Energy drinks are becoming increasingly popular. Walk into any convenience or grocery store, and you’ll see various brands of energy drinks like Red Bull, Adrenaline Rush, Full Throttle, and Monster Energy packed in small and bright cans. Rather than providing food energy (as measured in calories), these drinks are designed to increase a user’s mental alertness and physical performance by the addition of caffeine, vitamins (B vitamins in particular), amino acids (example taurine) and herbal supplements which may interact to provide a stimulant effect over and above that obtained from caffeine alone.
Everyone knows that these drinks can boost the energy levels, can increase the stamina and improve the performance. Students use them to pull all-night study sessions, athletes use them to boost their performance and millions around the world consume them to receive that extra energy needed to survive the day. But not everyone is aware that there are side effects to these drinks – both positive and negative.
Ingredients of Energy Drinks and their Effects
Every energy drink can contain any number of ingredients, but they are essentially soft drinks with high levels of caffeine and glucose, and different combinations of taurine, B vitamins, and various herbs.
Red Bull, one of the most popular energy drinks, contains nearly 80 mg of caffeine per can, which is no more than your average cup of coffee or or twice the caffeine in a cup of tea. Other energy drinks contain several times this amount. Other stimulants such as ginseng are often added to energy drinks and may enhance the effects of caffeine.
Unlike hot coffee or tea, which is sipped slowly, it’s common for typical energy drink consumers to drink large amounts quickly. Consumption of a single energy beverage will not lead to excessive caffeine intake; however, consumption of two or more beverages in a single day can. Too much caffeine can have adverse effects like nervousness, irritability, sleeplessness, increased blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmia), and stomach upset. Caffeine, like alcohol, works as a diuretic causing more urine output and leading to dehydration. Caffeine is also addictive, therefore the athlete may require higher and higher doses to achieve the same “caffeine high”.
The main ingredient in all “energy drinks” is carbohydrates or sugar. These cause the nervous system to become over stimulated, making people feel more energized. But, large amount of sugar can have laxative effects and also cause a sudden crash in energy levels. When sugar enters the blood stream and provides a “blast” of energy, the person feels good and energized. Once that sugar is burned up (usually in about 30 to 45 minutes) and leaves the blood stream, there is a sugar crash and energy high disappears. The person’s reflexes slow, they may feel dizzy, muscle power decreases and performance falls off.
Many energy drinks contain caffeine containing herbs such as guarana seeds, kola nuts, and Yerba mate leaves. The natural substances do not provide enough amounts of caffeine so manufacturers often add synthetic caffeine to boost the effect of the natural source. Other herbs include alleged immune system enhancers like astragalus, schizandrae and echinacea, and supposted memory boosters like ginkgo biloba and ginseng. However, there is no scientific evidence to support any of these assertions. Most of these herbs have not been shown to improve athletic or mental performance. Some of these herbs may interact with prescription medications to impede or enhance their chemical properties, a dangerous combination.
Taurine is an amino acid produced naturallu in our bidy. It helps to regulate normal heart-beats and muscle contractions. However, its effects on people when consumed as a drink additive remain unclear. Also, many energy drinks contain as much as 1000 mg of taurine per can; the safety of such large doses is not known.
Energy drinks like Red Bull contains 600 mg of glucuronolactone, a substance that is naturally found in the body. Energy drinks claim glucuronlactone detoxifies the body and protects against cancer. However, there is no scientific evidence to support these claims or on the safety of this combination.
B vitamins are an important part of a healthy diet and are essential for breaking down carbohydrates into glucose, which provides us energy, and for breaking down fats and proteins. They are sometimes added to energy drinks in small amounts. It makes energy drinks appear healthy, although they probably contribute little.
Energy Drinks and Alcohol
Energy drinks like Red Bull are often used as mixers with alcohol like vodka. Alcohol is a great depressant and energy drinks are stimulants. Energy drinks can lessen the subjective effects of alcohol intoxication like dizziness and headache without affecting the blood alcohol concentration. As a result, people may consume larger amounts of alcohol.
A recent study investigating the effects of energy drink consumption in combination with alcohol reported that although subjective alcohol related symptoms like headache and weekness were significantly reduced, but the participants performed just as poorly on objective measures of motor coordination and reaction time as they did after consumption of alcohol alone. Furthermore, both the caffeine in energy drinks and alcohol act as diuretics and so could lead to excessive dehydration. For these reasons, it is not recommended to consume energy drinks in combination with alcohol.
Consumption of Energy Drinks Before or During Exercise
Many athletes, particularly adolescents, use caffeine before and during competition to help boost physical performance. Research has found that consumption of moderate levels of caffeine prior to and during heavy exercise is safe and effective. However, the safety of consuming caffeine in combination with the herbal supplements found in many energy drinks, prior to or during exercise, has yet to be established.
Energy drinks should not be confused with sports drinks such as Gatorade, which are consumed to help people stay hydrated during exercise. Sports drinks are specially formulated to contain the appropriate balance of glucose and electrolytes for easy absorption, thereby providing fuel to working muscles, as well as water and electrolytes to maintain optimal hydration.
There are still many unknowns in the relationship between the ingredients in energy drinks and athletics. Until the safety of this practice can be established, consumption of energy drinks prior to or during exercise by individuals of any age is not recommended.
Energy drinks are a powerful stimulant and can boost athletic performance, but they are not optimal for proper hydration, carbohydrate delivery, or the appropriate amount of caffeine for athletics performance. It is known that large amounts of sugar and caffeine are harmful to our bodies. However, there is very little known about the various other substances found in many energy drinks. Medical professionals simply do not know the long-term effects of consuming these beverages.
Energy drinks consumption should be limited to adults, used with caution and consumed in moderation only on certain occasions. Better still, opt for healthy drinks.