Updated 31 March 2015

Energy drinks – the good, the bad and the ugly

Need a quick energy boost? Read this before you reach for that energy drink…

People who drink energy drinks often get way more than the energy boost they bargained for: energy-drink consumption often leads to toxic intakes of dangerous substances, according to the Australian Poisons Information Centre. This is particularly common among adolescents.

Read: The hidden kick of energy drinks

Serious adverse effects and toxicity are often seen with energy drinks containing caffeine, the Centre reported in the Journal of Australia. And when mixed with other stimulants such as alcohol, medication and narcotics, the adverse effects can be fatal or near-fatal.

The good

Promoted by manufacturers for their stimulant effects, consumers of energy drinks are promised increased attention, endurance and even weight loss. And, if the taglines are anything to go by, we can achieve all this while “having fun, kicking butt and making a difference”.

Although energy drinks are packaged like cool drinks and even sometimes taste like them, they’re very different. Their specific combination of ingredients – with the stimulant caffeine usually topping the list – creates an almost euphoric energy boost.

Caffeine, found in plants such as tea, coffee beans and guarana, can be a mild stimulant and cognitive enhancer that improves focus and mood at doses ranging from 5mg to 200mg. However, the caffeine content of energy drinks often far exceeds the recommended doses.

On average, a drip-brewed cup of coffee contains 100mg to 150mg caffeine, a can of cola 35mg to 45mg, and a cup of tea 40mg to 60mg. The caffeine content of energy drinks generally ranges from 50mg to a whopping 505mg per can or bottle, according to the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the US.

While the short-term energy boost provided by energy drinks may seem like a good idea to get you through a night of working, studying or partying, health experts warn against them.

The bad

Some of the adverse effects of energy drinks include insomnia, headaches, rapid heart rate and heart palpitations.

But, as discussed above, the real risk is caffeine intoxication, which can result in the above symptoms as well as vomiting, abnormal heart rhythm, seizures and, yes, death.
Of course, other dangerous stimulants may also be present in these drinks, which are poorly regulated.

Experts from California State University also specifically caution against the mixing of energy drinks with alcohol. When alcohol, a depressant, is mixed with the stimulants in energy drinks, it creates a toxic combination that experts call “wide-awake drunk”.

While people drinking this cocktail will have the same blood-alcohol content as they would have without drinking the energy drink, the stimulants create a more sobering effect. As a result, people tend to believe that they’re sober enough to drive a car. In other words, it leads to increased risk-taking behaviours – clearly a dangerous situation.

Natural energy alternatives

With all the research stacked up against energy drinks, it’s good to know that you can still get a boost without any side effects.

Try the following instead:
-    Learn to do yoga or meditation, both of which have been shown to boost energy levels.
-    Drink a tall, cool glass of water when you feel tired, as exhaustion is often the result of dehydration.
-    Follow a balanced diet that includes lean protein, fruit, vegetables, dairy, whole grains and healthy plant fats to boost energy.
-    Consider taking a multivitamin that’s high in vitamin B.
-    Or simply have a cup of coffee!

Read more:

Beware of energy drinks

VitaminWater: the truth

Top 10 apps and gadgets for fitness junkies

The Australian: Business Review
Frontiers in Public Health
- Reissig CJ, Strain EC, Griffiths RR. (2009) Caffeinated Energy Drinks: a growing problem
- California State University
- Government of Western Australia’s Country Health Service
- Medical Journal of Australia




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