Energy Drinks

Energy drinks have become quite popular over the last few years.  However, because of their increased popularity and more widespread use, their potentially harmful effects are also coming to light.

Energy drinks were first introduced in the United States in 1997.  Hundreds of brands are currently available including the widely recognized 5 Hour Energy, Red Bull, and Monster drinks.  They are generally consumed by all age groups, but have become particularly trendy among young adults, the 18- to 24-year-olds.   

In contrast to soft drinks and sports drinks, energy drinks are marketed with claims that they can boost performance, attention and mood.  Most contain caffeine, sugars, vitamins and other supplements.  Soft drinks (e.g., Pepsi and Coke) typically contain carbonated water, flavorings and sweeteners.  Sports drinks (e.g. Gatorade and Powerade) contain water, sugars and electrolytes.  

From a health standpoint, the main concern regarding the energy drinks is their caffeine content.  The amount of caffeine these products contain can vary from 80 mg up to nearly 500 mg. per serving.  As a reference, a typical cup of brewed coffee has 75 to 150 mg. of caffeine; a typical caffeinated soft drink has about 35 mg; and tea has about 20 mg.  In addition to the straight caffeine ingredient, some of the supplements in these drinks are also caffeine containing, such as guarana.  

One cannot dispute the “beneficial” stimulant effects of caffeine causing increased alertness, mood, and concentration.  However, high levels of caffeine can also have annoying and potentially dangerous effects on the body.  These include rapid heart rate, palpitations, blood pressure elevation, anxiety and insomnia.  In some cases it can lead to acute caffeine intoxication and death (the effects on the heart could intensify an undiagnosed heart condition).  With habitual use, caffeinated beverages may lead to caffeine withdrawal symptoms.  These include headache and irritability.

The list of supplements and other additives contained in these energy drinks is quite long.  Some include herbal products (guarana, ginseng, and yohimbine) and many contain B vitamins and amino acids.  Many of these ingredients, such as the vitamins and amino acids, are essentially safe when taken in recommended doses.  However, because the manufacturing and labeling of these products are not as tightly regulated as pharmaceuticals, one cannot be entirely sure how much of what substances one is consuming.  Excessive vitamin ingestion can also have troublesome effects.

Of additional concern is the fact that many of these additives and herbal ingredients can also stimulate the body’s central nervous and cardiovascular systems.  This includes substances such as bitter orange and ephedra.  The combination of these chemicals’ effects with the excitatory effects of caffeine could present a real problem in some individuals, especially those with heart disease and other chronic medical conditions such as diabetes.  

Finally, many of the additives in these drinks can interact with certain prescription and over-the-counter medications that an individual may be taking.  It is always prudent to consult with your doctor before ingesting any over-the-counter supplements, whether they are pills or beverages.

The content in this column is for informational purposes only.  Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment.  Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.

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