By Michael J. Breus, PhD
Those fun, harmless-looking energy drinks in the colorful bottles that you see everywhere these days? Those beverages with “natural” ingredients, marketed to all of us — especially our kids — as an alternative to soda? Turns out these drinks aren’t so harmless.
Concerns about the effects of energy drinks are continuing to grow, as new research shows these drinks can cause blood pressure to rise, as well as bringing about heart palpitations and arrhythmias, anxiety, and insomnia.
Researchers in Poland conducted a small study with 18 healthy young adults ages 20-35. The young adults were asked to consume one of two energy drinks: one contained 120 milligrams (mg) of caffeine and the other contained 360 mg of caffeine. (A regular 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee has 100-200 mg of caffeine.) A third group drank a placebo, which contained no caffeine or other stimulants. The researchers then took measurements of blood pressure and heart rate at 15, 30, and 90 minutes after consumption.
They found that the less-caffeinated drink did not significantly affect either blood pressure or heart rate, compared with the placebo group. The more highly caffeinated drink, on the other hand, had a significant effect on both.
Among those who drank the 360-mg caffeine energy drink:
•Blood pressure went up by an average of 9 points for both systolic and diastolic pressure.
•Heart rate went up by an average of 5 beats per minute.
•People in this group also developed irregular heartbeats, racing heartbeats, anxiety and insomnia.
This study isn’t the first to find a link between high-caffeine, high-sugar energy drinks and elevated blood pressure, cardiac disturbances, anxiety, and sleep disturbances. Other recent research has returned similarly disturbing results:
A study conducted at the University of Arkansas examined the effects of energy drinks on blood pressure among healthy, non-smoking adults ages 18-45. The results reported blood pressure was significantly elevated in those who drank one serving of an energy drink that contained 80 mg of caffeine, and 1000 mg of taurine, an amino acid commonly found in energy drinks.
An Australian research project collected information about the health hazards of energy drinks by analyzing data associated with consumption of energy drinks and calls to a poison information hotline. Between 2004 and 2010, the poison hotline took a total of 297 phone calls from people (median age: 17) who reported having consumed energy drinks.
•Over the 6-year study period, the number of calls per year increased significantly, from 12 in 2004 to 65 in 2010.
•100 callers also reported consuming other substances along with the energy drinks, most often alcohol or another product containing caffeine.
•87% of those who called reported some type of symptom. Common symptoms were palpitations, feelings of agitation, tremors, and upset stomachs.
•7% of callers reported more serious symptoms, including hallucinations, seizures and irregular heartbeats.
•Of the 297 callers, 128 were hospitalized. This included 57 people who only consumed energy drinks, without other substances such as alcohol or additional caffeine.
At the University of Massachusetts, a review of research related to the health complications from energy drinks found frequent reports of adverse affects among adolescents, and concluded that the health concerns posed called for “urgent research on the safety of energy drinks in children and adolescents.”
We’re still in the early days of learning about the full range of effects of these drinks on physical and mental health, as well as sleep. There is an abundance of research that shows how too much caffeine can affect blood pressure and heart rate, create anxiety, and disrupt sleep. We know much less about the short and long-term effects of some of the other ingredients that are often found in energy drinks, including taurine, the vitamins niacin and pyridoxine, and sugars such as inositol.
Here’s what is clear: People who have or are at risk for conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes need to strictly limit — or better yet avoid altogether — these energy drinks. Parents need to educate their kids about the serious risks of over-consumption of energy drinks, and to closely monitor their children’s consumption, if they choose to allow them to have these drinks at all. Unfortunately, kids and teenagers are among the most likely consumers of these beverages. Energy drinks are heavily marketed to young people, who are less likely to be aware of the possible dangers of these beverages.
It’s also time for the FDA to get involved, and for these drinks to be subjected to greater regulation, including regulating the amount of caffeine that can be included in a single serving. Historically, energy drinks have been classified and marketed as dietary supplements, which are subject to only the most minimal regulation. Canada recently re-classified energy drinks as foods, opening them up to more comprehensive regulation. It’s time for the FDA to take a serious look at doing the same thing in the U.S.
Do you rely on energy drinks to pep yourself up in the morning, to power you through the day, to avoid a mid-afternoon slump in energy? If so, there are better, and safer, ways to stay alert. Some even involve caffeine — just in moderate amounts.
•Start with a cup of coffee in the morning. Morning exercise is also a great energy booster.
•To avoid the midday slump: Try eating a high-protein snack, such as a small serving of cheese with some fruit, or peanut butter on crackers or whole grain toast. This will boost your energy without making you feel too full or sluggish.
•If you’re really dragging, try my Nap-a-Latte™ technique: Drink a small cup of coffee and follow it up with a 25-minute nap. The combination will curb drowsiness without overdoing it on the caffeine and risking disruption to your nighttime sleep. Make sure to do this before 3pm.
Best tip of all? Get a good night’s sleep! Its one of the very best things you can do to avoid daytime fatigue and protect your overall health.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™
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