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Health Information | 05/09/2023

Energy Drinks: Are They Safe?

By  Dr. Beshoy Sidhom

We’ve all been there. You had a terrible night’s sleep, but you have a big presentation in the morning. Or maybe you have a paper due and you need to power through a late night. So, you turn to caffeine. Caffeine is the most common stimulant in the world, with about 90% of adults consuming it every day.

As energy drinks become increasingly popular, many choose them as an alternative to their daily coffee or tea. However, it’s important to learn about the potential risks associated with energy drinks before adding them to your daily routine.

What are energy drinks?

Sometimes called sports beverages, energy drinks are a type of beverage marketed to help you increase alertness and energy levels. There are two types of energy drink products. The first and most common type is a flavored beverage, sold in containers similar to 16-oz ordinary soft drinks. These are often sold near or alongside regular soft drinks and soda, and it can be hard to distinguish between them at first glance. Energy drinks are also sold as 2-oz containers of concentrated liquid, typically called “energy shots.” These are advertised as “quick” fixes for low energy and might boast long-lasting effects for upwards of six hours. Both types of energy drinks contain large amounts of caffeine.

Moderate caffeine consumption is considered less than 400mg, or about 2 to 5 cups of coffee a day. For teenagers, experts recommend even less, capping the safe amount at 100mg a day or just 1 cup of coffee. But a single energy drink could contain as much as 500mg of caffeine, well over the recommended amount.

Energy drinks & adolescents

Energy drink companies use many tactics to target advertisements toward teenagers, including mimicking the fun packaging of popular food and candy brands, sponsoring youth-focused organizations, and using social media influencer marketing. Because of this effective marketing and peer influence, young adults and teens are often the top consumers of energy drinks. They might also prefer the taste of energy drinks over coffee and need caffeine to get through early mornings at school, late nights of homework, or other after-school obligations. Unfortunately, adolescents are the most at risk for the harmful effects of these beverages.

The CDC reported that in 2011, almost 1,500 children ages 12-17 visited the emergency room for an energy drink-related emergency, a number that has increased with time. Children and teens may experience amplified effects from too much caffeine, especially on their cardiovascular health. Teenagers’ brains & bodies are still growing, which can almost double the physical and mental impact of caffeine. Studies have shown that the teen brain is more susceptible to stress and addiction, causing a higher likelihood of symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, and nervousness. Additionally, drinking coffee at a young age can increase your risk of heart disease in the long term.

What are the benefits?

Probably the most sought-after benefit of drinking energy drinks is a significant increase in energy. When consumed responsibly, caffeine has been proven to improve vigilance, reaction time, alertness, and your ability to concentrate. It has also been shown to alleviate the effects of occasional sleep deprivation.

Along with an energy boost, energy drinks can be more convenient (and cheaper) than buying coffee, and they can improve performance and endurance when exercising.

What are the risks?

While the temporary benefits of energy drinks can make you feel great, there are several potential risks to watch out for.

Excessive caffeine intake, or consumption of more than 400mg per day, is unsafe but, unfortunately, easy to do when consuming energy drinks. Too much caffeine can lead to serious heart and blood vessel problems, anxiety and sleep disorders, dehydration, and digestive issues. Regularly consuming excessive amounts of caffeine can also lead to physical and psychological dependence. People who develop this dependence may also experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, flu-like symptoms (like nausea, vomiting, and body aches), fatigue, depression, and difficulty concentrating.

But it’s not just the caffeine in the drinks to be worried about; energy drinks often contain large amounts of sugar and sweeteners. A single 16-oz drink may have about 54 grams of added sugar, exceeding the daily recommended amount. A highly sugary diet can lead to unwanted weight gain, dental problems, and an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. There are other risks for vulnerable groups, including pregnant women, children, and those with medical conditions such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

A boost of caffeine can be great if you find yourself tired and lacking mental alertness, but it shouldn’t be the only way you try to improve your energy levels on a long-term basis. Speak with your Atrius Health provider to determine the safest alternatives for improving your energy level.

About The Author

Dr. Beshoy Sidhom

Dr. Beshoy Sidhom joined Atrius Health in 2021 and is a board-certified family medicine provider at our Harvard Vanguard Chelmsford location. He received his medical degree from The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and completed his residency at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester. Dr. Sidhom’s clinical interests include pediatric care, women’s health, in-office procedures, medical education, and evidence-based medicine.

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