Over-the-counter energy drinks are popular among people who want a quick “pick me up.” According to a study in the journal Pediatrics, the sale of these products runs into the millions of dollars per year, and the ingredients depend on the particular product.
The major ingredients found in different energy drinks are outlined below.
- Caffeine: Caffeine is the primary ingredient found in products labeled as energy drinks. Some energy drinks have extremely high amounts of caffeine in them, far higher than the amounts of caffeine found in coffee and tea. Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant.
- Sugar: The sugar content of many energy drinks is extremely high. Sugar comes in many forms and can be labeled as high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, glucose, etc. As most people know, too much sugar is detrimental to health.
- Taurine: Taurine is an amino acid that is often found in energy drinks. Some energy drinks may contain high amounts of the substance, and there is no evidence that consuming large amounts of the substance has beneficial effects; however, the evidence that large amounts of taurine is harmful is also scant.
- Guarana: Guarana is a plant from South America that contains caffeine (guaranine). When the substance is included in energy drinks, the caffeine amount listed on the ingredients does not include the caffeine in the substance. Essentially, this adds more caffeine to the drink.
- Ginseng: Ginseng is an herb that is associated with numerous beneficial claims, such as boosting sexual prowess, improving athletic performance, and strengthening the immune system. There is also some research to suggest that its use may decrease the risk of developing cancer; however, the evidence to support these claims remains mixed.
- Vitamins: Vitamins, particularly B vitamins, are found in energy drinks. Obviously, B vitamins are beneficial to health, but it may well be that the amount of B vitamins contained in many energy drinks is not sufficient to have meaningful effects, and the very high amounts found in others are often eliminated from the system.
- Yohimbine: Yohimbine is an ingredient like ginseng that is associated with numerous claims regarding its ability to provide many positive effects on health and wellbeing; however, again, the research to support these claims is scant at best.
- Additional additives: Other additives, such as orange peel, other herbs, etc., can be found in many different energy drinks. The risks and benefits of using many of these substances are not well described.
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Risks of Energy Drinks
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and numerous other sources list many different dangers associated with the use of energy drinks. These include:
- Cardiac issues: Cardiac problems, including the increased risk for a heart attack, are considered to be significant risk factors associated with chronic use of energy drinks. According to the FDA, there have been numerous calls to poison control centers associated with rapid heartbeat, chest pains, and even myocardial infarction (heart attack) in children and adults who have consumed large amounts of these substances. People with high blood pressure, identified risks for heart attack, and other cardiac issues should not use these products.
- Anxiety: The stimulant properties of many of the ingredients in these drinks can lead to issues with anxiety, particularly in individuals who already have problems with anxiety.
- Insomnia: Products labeled this energy drinks are very effective in reducing drowsiness in individuals; however, they are also very effective in producing insomnia in individuals who use them late in the day. Not getting enough sleep can obviously lead to numerous issues with health and safety.
- Negative physical symptoms: The use of energy drinks can often produce negative physical symptoms, including headache, restlessness, nausea, and vomiting.
- Diabetes: The high sugar content of many of these products can lead to issues with the development of type II diabetes in individuals who use them chronically. In addition, individuals with insulin-dependent diabetes should never use these products.
- Allergic reactions: Because many of these products contain herbs and other substances that are not regulated by the FDA, the potential to develop an allergic reaction to some of these products is increased.
- Overdose on B vitamins or other ingredients: Some energy drinks contain extremely high amounts of B vitamins or other vitamins and minerals. This can lead to potential for overdose on these products in individuals who consume numerous containers of the product in a short period of time.
- Increased release of stress hormones: An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that the use of products labeled as energy drinks can lead to significant increase in hormones and neurotransmitters associated with stress, such as norepinephrine.
- Other negative interactions: The consumption of these energy drinks can produce interactions with medications, other drugs, and alcohol, and lead an individual to engage in risky behaviors.
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Combining Energy Drinks with Alcohol
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant drug that is the most common drug of abuse in the United States and throughout the world behind tobacco products. According to professional sources, such as a 2017 article in the Journal on Studies of Alcohol and Drugs and the FDA, the practice of combining alcohol and energy drinks carries significant risks. These include:
- Suppression of effects: Combining alcohol with a stimulant drug can lead to the suppression of the effects of alcohol, which can result in a person using more alcohol than they normally would. This can lead to problems with alcohol poisoning or even overdose on alcohol, which can have fatal effects.
- No sobering effects: Many of the major ingredients in energy drinks, such as caffeine, actually have no effect on the metabolism of alcohol. Combining them with alcohol does not help an individual to “sober up,” as many individuals mistakenly believe. This can lead to the mistaken notion that a person can drink more alcohol when using these substances.
- Increased binge drinking: Research has indicated that young individuals who mix energy drinks with alcohol are four times more likely to engage in binge drinking behaviors than those who do not mix these substances. Binge drinking has numerous potential negative effects, including the increased risk of overdose or alcohol poisoning.
- Increased potential to engage in risky behaviors: Individuals who mix energy drinks with alcohol have been found to be more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as driving under the influence of alcohol, engaging in illicit drug use, engaging in unprotected sex, etc.
- Significantly decreased judgment and other cognitive capacities: Mixing alcohol with central nervous system stimulants can lead to problems with attention, concentration, the ability to develop new memories, language, and other cognitive problems. This can result in a dangerous situation.
- Exacerbated risk of cardiac issues: Consumption of large amounts of energy drinks or the long-term use of energy drinks has been associated with an increased risk for the development of cardiovascular issues. Combining these drinks with alcohol on a regular basis increases this risk significantly.
- Decreased reaction time and motor coordination: The use of stimulant drugs actually increases reaction times but may decrease motor coordination. However, when a person combines energy drinks with alcohol, both their reaction time and motor coordination are significantly affected and often decreased.
- Increased potential for atypical effects: Combining alcohol with energy drinks increases the risk that an individual may develop an unpredictable or unusual effect, such as an allergic reaction, severe nausea, etc.
- Increased physical burden: The use of alcohol or energy drinks alone is associated with the potential to develop problems in numerous organ systems, including issues with liver functioning, kidney functioning, ulcers, etc., in addition to the aforementioned cardiac risks. Combining these substances increases the burden on organs and the physical system.
- Addiction issues: Chronically abusing alcohol and caffeine products can lead to issues with addiction, including the development of physical dependence on one or both substances, significant problems with one’s occupation, an inability to reach goals, tension in personal relationships, etc.
According to a national survey on drug use performed by the University of Michigan, mixing energy drinks with alcohol is a popular practice. This practice is particularly popular among younger individuals, as one-third of young adults between the ages of 19 and 26 reported consuming alcohol mixed with energy drinks at least once. Other research studies have suggested that individuals who were diagnosed with alcohol use disorders are also more likely to use stimulants substances than individuals without this diagnosis.
Individuals who mix alcohol with energy drinks on a regular basis and excessively need to consider the use of a medically assisted withdrawal management program (medical detox) for alcohol and perhaps for caffeine or other drugs in order to assist them in the early stages of recovery. These individuals may also require treatment for substance abuse, which would include long-term therapy, peer support group participation, family support, and other interventions to help them stop this dangerous practice.
Continued support in treatment-related activities, efforts to maintain abstinence from alcohol and stimulants, and support from family and friends are extremely important for long-term recovery. Most individuals who develop substance use disorders as a result of alcohol and stimulant use need to be involved in treatment and support groups for many years in order to maintain their sobriety.