Energy Drinks: Good, Bad or Dangerous?
6/10/2013 5:00:00 PM
It used to be that a convenience store had a small refrigerated section for dairy products, soda and sandwiches. Now the typical convenience store has a full wall (if not two) of just refrigerated items, the vast majority of which are drinks. Take out the water and soda and you have a dizzying selection of “energy” drinks (not to be confused with sport drinks used to rehydrate the body).
As I have gotten older and my job continually has me sitting in front of a computer for 8 hours each day, my energy level has definitely seemed to dip compared to how I felt in my 20s. I’ve always been a moderate coffee drinker and that has certainly helped, but I have often been drawn toward the colorful and flashy cans of the energy drinks that have flooded the market in the past 10 years in particular. The manufacturers of these energy drinks claim that their products increase your energy and mental alertness, but they fail to enlighten you on the side effects caused by some of the ingredients.
In 1985, Jolt soda was the first cola-based energy drink, followed by Red Bull in 1987. While Jolt was basically just a highly caffeinated, high-sugar cola, Red Bull also included high amounts of caffeine and sugar while introducing the newer “energy-boosting” ingredients of taurine, B-group vitamins, glucuronolactone, sucrose and glucose. More on these ingredients later.
The success of Red Bull kicked off a multi-million dollar energy drink industry whose greatest success is its marketing. Designed primarily to attract males in their teens and 20s, some energy drinks also try to seduce athletes by promising greater performance and endurance. And some even claim to help you party longer and still avoid a hangover, a lure for many college students.
So what’s the big deal? Are they helpful in boosting energy or not? And are they dangerous? Once you look past the flashy marketing claims, you can finally get to the real deal which confirms the age-old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” So let’s start by breaking down the main ingredients, and then I’ll go through the typical side effects.
The primary ingredients in most energy drinks include caffeine, taurine, vitamins, glucuronolactone and sugar (refined sugar, corn syrup, sucrose and glucose). Caffeine is a mild diuretic that stimulates the nervous system and increases the heart rate. Taurine is an amino acid that increases the effect of caffeine and serves as a cardiac stimulator. The most common vitamins included are the B-group, which serve various energy-boosting purposes. Glucuronolactone is a chemical made naturally in the body that may fight fatigue. Sugars are a common ingredient that significantly boost the calorie level of the drink, though some drinks are now marketing sugar-free drinks that use artificial sweeteners instead (never a good thing). Other ingredients often include additional amino acids, additional caffeine-based ingredients, herbs and other plant-based or proprietary ingredients.
When examined individually, none of the ingredients are a cause for concern in moderation. When combined and offered in high amounts, however, many of the drinks that contain them pose serious health risks, particularly for those people already taking medication or combining drinking or additional caffeine on top of these ingredients. Add the high caloric value of most of these drinks and you’ve just added weight gain to the mix.
The physical and mental side effects of these ingredients are many. In order of frequency, here are the top 10 side effects:
1. heart palpitations
2. physical tremors/shaking
4. upset stomach
5. chest pain/tightness
7. skin tingling or numbing
9. difficulty breathing
Sound like fun? I didn’t think so. That’s not quite my idea of “energy” either. So here’s my plan for myself which I guarantee will give me far more energy than any energy drink on the market—past, present of future: 8 full hours of sleep, moderate caffeine intake, no or very limited refined sugars and white flour-based food (white bread, pasta, deep fried food), lots of fruits and vegetables, regular exercise, a daily dose of sunshine and fresh air, and a reduction of anything that causes too much stress in my day. Those are the things I’d want an “energy drink” to help me with but ironically, the side effects would disturb my sleep and make me an anxious, jittery mess, unable to focus and get anything done. No thanks. So just by sticking to the list of healthy options above, I will have a far more consistent and higher level of energy overall, without the unpleasant side effects. There’s no way I will fall for the empty promises of those flashy and colorful cans in the convenience store. I hope you don’t either. It’s just not worth it.
Important: For anyone with a family history of high blood pressure, enlarged prostate, glaucoma or any cardiac issues, you will always need to consult a physician before using any energy drinks.