Energy drinks are popular among gamers, students, athletes, professionals, and anyone who has to drive overnight from Milwaukee to St. Louis. They’re big business, too. Americans spent $12.5 billion on energy drinks in 2012. Market experts predict that number to climb to $21.5 billion in 2017. It’s clear that these drinks are only growing in popularity. With so many people guzzling them down every day, can energy drinks really be that bad? The short answer is yes.
Energy drinks can be devastating for your health. They contribute to heart concerns, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, anxiety, insomnia, and a host of other health risks. In some rare cases, energy drinks have even proved fatal.
A Growing Public Health Concern
In 2011, 16-year-old Sara Milosevic went to a party where she consumed several pre-mixed alcoholic energy drinks. A few hours later she was vomiting violently. Other partygoers just assumed she couldn’t handle her alcohol. At 11 pm, the teen called her parents to come pick her up. By 3 am, Sara was dead. An autopsy revealed that her blood alcohol content was only .04 — not even enough to be considered legally drunk. Sara’s father, a chemist, believes the energy drinks caused her death.[2, 3]
In 2011, mere days before Christmas, 14-year-old Anais Fournier suffered a fatal heart attack. In the 48 hours before her death, she consumed four energy drinks. In total, Anais consumed 480 mg of caffeine — less than one-tenth the official fatal dosage of the stimulant, but almost five times more than the recommended limit for adolescents. Doctors speculate that the energy drinks agitated a pre-existing genetic heart condition.
It’s not just teens who are affected. In 2015, 28-year-old Martin Bowling suffered a heart attack after consuming eight energy drinks at a pub. Bowling was rushed to a hospital and survived. He had been spending $150 a week on energy drinks.
Even popular athletes can succumb to the toxicity of energy drinks. In 2003, professional wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was hospitalized with severe heart palpitations. He believes that his then habit of consuming 3-5 energy drinks every day was a primary cause of the health crisis.
“I think I’m dying, dying for sure,” Austin recalls of the event. “My heart’s beating so hard it feels like it’s going to crack a rib jumping out of my chest. My heart might be doing 160 or 180 beats per minute. My legs are shaking and I can’t make them stop. I’m sure I’m having a heart attack.”
Between 2004 and 2014, energy drinks have officially been a factor in at least 34 deaths. Unofficially, perhaps many more. Caffeine deaths are often attributable to other factors and may be severely underreported and undiagnosed. Some doctors suspect that the actual number could be much higher. Thousands of people have been hospitalized with symptoms of energy drink overdose, including insomnia, anxiety, convulsions, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and other cardiovascular complications. The wings that energy drinks give you might just come with a harp and halo.
How Your Body Reacts to Energy Drinks
We all need a little energy boost now and then, but there are healthier options. Energy drinks are a chemical cocktail of caffeine, refined sugar, and other ingredients. Some of which, like herbs and vitamins, may even sound healthy. What is it that makes energy drinks so dangerous?
One study looked at the effect that consuming just one 16-ounce can of a leading brand of energy drink had on basic, vital functions. The findings? Blood pressure jumped an average of 6.6 points within thirty minutes of consumption, and norepinephrine, a stress hormone, increased by 75%. Norepinephrine also enhances the production of cortisol, a fat-storing hormone, significantly increasing the risk of weight gain.
Energy drink manufacturers maintain that their products are safe when consumed in recommended amounts. Do you know what the maximum recommended intake is? For most brands, it’s two or three cans per day. For some, it’s only one.
These warnings are easy to miss. Manufacturers usually hide them in small print on the back of the can with the other information that few people bother to read — that’s if the warning is on there at all. Make no mistake, beverage companies want you to drink as much of their product as possible.
There are two main health dangers of energy drinks — neurological and cardiological. In other words, your nervous system and your heart. These concerns are caused by the very same ingredients that make you feel energized — staggeringly high levels of caffeine and sugar.
Energy Drinks Are High in Sugar
Energy drinks can contain up to 78 grams of sugar per serving. That’s 20 teaspoons of sugar every time you drink one. Admittedly, that’s the high end of the scale, but these drinks average about 30 grams of sugar and 280 calories a can. That’s not health food. If staying trim is your goal, drinking just one energy drink makes your job 280 empty calories harder. That’s about 35 minutes of burpees.
Even if you work out enough to stave off diabetes and weight gain, sugar can still damage your health. Excess sugar is one of the leading contributors to heart disease. One study found that people who consumed 25% or more of their daily calories as sugar doubled their chances of dying from heart disease.
Many companies have sugar or calorie-free versions of their product, but what are they using to replace sugar? Artificial sweeteners like aspartame may be even worse for your health. They can interfere with your gut biome, damage your metabolism, encourage obesity, and contribute to diabetes.[13, 14,15]
Energy Drinks Are a Source of Caffeine
Exact amounts vary, but the average energy drink contains about 70-100 mg of caffeine — about as much as a cup of coffee. That doesn’t sound very dangerous, and to a healthy adult, it usually isn’t. Caffeine is toxic but generally safe in small amounts. The concern is the combination of caffeine and other stimulants in an energy drink, as well as lesser understood ingredients like taurine. This chemical cocktail can trigger existing health concerns, including genetic disorders that you may not even know about yet.
This is likely what happened in the case of Anais Fournier. Anais had a heart condition called mitral valve prolapse, a relatively common condition that affects 1 in 20 Americans. She consumed only two energy drinks in the 24 hours before her death. That doesn’t sound like much, but, when combined with her condition, it was enough to bring about tragic consequences.
Energy Drinks and Children
Fournier’s unfortunate case is unlikely to be the last. The use of energy drinks by young people is on the rise. Culture and media influence our diets in many ways, both directly and indirectly. Because of this, the youth are likely to see energy drinks as just sort of a cooler kind of soda. A 2014 study estimated that 68% of adolescents and 18% of children under 10-years-old consume energy drinks.
While caffeine is safe in small amounts for healthy adults, it’s a proven health risk for children. Nearly 50% of the people who overdose on caffeine are under 19 years old. Adolescents should limit themselves to no more than 100 mg of caffeine a day. Children age 4-6 should consume no more than 45 mg daily. For children younger than that the number should be zero.
Unlike cigarettes and alcohol, there are usually no age restrictions when purchasing energy drinks in the U.S. Other countries have wised up. In Sweden, for example, most energy drinks can only be sold in pharmacies and selling to children is banned. The World Health Organization (WHO) confirms that energy drinks have a “proven negative effect on children.” The bottom line is simple — children should never consume energy drinks.
Energy Drinks and Alcohol
Eager for new profits, energy drink companies started marketing to the bar crowd in the early 2000’s. They urged bartenders to promote mixed alcohol and energy drinks. Sorry to be a buzzkill, but combining energy drinks with alcohol substantially increases the dangers of both. Caffeine is a stimulant, while alcohol is a depressant. Combining the two can imbalance your system.
One way this manifests is as a “delayed drunk” feeling. The stimulant masks some of the sensory cues on which you normally rely to determine your level of intoxication. In other words, you’re drunk, with the same loss of cognition and motor skills as usual, but you don’t quite realize it. This means that you will likely drink far more, and far faster than you normally would.
I know that some people might think this sounds like a pretty good thing. You get to party longer, right? Well, that’s what energy drink marketers want you to think.
Caffeine doesn’t change your actual blood alcohol level, just your perception of it. That means that as you drink more to hit your buzz, all the usual dangers of drinking are magnified. One study found that people who mixed alcohol and energy drinks were more than twice as likely to drive drunk and far more likely to be a passenger in a car with a drunk driver. As you feel the need to drink more to feel the same high you’re used to, your risk of alcohol poisoning also increases. If all that isn’t enough, your hangover will be worse, too.
A few years ago, energy drink companies were eager to capitalize on a potential new revenue stream. They started selling pre-mixed alcoholic energy drinks. The FDA warned consumers to avoid these dangerous drinks and sent warning letters to energy drink companies calling the concoctions a public health threat. Pre-mixed alcoholic energy drinks quickly disappeared from U.S. store shelves soon after. That won't stop you from ordering a mixed energy drink in a bar or mixing your own, but I strongly caution against it.
The Effect of Energy Drinks on Athletic Performance
Energy drinks remain popular among athletes for their supposed performance-enhancing effects. Some people don’t care about side effects as long as it provides results. Well, if the idea of a heart attack in the middle of a kickboxing match doesn’t deter you, maybe this will: energy drinks ruin long-term athletic performance.
Studies on the actual performance-enhancing effects have revealed mixed results. Some studies find a minor, short-term boost, while others have found no performance-enhancing effects at all. The truth is that there’s no magic potion for winning inside those cans. Any perceived performance-enhancing effects come from the simple formula of caffeine plus carbs, and there are healthier ways to get those.
Our bodies quickly build up a tolerance to substances like caffeine and sugar, and prolonged overuse tends to have undesirable side effects. Caffeine reactions frequently include bowel instability, mood swings, and anxiety. With sugar, it’s weight gain and diabetes. Both can cause insomnia and other sleep disorders. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that energy drinks significantly increased insomnia and anxiety in athletes.
Aluminum: A Hidden Toxin
There’s another potential source of toxicity in energy drinks that you probably haven’t thought of — the can itself. Aluminum cans have been the standard beverage container for decades, but aluminum is toxic to the human body. Hopefully, no one is eating the can after consuming the beverage, but energy drinks are acidic, and trace amounts of aluminum break apart and contaminate the beverage itself. The average American ingests about 7-9 milligrams of aluminum per day in food and drink.
If you ingest a tiny amount of aluminum, your body’s natural detoxification processes can usually filter the toxins out. Consuming an excessive amount of canned beverages over a prolonged period is a different story. When you ingest toxic material faster than your body can process it, that material accumulates, overwhelming your system. Those with existing kidney concerns are especially at risk because of a reduced capacity to filter toxins.
High levels of aluminum can cause disorders in the brain, bones, and nervous system including confusion, muscle weakness, brittle bones, and seizures. In children, aluminum toxicity can impair mental and physical development.
Mixing your own fresh beverages at home is the best thing you can do to quench your thirst, but I understand that that’s not always practical. If you must buy pre-packaged drinks, only buy those in glass containers.
Energy Drink Alternatives
Without question, an overall healthy lifestyle with proper diet, plenty of rest, and regular exercise is the best way to feel fully energized. However, there are times when everyone needs that extra boost. If energy drinks are off the table, what are your best options?
Most energy drinks are advertised as containing ginseng. Ginseng itself is great, it improves energy, appetite, and sleep quality. However, the ginseng used in energy drinks is cheap, processed, low-quality, and present in such tiny amounts that its therapeutic effect is practically non-existent. When you factor in the health-ruining amount of sugar and toxic ingredients, ginseng’s potential benefits are more than wiped out.
Why not just cut out the chemical cocktail and go straight to the source? A ginseng supplement is far more active — if it’s high quality. In fact, ginseng effectiveness is completely dependent on quality, and quality varies considerably. Only purchase from reputable companies that are completely transparent about their sourcing and production and only invest in products that are completely natural and toxin-free, like Ginseng Fuzion™.
If you feel drained constantly, you may be one of the 40% of Americans who are vitamin B-12 deficient. B-12 deficiency leads to low red blood cell count — a type of anemia. Symptoms include fatigue, weakness, and difficulty concentrating.[30, 31] Red meat, mollusks, and dairy are the richest sources of B-12. There are few non-animal sources, so those of us that follow a plant-based diet should consider a high-quality B-12 supplement like VeganSafe™ B-12.
Black and Green Tea
If you absolutely need that caffeine boost in the morning, at least obtain it from a better source than energy drinks. Black or green tea can provide a similar mental boost. Tea has less caffeine than energy drinks and causes fewer sleep disruptions. According to two double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled studies, tea improves attention and self-reported alertness. The combination of theanine and caffeine, naturally occurring ingredients in tea, improves cognitive performance.
I only recommend tea for adults and teens — it’s not for children. While tea has significantly less caffeine than energy drinks, any caffeine at all is a potential health risk to a developing brain and body.
If you need an energy boost fast, try a handful of nuts. Nutrient-dense nuts help your body sustain energy levels and they’re a good source of high-quality protein. They also contain valuable phytochemicals like carotenoids, phenolic acids, phytosterols, and flavonoids. These nutrients encourage physical and mental well-being, helping the body sustain higher energy levels. Walnuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, and pistachios provide the best bang for your buck.
If you’re feeling irritable and tired, you may actually be slightly dehydrated. Studies show that even mild dehydration can cause drastic changes in mood and energy levels. It’s important to stay properly hydrated, especially when exercising. Forget the brightly colored sports drinks — blue dye isn’t going to help you. Electrolytes are important, but in the context of energy drink marketing, it's just a fancy word for potassium and salt. It is necessary to replace lost minerals after an intense workout, but you can get the same effect by adding a pinch of Himalayan crystal salt to purified water.
It may sound counterintuitive, but exercise will actually make you feel less tired. In fact, regular exercise is the best thing you can do for increased energy, weight control, and overall quality of life. In a pinch, even five minutes of light, low-intensity exercise can boost your mood, concentration, and energy levels.
Tired? Here’s a crazy suggestion: have you tried sleeping? Even a ten-minute nap will do wonders for your energy levels. For long-term success, you need to get the proper amount of sleep every night. Some people need more, some less, but the conventional wisdom of eight hours of sleep each night is a good starting point.
I know, who has time to sleep? Do you even know anyone who gets eight hours of sleep per night? You’re more likely to know someone who brags about only getting four hours. An unfortunate byproduct of the modern lifestyle is this bizarre idea that proper sleep equals weakness.
This mentality is pure self-destructive madness. You need sleep. No energy-boosting product is a substitute. Caffeine doesn’t give you energy; it fools your body into not noticing how tired it is. All you’re doing is biding a little extra time that you'll pay for later.
What’s your opinion about energy drinks? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts and experiences with us.
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†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.