Monday, June 17, 2019

Are Energy Drinks Dangerous?

Energy drinks are big business – a business that brought in $2.8 billion in 2018 and continues to grow. These high caffeine drinks are particularly popular among teenagers, 30% of whom between12 -17 years old drink them on a regular basis. 45% of people in the military drink at least one a day while 14% drink three or more a day.

What exactly are energy drinks? Drinks like Red Bull, Monster, and Rock Star contain caffeine plus other ingredients like B vitamins, guarana (caffeine), and sometimes taurine – an amino acid.  Companies promote this combination of ingredients as energy producing – but it’s likely just the caffeine that gives you a boost. Ounce per ounce, these drinks are not that much higher in caffeine than a cup of coffee. The problem with them is that they’re marketed to younger people who may be drinking a lot of them in higher amounts. Red Bull cans range in size from 8.4 ounces to 20 ounces – and some people drink several cans a day.

But are these drinks safe? Emergency room visits involving energy drinks are on the rise:  34 deaths over recent years were tied to these drinks. Researchers just published a new study that looked at the effects of these drinks on blood pressure and heart electrical activity.

Let’s take a look:
  • The study was published in last week’s Journal of the American Heart Association.
  • Researchers recruited 34 healthy people between the ages of 18 and 40 years old.
  • They then had them drink either two 16-ounce cans of a caffeinated energy drink or a placebo drink on three consecutive days.
  • The researchers measure blood pressure, heart rate, and did an electrocardiogram to examine the heart’s electrical activity. 
  • They did multiple measures starting at 30 minutes after the participants drank the energy drinks.

Interestingly, the energy drinks did not increase heart rate compared to the non-caffeinated placebo drink. There was a modest increase in blood pressure and changes to the heart’s electrical activity. Both of these were seen as modest changes.

However, we are seeing more young people admitted to the ER because of energy drinks (1,499 teens in 2011). So it pays to be prudent.

Who Should Avoid Energy Drinks:
  • Children under 12
  • Pregnant women
  • Anyone taking certain medicines (check with your doctor)
  • Never mix them with alcohol

I recommend following these general caffeine guidelines:
  • No more than 100 mg of caffeine a day for teenagers (12-18)
  • No more than 400 mg of caffeine a day for adults
  • 1 12-ounce can of Red Bull = 113 mg of caffeine
  • 1 cup of coffee = 100 mg of caffeine
  • 1 cup of tea = 30 mg of caffeine
  • 1 can of cola = 35 mg of caffeine 

Caffeine levels are not required on labels but some show the caffeine level anyway. And if you’re like me – a troubled sleeper – you’ll need to cut off your caffeine intake by around noon.

Beth Kitchin, PhD, RDN
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham  

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