The Untold Dangers of Energy Drinks

Trying to boost your performance with an energy drink can actually do more harm than good.


Advertisements for energy drinks are plastered on the walls at sporting events and on the jerseys of leading athletes. The beverage makers sponsor models, music events and videos games. Red Bull, the market’s leading drink, even has its own television series and printed magazine. Makers of such drinks claim their elixirs will boost your immune system, enhance your performance and help you feel energized.

No wonder 30 to 50 percent of adolescents and young adults say they buy energy drinks. According to a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 percent of young people drink energy drinks weekly, 20 percent think that energy drinks are safe drinks for teenagers and 13 percent think that energy drinks are a type of sports drink. Marketed for young adults, sales of energy drinks and shots in the United States are expected to climb to $21 billion by 2017 from $12.5 billion in 2012, according to a report by market research company Packaged Facts.

But are they safe to drink — especially for teenagers and young adults?

Stephanie Nguyen Lai, M.D., a pediatrician with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, says the simple answer is “no.” She says energy drinks are full of sugar, sodium and loaded with caffeine – often twice as much as coffee and eight times as much as a soda. They’re an unhealthy beverage for anyone, especially a growing youth’s body.

“As a parent, it is important to talk with your adolescent and explain the risks of these products,” Dr. Lai says. “Caffeine is a drug and is not recommended for children, particularly at these high quantities. Moreover, these drinks are especially dangerous when mixed with alcohol, which many young people do.”


Mixing Energy Drinks and Alcohol

Dr. Lai says she is most concerned with products that mix energy drinks with alcohol. Many of these have packaging that is similar to non-alcoholic energy drinks. Although you must be over 21 to buy the drinks, teenagers can often get them through friends or with fake IDs. It’s also becoming more common for teenagers to create their own cocktails by mixing energy drinks with hard liquor.

“Combining high-caffeine energy drinks with alcohol may give teenagers the perception that they aren’t as drunk as they really are. And when teens feel fewer effects from alcohol, they tend to drink more,” Dr. Lai says. “This problem became apparent in 2010, when several young adults were hospitalized at Washington State due to overconsumption of alcoholic energy drinks.”

Mixing the two liquids together increases the likelihood of engaging in risky behavior, especially drunk driving and binge drinking. A research paper published in 2015 in the Advances in Nutrition journal found that people who combined energy drinks and alcohol were four times more likely to think they could drive home safely than their counterparts who drank alcohol alone. In addition, a 2014 Journal of Pediatrics study found that mixing the two beverages was associated with binge drinking among teenagers. 

A similar study in 2015 by the University of Toronto found that alcoholic energy drinks are related to adolescent brain damage. Researchers discovered that teenagers who reported sustaining a brain injury within the past year were at least twice as likely to have consumed energy drinks mixed with alcohol than teens who reported sustaining a traumatic brain injury more than a year previously.


The Bottom Line

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians have taken the stance that caffeine  and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diet of children and adolescents.

The same health cautions are applicable for adults. If you’re an adult still looking for a caffeine boost, be cautious when imbibing energy drinks. If you’re trying to wean off caffeine completely, try gradually reducing your caffeine intake on a weekly basis. Try drinking half-decaf coffee, then decaf coffee before switching to another non-caffeinated beverage such as herbal tea.

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