Caffeinated Energy Drinks
If you believe Red Bull truly gives you wings, you may want to pause on that thought. Energy drinks have become a way of our lives. They’re present everywhere: at the grocery store, at the local supermarket, at the service station; everywhere you look, you’re confronted with not one but multiple brands of energy drinks vying for your attention and all promising you the same things: higher performance, alertness and concentration.
If you’re a student or an athlete, it’s hard to pass by those three attributes. How many of us have not stocked up on our favourite energy drinks on the night before a crucial exam so that we don’t fall asleep? And yet, one might be tempted to ask if all those good things – performance, concentration etc – come at a price.
Energy drinks get their kick – and give it to you – through a range of ingredients like caffeine, herbal extracts such a guarana, and amino acids such as tuarine. While the herbal extracts are quite another story altogether, the main issue is the effect of caffeine on your body.
Caffeine, probably the world’s only legal drug apart from nicotine, is not addictive but is habit-forming, which means that your body will develop a tolerance for it and therefore, you will need to drink more and more coffee to produce the same ‘high’ effect you like. When you ingest caffeine, it stimulates the body’s fight or flight response and produces a surge of adrenaline. Our nerve cells fire more rapidly, and that gives rise to the feeling of restlessness and alertness.
While the average energy drink claims to have 80 mg of caffeine, critics argue that some contain close to 300 mg – which is equivalent to about five cups of coffee. When so much caffeine is pumped into the body and when the body responds by pumping out adrenaline, it can have many nasty side effects like seizures, chest pain, heart palpitations and agitation – all of which are symptoms of the condition called caffeine toxicity.
Dr Naren Gunja, medical director at NSW Poisons and clinical toxicologist at Westmead Hospital, has found that between 2004 and 2010, almost 600 calls were made to the NSW Poisons Information Centre regarding toxicity related to the consumption of energy drinks. The calls increased in number from 13 in 2004 to 65 in 2010. So it is safe to assume that people who use energy drinks regularly are ignorant of their safe use methods and the consequences of overdose.
It’s not just the caffeine, though. Most energy drinks on the market these days also have a high sugar content, which forms a potent combination with caffeine. Sugar is linked to obesity, and since caffeine is habit-forming and encourages mass-consumption, it is very likely that your energy drink is doing its best to make you fat, along with giving you wings. A small energy drink is equivalent to seven teaspoons of sugar, which not only contributes to obesity but also dehydrates the mouth and affects dental health.
Another common pitfall for unsuspecting consumers is the mixing of energy drinks and alcohol, which leads to altered perception of self and ability to sense how intoxicated one is. While the alcohol intoxicates you, the caffeine in the energy drink gives you the feeling that you’re at the height of your senses. Similar effects can happen when energy drinks are mixed with other recreational substances. A big commonly practiced myth is that drinking a couple of energy drinks will make a drunken man sober; needless to say, it doesn’t. All the caffeine does is induce an artificial state of restlessness. It does not in any way alter the amount of alcohol in one’s bloodstream.
The alarming thing with caffeine toxicity is the range of symptoms, says Dr Gunja. In his reports he has encountered heart palpitations, gastrointestinal upsets, seizures and hallucinations. So it could be cardiac, neurological or behavioural.
With all this history behind them, energy drinks are now coming under the scanner of the Australian and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council, which is currently considering the need to regulate energy drinks. Over the United States, there is a strong push from various consumer groups to have a legal age limit for the consumption of energy drinks. Dr Gunja agrees that regulation is essential and that energy drinks should contain similar warning statements as over-the-counter caffeine tablets.
Given all of this, do you still think you need to reach for your energy drink no matter what the incentive? If you’re really concerned with giving yourself an energy boost, drink a glass of water with a pinch of salt and sugar added to it. That’s healthier, safer, and more effective than any energy drink you can ever buy. But if you have to have an energy drink, please be moderate about it. Never have more than one per day, just to be safe.