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Are energy drinks harmful? What you should know

December 15, 2009 12:58 IST

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 (Vitamin B 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 energy levels, increase stamina and improve task performance. Students use them to pull all-night study sessions, athletes use them to stay at the top of their game 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.

Aastha Bhatia*, a 22-year-old dance choreographer, says that energy drinks become an addiction, and actually had a negative effect on her health and happiness.

"Two years ago, when I was studying for my BCom degree, I used to attend university every morning and then dance practice at night. It got to the point where I was waking up at 6:30 am to study, and having an energy drink before my lectures just to stay awake," explains Aastha. "Then, in the evening, before dance class started, I'd have another can. After a few months, I noticed that I needed two cans in the morning and two cans in the evening for the same effect. Sometimes I even had three during dance practice, if I was really tired. But then my sleep pattern was getting really disrupted, and I wasn't eating much at all, because I always felt nauseous; I guess from all the caffeine."

So Aastha decided to quit drinking cold turkey, but had tremendous trouble. "If I didn't have at least one energy drink in the morning, I was really lethargic and had a bad headache all day. My dad, who used to be a big coffee drinker, told me I had developed a caffeine habit. I felt so pathetic. Who gets addicted to energy drinks? I don't drink alcohol, I don't smoke cigarettes. But I seriously can't kick this?"

Finally, after scoring poorly on her exams, which she attributes to her energy drink consumption and lack of sleep, Aastha managed to stop completely.

"Now I do yoga and eat fresh fruit in the morning, and have more fruit and a cup of tea before dance practice. I feel much, much better these days," she says.

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, Vitamin B and various herbs.

Caffeine

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 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 upsets. 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'.

Carbohydrates

The main ingredient in all energy drinks is carbohydrates or sugar. These cause the nervous system to become over-stimulated, making people feel more energised. But, large amounts 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 energised. Once that sugar is burned up (usually in about 30 to 45 minutes) and leaves the blood stream, there is a sugar crash and the energy high disappears. The person's reflexes slow, they may feel dizzy, muscle power decreases and performance falls off.

Herbs

Many energy drinks contain herbs such as guarana seeds, kola nuts, and Yerba mate leaves. These 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 supposed 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. And some of these herbs may interact with prescription medications to impede or enhance their chemical properties, a dangerous combination.

Other ingredients

Taurine is an amino acid produced naturally in our bodies. 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 1,000 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 that glucuronlactone detoxifies the body and protects against cancer. However, there is no scientific evidence to support these claims or the safety of this combination.

Vitamin B is an important part of a healthy diet and is essential for breaking down carbohydrates into glucose, which provides us energy, and for breaking down fats and proteins. It is sometimes added to energy drinks in small amounts and while it makes them appear healthy, it probably contributes little.

"I think energy drinks should be made illegal," says Amit Maini*, a 28-year-old entrepreneur.

A year ago, when Maini and his cousin were getting their business ready for opening, he was working 80-hour work weeks.

"I was there 6 days a week, 12-15 hours a day," he remembers. "My desk used to be literally piled high with empty energy drink cans. Most days I'd have two cans before lunch, without even really thinking about it. And I was spending 200-300 bucks a day on them!"

But a routine trip to the family physician for a check-up revealed something startling: Amit's blood-pressure had gone from perfectly normal to dangerously high. He'd also gained 8 kgs of weight in less than six months. The doctor advised him to cut caffeine completely out of his diet and to begin exercising.

"It's been about 15 months now, and I've lost all the weight I put on, plus another 5 kgs," says Amit. "And my BP is lower than it was before I started my company! Now when I see an energy drink, it actually makes me feel sick to my stomach. I used to think energy drinks helped me squeeze more hours out of the day, but now I know I was just burning the candle at both ends. That stuff is no good."

Energy drinks and alcohol

Energy drinks 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.

Thirty one-year-old Siddharth Krishnani*, who manages a pub in Mumbai, says the most popular drink with the young generation is Red Bull and Vodka.

"It's the double multiplier effect," he explains. "You have a stimulant in the caffeine and a depressant in the alcohol. So instead of getting jittery like you would with too much caffeine by itself, or sleepy and drunk with just alcohol, you get a mixture. And it helps you to drink all night. I've seen people who normally have two Vodka Sprites having four Vodka Red Bulls, because the caffeine keeps them alert. According to me, it's really easy to drink too much of that stuff, and it's really easy to get dehydrated. I don't touch it at all."

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, the participants performed just as poorly on objective measures of motor coordination and reaction time as they did after consumption of alcohol by itself. 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 competitions 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 athletic 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.


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