of the risks,” she said.