Side Effects Of Energy Drinks You Must Know

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Side Effects Of Energy Drinks

Thanks to the extremely high level of caffeine in them, energy drinks when consumed excessively or with alcohol can trigger physiological and behavioral side effects. These range from heart palpitations and dehydration to risky sexual behavior, violence, and substance abuse. Other effects of energy drinks include weight gain, dental decay, and insulin resistance – largely because of the high sugar content in the drinks. Young adult users have also been known to experience energy highs and lows, along with dehydration and weakness.

Energy drinks were first introduced in Europe in 1987, and since then, their popularity and usage have soared, with hundreds of brands crowding the global market. Are energy drinks genuinely what they’re touted to be – a refreshing, energizing beverage for a fitness conscious society? Or is a health crisis looming behind their cool, sporty image?

Concerns About Energy Drinks

Energy drinks may have firmly planted themselves in our everyday diet, but there is also increasing concern globally over their consumption and impact. Why so? For one, energy drinks are extremely popular among young people. In the US alone, 12–17 year-olds constitute 31 percent and 18–24 year-olds 34 percent of regular energy drink consumers.1 A bigger concern is the increasing trend of combining energy drinks with alcohol. They have been getting a lot of bad press in recent years, with reports of unprovoked attacks, driving accidents, seizures, psychosis, and even a few fatalities because of irregular heartbeat and caffeine overdose.

While research has still to come up with sufficient hard evidence on the long-term health risks that young energy drink users face, researchers are warning of the possibility of a looming public health crisis.2

Constituents Of Energy Drinks

Energy drinks are largely made up of caffeine, along with small quantities of taurine, B vitamins, and guarana. Some brands may contain extracts of herbs such as ginseng, gingko biloba extract, and milk thistle. Energy drinks also contain large quantities of sugar.3 A 500 ml can of energy drink contains approximately 54 g of sugar – that’s about 13 teaspoonfuls of sugar!

Side Effects Of Energy Drinks

Caffeine Overdose

The health concerns around energy drinks focus to a large degree on their caffeine content. A 16-oz can of energy drink delivers about 70 mg to 200 mg of caffeine at the very least to your system.4 This goes up to 500 mg in some products.5 High doses of caffeine can also lead to palpitations, hypertension, seizures, calcium deficiency, and sometimes even death.6

Weight Gain

Ironically, for a product with a “sporty” image, energy drinks bring in the risk of obesity in the long term. A 16-oz can usually contains about 220 calories, most of it coming from the high sugar content.7

Dehydration, Fainting, And Weakness

These tend to occur when energy drinks are consumed exclusively during bouts of extreme exercise or sports, without water and other fluids. Instead of hydrating the body, the high levels of caffeine in energy drinks can affect the kidneys’ capacity to retain fluids, leading to increased urination and, therefore, dehydration. Reduced sweating may also lead to a dangerous spike in body temperature. Dehydration and high body temperature can have dangerous consequences such as kidney failure, muscle breakdown, and heat stroke.8

Dental Problems

High sugar levels in energy drinks can also potentially wear down tooth enamel and lead to dental decay.9 The acidic nature of energy drinks can also cause dental cavities and dental erosion, leading to hypersensitivity.10

Side Effects Of Energy Drink Cocktails With Alcohol

Alcohol and energy drinks have contrasting effects on the human body. While alcohol has depressant properties, caffeine in energy drinks provides quick shots of energy. When drunk together, caffeine may help mask the sedating properties of alcohol. In surveys, people who take such combined drinks say they feel less intoxicated and capable of performing better at tasks that demand good coordination and judgment, like driving. However, the fact that they still don’t get through sobriety tests is proof that energy drinks do not compensate for alcohol-impaired functions like judgment, wakefulness, and attentiveness. They may feel alert and less drunk, but this is only an illusion.11

Here’s some sobering information: as compared to a non-user, an individual who takes just six or more energy drinks in a month is three times more likely to smoke cigarettes and abuse prescription drugs. Such an individual is also twice as likely to indulge in alcohol abuse and smoke weed, say experts.12

Risky Behavior And Other Psychological Effects

Adolescents And Children

Regular consumers of energy drinks from this category face a host of health risks. Consumption of these drinks has been linked to behavioral changes, altered cognitive abilities, tobacco use, binge drinking, and sensation seeking.13

College Students/Young Adults

For the uninitiated, there’s a whole, youth-centric vocabulary that’s grown around caffeinated alcohol drinks. Jagerbombs are urban youth slang for energy drinks mixed with alcohol, while the largest group of consumers – white males and intramural athletes (sports persons from within a community) – are identified as “toxic jocks”.14 15

The sad truth is that “toxic jocks” and others of their ilk may face greater dangers than those who have only alcohol. Apart from adverse health effects such as the ones listed above, worldwide research records varied examples of impulsive, high-risk behavior indulged in by youthful consumers of these mixed beverages. There are instances of young clubbers being taken advantage of sexually; others indulge in unprotected sex while under the influence of these drinks.16

More examples of risk-taking behavior that have been observed are:

  • Drunk driving
  • Accepting rides with intoxicated drivers and getting injured
  • Getting involved in violence
  • Accepting dangerous dares
  • Not using seat belts
    17

Effects Of Other Ingredients

Little is known about the combined effect of components other than caffeine and sugar used in energy drinks.18 These include ingredients such as taurine, guarana, ginseng, and glucurolactone. Experts, however, are of the opinion that these ingredients are not present in sufficient quantities in energy drinks to offer either health benefits or set off adverse side effects. They do add that more research is needed to understand their combined effect along with caffeine in energy drinks.

Energy Drinks And Sports Drinks: What’s The Difference?

Being caffeinated, energy drinks provide temporary bursts of energy, which could be useful in endurance sports and rigorous workouts. Caffeine is a known “ergogenic” substance which delivers a quick, powerful burst of energy and enhances athletic performance. Ironically, caffeine is on the International Olympic Committee’s list of banned products.19

Sports drinks, however, have no stimulants. They contain simple carbohydrates in the form of sugar and electrolytes, formulated to hydrate the body and replace the water and salts lost during any form of vigorous or demanding activity.20

Safe Limits For Energy Drinks

Given the easy availability of energy drinks and their widespread use, it’s important to know where to draw the line. One research paper makes the following recommendations for safely consuming energy drinks:

  • Drink no more than 1 can (16 oz) of an energy drink per session.
  • Avoid mixing alcohol with energy drinks.
  • Overdosing on energy drinks during workouts or physical activity can raise your blood pressure and cause dehydration. Instead, have plain water and the occasional sports drink. Do read the label on the latter to ensure it contains no stimulants.

Avoid taking energy drinks if:

  • You are under treatment for high blood pressure.
  • You have a serious heart ailment.
  • You are pregnant. Energy drinks may cause miscarriages in late pregnancy. It has also been linked to stillbirths and low birth weight.21

References   [ + ]

1, 8, 9, 12, 20.Energy Drinks. American College of Medical Toxicology.
2, 10, 17, 21.Breda, João Joaquim, Stephen Hugh Whiting, Ricardo Encarnação, Stina Norberg, Rebecca Jones, Marge Reinap, and Jo Jewell. “Energy drink consumption in Europe: a review of the risks, adverse health effects, and policy options to respond.” Frontiers in public health 2 (2014).
3, 4, 14, 19.Higgins, John P., Troy D. Tuttle, and Christopher L. Higgins. “Energy beverages: content and safety.” In Mayo Clinic Proceedings, vol. 85, no. 11, pp. 1033-1041. Elsevier, 2010.
5.Breda, João Joaquim, Stephen Hugh Whiting, Ricardo Encarnação, Stina Norberg, Rebecca Jones, Marge Reinap, and Jo Jewell. “Energy drink consumption in Europe: a review of the risks, adverse health effects, and policy options to respond.” Frontiers in public health 2 (2014).[ref]

Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and can increase a person’s heart rate and blood pressure. When caffeine intake crosses 200 mg, it can trigger a host of adverse side effects, ranging from insomnia, headache, nervousness, vomiting, and nausea to irregular heartbeat.[ref]Higgins, John P., Troy D. Tuttle, and Christopher L. Higgins. “Energy beverages: content and safety.” In Mayo Clinic Proceedings, vol. 85, no. 11, pp. 1033-1041. Elsevier, 2010.

6.Breda, João Joaquim, Stephen Hugh Whiting, Ricardo Encarnação, Stina Norberg, Rebecca Jones, Marge Reinap, and Jo Jewell. “Energy drink consumption in Europe: a review of the risks, adverse health effects, and policy options to respond.” Frontiers in public health 2 (2014).[ref]

Energy Highs And Lows

Thanks to the sugar and caffeine content, regular consumption of energy drinks can lead to energy highs followed by crashes. Among teens, disturbed sleep and poor attentiveness a day after drinking these beverages have also been reported.[ref]Energy Drinks. American College of Medical Toxicology.

7.Breda, João Joaquim, Stephen Hugh Whiting, Ricardo Encarnação, Stina Norberg, Rebecca Jones, Marge Reinap, and Jo Jewell. “Energy drink consumption in Europe: a review of the risks, adverse health effects, and policy options to respond.” Frontiers in public health 2 (2014).[ref] The fact that these are empty calories don’t help either – you are bound to feel hungry in no time at all. Factor in the calories from a couple of cans in addition to the food you chow down and your daily calorie intake is sure to go off the charts.

Insulin Resistance

The large amount of sugar in energy drinks can also lead to insulin resistance. Over time, the body’s ability to produce sufficient insulin to regulate blood sugar levels decreases. Regular consumption of energy drinks could even lead to the onset of diabetes.[ref]Higgins, John P., Troy D. Tuttle, and Christopher L. Higgins. “Energy beverages: content and safety.” In Mayo Clinic Proceedings, vol. 85, no. 11, pp. 1033-1041. Elsevier, 2010.

11.Energy Drinks “Energy Drinks”). American College of Medical Toxicology.
13.Breda, João Joaquim, Stephen Hugh Whiting, Ricardo Encarnação, Stina Norberg, Rebecca Jones, Marge Reinap, and Jo Jewell. “Energy drink consumption in Europe: a review of the risks, adverse health effects, and policy options to respond.” Frontiers in public health 2 (2014).[ref]

A Purdue University study with adolescent mice found that consuming high-caffeine drinks mixed with alcohol alters the brain chemically in ways similar to cocaine use. These effects can continue into adulthood in the way individuals are able to deal with addictive substances. While more research on the effect of caffeinated alcohol on adolescents is needed, the study cautions that adolescents who are regularly exposed to such drinks run the risk of substance abuse as adults, to compensate for the neurochemical and behavioral changes in their brains during their younger years.[ref]Mixing energy drinks, alcohol may affect adolescent brains like cocaine. Purdue University.

15.Johnson, Sean J., Chris Alford, Joris C. Verster, and Karina Stewart. “Motives for mixing alcohol with energy drinks and other non-alcoholic beverages and its effects on overall alcohol consumption among UK students.” Appetite 96 (2016): 588-597.
16, 18.Warnings issued over energy drinks. NHS.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.

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