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Effects of Energy Drinks

Are Energy Drinks Good For You or Bad For You?

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Updated May 28, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Energy drinks have become increasingly popular over the last few years, and with their association with sports and an active lifestyle, you could easily think that energy drinks might be good for you. And with many of them being marketed to children, parents may be wondering whether or not energy drinks are part of a healthy lifestyle for their kids.

Ingredients of Energy Drinks

The ingredients of energy drinks vary a great deal from one brand to another, but many of them contain potentially harmful substances, such as caffeine, taurine, sugars, sweeteners, herbal supplements, and other ingredients. Although energy drinks are easily confused with sports drinks and vitamin waters, they are actually quite distinct, in that sports drinks and vitamin waters may be suitable for rehydration, whereas energy drinks are not. This is because some of the ingredients in energy drinks carry potential risks, these beverages typically provide little or no benefit, and they can cause drug interactions.

The main psychoactive ingredient in energy drinks is caffeine, typically containing from three to five times the amount contained in cola -- the highest concentrations being in "energy shots." Caffeine is a stimulant of the central nervous system, which has effects on the brain that make you feel more alert by blocking the message that tells your brain you are tired. While many people find the effects of caffeine pleasantly refreshing, for some, it can induce anxiety, depression, and other unpleasant side effects.

Consumption of Energy Drinks by Kids

Kids are consuming more and more caffeine in the form of soda and energy drinks. The average caffeine consumption of teens in the US is 60-70mg per day, but can be as high as 700mg per day. About a third of American teens and half of college students regularly consume energy drinks.

Many caffeinated drinks, including energy drinks, are deliberately marketed to kids. And the reputation of energy drinks as a rather illicit substance -- "speed in a can," "liquid cocaine," and a "legal drug" -- actually fueled their popularity when introduced in Austria after years of legal resistance. The excitement generated in young people at the thought of risk-taking is unfortunate, and at the same time, cynically manipulated by advertisers. Alcoholic energy drinks are particularly concerning as a commodity marketed to risk-taking youth.

In this context, energy drinks can even be seen as a gateway drug, paving the way to experimentation with other substances.

Health Risks of Energy Drinks

There are a number of health risks associated with energy drinks, including:

  • Caffeine intoxication
  • Caffeine withdrawal symptoms, including headaches
  • Caffeine overdose, which can be life-threatening
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Sleep disorders
  • Calcium deficiency
  • Dental problems
  • Increased postprandial hyperglycemia, particularly concerning for people with diabetes
  • Electrolyte disorders, particularly concerning for people with eating disorders

In addition, there is a risk of drug interactions when energy drinks are combined with:

  • Medications for ADD/ADHD
  • Antidepressant medications, including MAOIs and SSRIs
  • Over-the-counter painkillers, which can contain caffeine

Safe Limits to Energy Drink Consumption in Kids

As a psychoactive drug, it would not be appropriate to consider any consumption of caffeine by children or teens to be "safe." A better way to think about it is to limit kids' daily caffeine intake to below 2.5mg per kg of body weight for children, and 100mg per day for teens. Bear in mind that many everyday foods and drinks contain caffeine, and these should be included in your calculations.

And remember, energy drinks typically contain a lot of sugar, which can be addictive. Daily sugar consumption in childhood has been linked to violence later in life, and sugar addiction is harmful to kids. It is just one type of food addiction that can continue into adulthood, and is a major contributor to the current obesity epidemic in kids and adults.

Sources:

Luebbe, A. & Bell, D. "Mountain Dew® or Mountain Don’t?: A Pilot Investigation of Caffeine Use Parameters and Relations to Depression and Anxiety Symptoms in 5th and 10th-Grade Students." J Sch Health: 79:380-387. 2009.

Seifert, S., Schaechter, E., Hershorin, E. & Lipshultz, S. "Health Effects of Energy Drinks on Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults." Pediatrics 127:511-528. 2011.

Shioda, K., Nisijima, K., Nishida, S. & Kato, S. "Possible Serotonin Syndrome Arising From an Interaction Between Caffeine and Serotonergic Antidepressants." Human Psychopharmacology 19:353-354. 2004.

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