How bad are energy drinks?
By Tristan Hoag
Posted in: Health
To answer the question ‘how bad are energy drinks’, you need to look at what's in them, and what they can do to your body.
Whether you're looking at a row of oversized cans in the refrigerated section of your local store, or the mini bottles by the register, energy drinks are everywhere. They're big business, with the energy drink market expected to exceed 60 billion by the 2020s, and where business gets big, there's always controversy. The prevalence of these drinks may prompt you to ask "How bad are energy drinks?" And you're right to ask!
And controversy is what you'll find when you do. The American Beverage Association backs the drinks, pointing out that the ingredients contained in them are common in other beverages and food items. At the same time, the World Health Organization considers them a cause for concern, particularly in the way they're marketed to younger audiences. Even the US military warns troops about energy drinks, which would be surprising if they were net beneficial for maintaining combat readiness.
To cut through the confusion, you need to take into account two things: What are the active ingredients in energy drinks, and what are the effects on your body when you consume them?
Knowing what’s in your energy drink
On the surface, the energy-generating ingredients in energy drinks sound simple enough, almost predictable:
- Caffeine: Anyone who gets ready for work in the morning with a cup of coffee knows the energizing properties of caffeine, and you shouldn’t be surprised to find it in your energy drink. It's the amount of caffeine in energy drinks that's the issue, as a single drink can have three or more times as much as an equivalently sized soda.
- Sugar: Also a no-brainer, sugar is in almost everything and provides quick-burn energy. Again, the amount of sugar is the concern, as a single energy drink can contain more than twice the recommended daily intake of sugars.
- Taurine: An amino acid that's found in the body and many common foods, taurine is linked to brain development, water level in the body, and athletic performance. As with any other ingredient in your energy drink, it's the amount that raises the question. Although taurine isn’t known to be dangerous, there haven’t been studies on the effects of elevated levels in the body.
- Guarana: This is a plant from Brazil that has a caffeine compound in it. The additional caffeine provided by the guarana isn’t usually included in the caffeine total on the nutritional information.
- Ginseng: Although this root is anecdotally related to boosted athletic performance, there isn’t any proof to back this claim. What it has been tied to is increased risk of insomnia, headaches and hypertension.
- Vitamin B: Despite the benefits of vitamin B, most energy drinks don’t contain enough to have any meaningful effects.
The ABA is quick to point out that these ingredients are common and can be found in many items on the shelves at grocery stores. Health professionals, though, argue that there hasn’t been enough research on their combined impact in large quantities, and how they might interact with certain medications. Bleach and ammonia, for example, are common items that can be found in most stores, but it doesn’t mean that they should be mixed together!
Understanding the impact of energy drinks
So, the controversy is set. On the one side is a multi-billion-dollar industry pointing out that the ingredients are common, and on the other side is a health industry warning that we haven’t studied them enough. So, how bad are energy drinks? Let’s take a look at the known effects:
- Faster heart rate
- Increased stress levels
- Higher blood pressure
- Thicker blood
- Stomach irritation
- Twitching muscles
Most of these symptoms are about what you would expect from a large dose of sugar and caffeine, with a few odd variations. The increased blood pressure and thickening of the blood is thought to be tied to the taurine, which regulates water levels in the body.
In addition, there is little research done into the combination of energy drinks with medications for ADHD and depression. Many people mix energy drinks and alcohol, because the caffeine can mask the impact of the alcohol for a while.
The sleep impacts were the final straw for the military, which noticed that soldiers who drank three or more energy drinks each day were getting on average four hours less sleep. This sleep loss was leaving the soldiers fatigued during briefings and guard duty.
Almost 1500 people were hospitalized for energy drink related problems in 2011, and since 2004, there have been over 34 deaths linked to consuming several energy drinks, with the large caffeine dosage pushing the victim into symptomatic arrhythmias. Although this is a tiny number for the size of the population, it’s certainly enough to make you think twice before you drink twice!
Drinking energy drinks safely
What everyone seems to acknowledge in regards to the side effects of energy drinks is that they are only dangerous when consumed in large quantities. According to Cheryl K, a medical Expert on JustAnswer;
“Drinking them in moderation is OK, but I don't recommend more than 1 every 1 to 2 days, as it can have the effect of speeding of the heart rate and upset stomach. If you have had reactions before. then I do not suggest that you do this, as every individual is different and can react differently to combining certain foods, drinks and medication.”
So, if you limit yourself to no more than one energy drink per day, you shouldn’t be too bad off, as long as you don’t notice any problematic side effects.
One final bit of food for thought when considering the safety of energy drinks is the fact that they're marketed to younger audiences, who often lack an understanding of the dangers they're playing with. Teens and young adults are more likely to consume multiple energy drinks, and to mix them with alcohol. This is why the World Health Organization is pushing for restrictions to be placed on energy drinks, such as:
- Capping the amount of caffeine allowed in a beverage
- Restriction of sales to children and adolescents
- Limiting marketing to younger audiences
- Raising awareness of the risks associated with energy drinks
- Increased research into the associated health impacts
At the end of the day, energy drinks aren’t really that bad, at least in reasonable quantities. Provided you're using moderation, avoiding dehydration, and not taking them with alcohol, feel free to crack open a can – but remember to stop there!
For the answers to your health questions such as "How bad are energy drinks?", the Experts on JustAnswer are a convenient and affordable source for accurate information. The fast answers you get from them can save you the time and expense of visiting your doctor.
Have you had a bad experience with energy drinks? Share in the comments!