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Taking the Buzz out of Energy Drinks

By Michael Williams

There is not enough time in the day. Whether for work or fun, ourselves or others, we too often squeeze the day dry looking for an extra hour, 15 minutes or even a spare moment. This daily pursuit becomes tiring, yet some of us make a lifestyle of living on the end of the clock.

This is where the energy drinks market has stepped in to convert our sleep deprivation into a 12.5 billion dollar industry. But what exactly are we buying into when we try to ignore sleep and proceed to run on empty?

The recent use of energy drinks has skyrocketed. These stimulant cocktails of caffeine, sugar, and herbal additives are readily available in stores and vending machines. These drinks carrying claims of increased stamina, performance and other purported health benefits have propelled into the mainstay of productivity in a sleep-deprived society.

So what exactly are we drinking? The main active ingredients are usually caffeine and sugar. A typical energy drink may contain anywhere from 100–350 mg of caffeine (equal to about 1–3.5 cups of coffee).

Next, they are often loaded with sugar, leading to a quick surge of energy and excess calories. For instance, some Rockstar brand energy drinks contain the same amount of sugar as six Krispy Kreme donuts. The remaining ingredients are often a mixture of herbal supplements. Numerous research has shown these mixtures of unregulated herbal additives provide very little scientific basis for the drink’s health claims, and even worse, in large doses they may be harmful.

The most commonly reported negative effects of these drinks are increased or irregular heart rate, sleep disturbances and increased blood pressure, which may lead to major complications in individuals with high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes. Moreover, for these individuals, the herbal supplements in the energy drinks may lead to unfavorable interactions with prescription medicine. Noting this, it is not surprising that a recent 2013 government study reports that energy drink-based emergency room visits have doubled in the last five years.

To determine the health risks of energy drinks, there are a many things to consider. These considerations include the amount and frequency of consumption, the age of the drinker and if the drinks are combined with substances like alcohol.

While the infrequent intake of one drink is unlikely to be a problem in an otherwise healthy adult, excessive or routine consumption significantly increases the likelihood of complications and dependency. This is further indicated by recent research that has shown that the rise in energy drink-related hospital visits and negative health events is largely due to excessive intake. Moreover, this recent rise in ER visits has also highlighted that children and adolescents are the most vulnerable and susceptible to the negative health effects of energy drinks.

The bottom line is energy drinks are a mixed bag. For healthy adults an infrequent use may not present a problem. But in adults with high blood pressure or heart disease, these drinks may be particularly harmful. For children and teens, it is strongly urged by the American Academy of Pediatrics that these drinks be completely avoided due to the increased health risks.

In a final thought, it is important to ask why we are so tired. The majority of America does not get enough sleep or physical activity, is prone to meal skipping, dehydration and often lack nutrient-rich “energizing” foods (i.e. fruits and vegetables) in their diet. When we take energy drinks to address the symptoms of these problems and ignore the actual causes, we may be setting ourselves up for larger, more complex problems in the future.

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