Editorial: The truth about energy drinks


Are energy drinks bad for you?

Energy drink

Energy drink

We have all been there.  It was a long night, and you tossed and turned.  You may have had a late night of work followed by a dinner that haunted you.  You may have even had a nightcap or two.  Now, it is 9am, and you are dragging at work or school.  Now, that energy drink is calling your name.  It really is easy to give in and reach for a tall, monster-sized drink of instant octane in the cooler.  The questions are if they are really that bad for you or is this just hype from the healthy nuts?  

A popular part of the American diet, ou beloved energy drinks could soon be under fire by the band of legislators and nanny state protectors that think that they need to save us from our unhealthy habits.  If they get there way, we will no longer be able to buy that can on Monster drink or Red Bull at you local grocer or convenience store.  In England, they have fixed their sights on the youth but many feel that it should be banned for all.  The harmful side effects are not just limited to youth, but the children are smaller so they can be more severe in that group.  

To answer the question of whether an energy drink is a terrible addition to your diet, you must first know what an energy drink is.   An energy drink is simply a type of beverage marketed to enhanced levels of mental alertness and physical stimulation.  In other words, they wake you up and increase your mental focus and physical abilities.  Do they really work?  Yes, caffeine and many of the ingredients have been research-proven to increase mental alertness and concentration.  The problem is that most of the energy drinks have never been proven to be any more effective than a regular cup of coffee.  

So what ingredients cause this increase in energy? Most variations include high levels of caffeine – usually roughly 80mg in an 8-ounce can.  This amount equates to 240-32omg per the average full can of some of these mega-cans that they sell.  The caffeine content of coffee is about 40mg per 8-ounce cup.  The drinks also often contain “natural herbs” such as ginseng, guarana, carnitine and taurine and vitamins such as Bs that assist in maximizing the alertness of the drinker.  Some of them even contain massive amounts of sugar to perpetuate the energy buzz.  

Energy drinks

Energy drinks

Sounds great, but are they healthy?  The manufacturers promise to increase your put some pep in your step. The truth is that energy drinks are not the healthiest way to get that extra spring in your step or mental clarity.  They have nearly zero health benefits.  In fact, most have is massive amounts of caffeine and sugar.  Empty sugar calories are not the way to increase your energy.  Also, drinking too much caffeine can raise your blood pressure and heart rate, and cause anxiety and insomnia.  Insomnia is not the best way to increase your alertness over time.  

Summary of other safety concerns:

  • Most energy drinks have at least 80mg of caffeine.  Large amounts of caffeine can cause severe heart and blood vessel problems.   These include elevated blood pressure and pulse but can result in irregular heart rhythms and death.   
  • Caffeine and many of the other ingredients have been associated with anxiety, sleep problems, digestive problems, and dehydration.  
  • Guarana and synephrine can also be found in some of these drinks.  They are both similar to caffeine and can magnify the side effects and risk but are not included in the caffeine content.  
  • A single container of an energy drink may contain over 50 grams of added sugar which is a lot of empty calories.   Heck, 50 grams is more sugar than most should eat in a day.  

You absolutely should not use it as a mixer with alcohol or drink it while you are drunk.  Forget the fact that you are more likely to over drink the stuff while drunk.  The fact is that energy drinks keep the mind energized.  Do you really want to be drunk with lots of energy?  People who combine caffeinated drinks with alcohol are more likely to be unable to tell how intoxicated they are.  They may feel less intoxicated than they would if they had not consumed caffeine, but their motor coordination and reaction time may be just as impaired.  Caffeine does not prevent you from being caught at checkpoints but may increase the risk of making a poor decision to get behind the wheel in the first place.   It is just not a good mixture.  

The bottom line: The amount of caffeine in an energy drink is double that of most coffee.  The risk of side effects or harm is not worth the short-lived energy burst.  Although an occasional energy drink is probably not harmful, I recommend a cup of coffee or black tea if you need a pick me up because:

  • Evidence, anecdotal and scientific, indicates that energy drinks can have serious health effects, particularly in those that are younger and older.  Children through young adults should not drink them.  Most older adults have preexisting conditions such as high blood pressure and should avoid them at all cost.
  • In scientific studies, energy drinks may enhance alertness and improve reaction time, but there is limited to no evidence that the effect is improved over a standard cup of coffee.  
  • Drinks vary from brand to brand.  The amounts of caffeine in energy drinks vary widely, and the actual caffeine content may not be identified easily.
  • Caffeine overdose risk is higher in these drinks.  The worst part is that the cold nature of energy drinks allow users to drink them too fast causing caffeine or ingredient overdose.  
  • Coffee has stood the test of time and is relatively safe.  It is a much safe option over energy drinks.  
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About the Author

I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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