Whether it’s before a long day at the office, a hard workout, or an all-night study session, many of us turn to energy drinks when we need a little boost. Energy drinks are a multi-billion dollar industry. If their popularity is any indication of their effectiveness, they appear to be working. But are these drinks doing us more harm than good?
Despite how popular energy drinks are, the term “healthy energy drink” is still an oxymoron. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 20,000 emergency room visits in the United States in 2011 involved energy drinks. More than half of those visits were due to energy drinks alone. The other cases involved people mixing alcohol or other stimulants with energy drinks. According to the Center for Science in Public Interest, energy drinks have been linked to 34 deaths since 2004. Most of these were from people taking 5-Hour Energy.
Most energy drinks pack a serious caffeine punch. Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. It gives you energy and makes you more alert. The average 8-ounce cup of coffee contains about 95–200 milligrams of caffeine, according to the Mayo Clinic. In comparison, a 2-ounce 5-Hour Energy shot contains about the same amount of caffeine (200–207 mg).
Caffeine is relatively safe in small doses, such as in a cup of coffee or tea. But it can be dangerous in large doses (over 400 mg), according to an info sheet published by the University of California, Davis. An overdose of caffeine can cause symptoms such as:
- irregular or rapid heartbeat
- trouble breathing
Excessive caffeine consumption can cause health issues for:
- people unaware of a sensitivity to caffeine
- people who have issues with blood pressure or heart rate regulation
- pregnant women
Energy drinks can be appealing to children and teens because they are available at local stores and are legal for all ages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50 percent of teens say they consume energy drinks, and 75 percent of school districts don’t have a policy regulating their sale on campus. In general, regulation of energy drinks in the United States is lax. However, there is a movement calling for stricter regulation and content labeling, as well as the addition of health warnings.
Children and teens are particularly vulnerable to energy drinks as their bodies generally aren’t used to caffeine. One study found that caffeine intoxication, or drinking too much caffeine, leads to caffeine addiction and potential withdrawal. The study concludes that energy drinks may be a gateway to other forms of drug dependence.
Sweeteners and stimulants
Usually there are other stimulants besides caffeine in energy drinks. Additives such as guarana and ginseng are common. These can amplify the drink’s energy boost and also the adverse effects of caffeine.
Energy drinks often contain large amounts of sugar to aid their energy-boosting effects. A single serving of an energy drink can have more than 30 grams of sugar, according to scientists at UC Davis. Sugary drinks have been linked to obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, according to the American Heart Association. This study also shows that added sugar consumption increases your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
The UC Davis info sheet lists several ingredients that may not be familiar to you. Many of these ingredients are new to commercial products, so not much research has been done on them. Despite claims made by producers, their effects are unknown. Currently, there isn’t enough data to establish the safety of these ingredients:
- panax ginseng
- super citrimax
In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of energy drinks that contain alcohol. It declared them to be unsafe. This study shows how mixing alcohol and energy drinks can lead to drinking too much alcohol. Energy drinks keep people awake longer. This can increase the amount of alcohol people drink. High alcohol consumption is linked to sexual assault, driving under the influence, and other risky behaviors.
It’s safe to have caffeine in moderation. But if a cup of joe a day doesn’t give you a big enough boost, try some of these alternatives:
- Drink water: Staying hydrated helps keep your body running, according to this study. Drink a glass of water when you wake up, with meals, and before, during, and after workouts.
- Eat protein and carbohydrates: According to the American Heart Association, they are great fuel for a workout. Carbohydrates provide your muscles with energy, while protein helps build them. Try chocolate milk, fruit, and a boiled egg, or a peanut butter and banana smoothie.
- Take vitamins: Naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium, help your body produce energy. A vitamin or mineral deficiency may cause fatigue. If you feel like you always need an energy boost, talk to your doctor about having a nutritional assessment or adding a vitamin supplement to your diet. You can also add more vitamin- and mineral-rich foods to your diet, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and yogurt.
- Be active: When you exercise, your serotonin and endorphin levels increase shortly after, which helps you feel better. Also, those who exercise regularly often have more energy.
While energy drinks may seem like a quick fix for fatigue, the short- and long-term effects of drinking them outweigh the benefits. Energy drinks have been linked to obesity, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular issues. A single energy drink can contain more sugar and caffeine than you should have in a day. Plus, many energy drinks have other ingredients that haven’t been tested well enough to know their effects on the body. There are many alternatives to energy drinks that offer a healthy energy boost and won’t let you down.