The Lowdown on Energy Drinks

In 1997, with the introduction of Red Bull, energy drinks became a significant category in the US market. Since then, the market has grown by almost 5000%, and the energy drink market now totals more than almost $9 billion. Clearly, this indicates that many Americans are consuming these caffeine laden trendy beverages, but are they really that good for us?

What is an Energy Drink?
Energy drinks are beverages that contain large doses of caffeine, sugar, taurine, and other legal stimulants like ephedrine, guarana, and ginseng. These energy drinks may contain anywhere from 80mg of caffeine for 8 oz (about the equivalent of a strong cup of coffee) to 250mg. Energy drinks purport to have “functionality”, including increasing concentration and cognitive performance of the consumer. The basis of these statements, however, lies in inconclusive data, from a limited number of studies. To de-bunk some of these claims, we will breakdown the most common ingredients.

Caffeine is one of the main active ingredients found in energy drinks. In spite of extensive research, the evidence with regard to the health implications of caffeine is inconclusive. There is, however, some evidence that high acute intakes of caffeine are associated with tachycardia (fast heart beat) and acute increases in blood pressure. Too much caffeine may also cause nervousness, irritability, and insomnia. The longer term risks, or possible benefits, of caffeine on cardiovascular disease and diabetes, are less known.

Guarana, a native South American plant, contains guaranine, a substance that is chemically similar to caffeine with likely comparable stimulant effects. There is very little information regarding the effects of guarana, and in the US, it is unregulated. As a result, many health professionals are wary of guarana-containing products.

Taurine is a normal metabolite in the body that is synthesized from the amino acid cysteine or other sulphur or cysteine containing compounds. Taurine, which is naturally present in the diet, has been shown to have beneficial health effects, including decreasing blood pressure. No published studies have found any negative physiological effects of high intakes of taurine in healthy adults. However, there have been no conclusive studies regarding taurine’s interaction with the other stimulants in energy drinks.

The Dangers of Energy Drinks
While none of the common active ingredients in energy drinks seem to be particularly harmful alone, there has been limited research studying the combination of these ingredients on health. Energy drinks’ stimulating properties have been anecdotally reported to increase heart rate and blood pressure, dehydrate the body and prevent sleep. These effects may be particularly harmful if the drinks are used in sporting contexts. Sports drinks, such as Gatorade and Vitamin Water, have certain compositional requirements with regard to carbohydrates, electrolytes, and osmolarity. Energy drinks, on the other hand, do not have these requirements and because they contain caffeine, a known diuretic, they can greatly dehydrate an individual, whereas in sporting events or exercise, they would be needed to rehydrate. In addition, energy drinks are now used socially as mixers for alcoholic cocktails. The danger in this lies in the fact that energy drinks are stimulants and alcohol is a depressant. As a result, the stimulant properties of the energy drinks can mask the feeling of intoxication and can lead a person to drink well beyond the safe limit. Finally, though not necessarily dangerous, energy drinks contain loads of sugar, and therefore contain numerous calories. Thus, consuming energy drinks, especially in place of water, can lead to weight gain.

Healthier Alternatives
Instead of relying on energy drinks to wake you up, there are numerous lifestyle changes you can make to boost your energy naturally.

  1. Eat breakfast. Eating something in the morning can rev up your metabolism and start your day out right.
  2. Try an all-natural alternative. Tea or coffee-alternative products can give you an energy boost without all the sugar and calories.
  3. Eat every few hours. Oftentimes we get tired because our blood sugar drops too low. To prevent the drop, try and eat a healthy meal or snack every few hours.
  4. Drink water. If you’re dehydrated, you will feel fatigued. Get your 8-10 8oz glasses to keep you awake.
  5. Decrease sweets. Consuming products high in sugar will lead to a peak in blood sugar and then a major drop. The drop is what leads to feelings of fatigue. If you cut out sweets, you’ll avoid the blood sugar swings.
  6. Exercise! Getting your blood flowing and getting into shape will increase your metabolism and stamina.
  7. Sleep. You’ll always feel tired if you don’t get your Z’s. Try to slow down and aim for at least 7 hours of sleep per night.

Heather Bauer, RD CDN
Heather Bauer, RD CDN


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