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Danger in a Can: Are Energy Drinks Safe?

The traditional pick-me-up drink has always been coffee. It provides a quick wake-up and keeps us from feeling groggy. For most, a cup of coffee is more than enough to stay alert. However, the bitter, fragrant drink has slowly been nudged out of the way and replaced with canned energy drinks. It’s now common to see someone walking around with an energy drink can in hand and it’d be a task to find a vending machine that didn’t offer at least one energy drink option. Some people like energy drinks for the caffeine rush, some like it for the taste, and some just consider it a healthy alternative to a soda. With a few different points of appeal, energy drinks have become undeniably popular.

However, that popularity has lead to the discovery of some negative aspects of energy drinks. While they may taste good and give an energy boost, they can potentially be dangerous and can’t really be considered healthy. There are a couple factors in the potential for energy drinks to negatively effect health. So are energy drinks safe? Let’s find out…

Caffeine.

The amount of caffeine in an energy drink varies depending on the brand. Each brand has its own recipe and that leads to a wide range of values in the drink contents. The most popular energy drinks range from 50mg to 100mg of caffeine per can but some energy drinks can contain up to 200mg. In comparison, a standard cup of coffee contains 100mg of caffeine. So, the caffeine content in the majority energy drinks isn’t astoundingly high or dangerous by itself. The caffeine danger comes from the amount of energy drinks consumed.

Although coffee has been a mainstay in the Western diet as a morning beverage for the better part of a century, the dangers of caffeine are only recently starting to be observe on a larger scale. Everyone knows at least one coffee addict that always seems to have a cup of coffee wit them but generally, people only drink one or two cups a day. As a normally hot drink with a slightly bitter taste, it’s not the type of beverage that is going to be consumed all day and most people only drink enough to wake them up in the morning. In contrast, energy drink are usually cold, flavorful, and sweet. They are the type of drinks that it’d be easy to enjoyably consume multiple cans of. It’s not uncommon for energy drink lovers to drink 3-4 cans a day. The highest recommended caffeine intake is about 400mg a day so if you’re drinking multiple cans of energy drinks on a daily basis, it’s not difficult to reach that limit or exceed it. With the brands that contain the highest amount of caffeine, you only need to drink two cans to reach the recommended limit.

Consuming too much caffeine has been linked to heart issues and alarmingly, has been cited as a possible factor in cases of teenage cardiac arrest. It is believed that high doses of caffeine cause the heart to contract more forcefully than normal, putting extra strain on the heart muscles. The abnormal contractions can become even more dangerous as the heart rate quickens – which is also an effect of drinking energy drinks. A study found that consuming energy drinks caused a 74% raise in the levels on norepinephrine, a stress hormone. Norepinephrine effects the brain’s response and mechanisms, as well as raising heart rate. And, as the topper on the Bad-For-Your-Heart cake, energy drinks can also raise blood pressure. This effect isn’t as scary as the previous two because the increase was only observed to be 6%. To a healthy individual, this is not dangerous if limited but it could pose a danger to those with hypertension or if it happens consistently.

According to those studies, drinking energy drinks will give you a heart that is beating too hard and too fast. If your heart is in that state on a frequent, prolonged basis, it can become weakened and raise your risk for experiencing a heart attack.

The negative effects of excessive caffeine are not limited to the heart. There have been cases of energy drinks inducing seizures. It’s a definite risk for those with epilepsy but the majority of seizures cases occurred in those who had no history of the disease or any predisposition towards having a seizure. The main factor behind the seizures is suspected of being the elevated caffeine levels and the ‘crash’ that results once the caffeine has begun to leave the system.

Anxiety is also raised by high caffeine consumption. An Australia study found that just one 250ml energy drink induced anxiety and had an effect on mood in younger adults. Men seemed to be more heavily impacted than women but it was reasoned that this difference could be due to the fact that men drink more energy drinks on average than women. The heightened anxiety can be further agitated by a lack of sleep. The high caffeine levels keep people awake and may lead to insomnia over time, which also has a very negative impact on mood.

Herbal Ingredients.

Most energy drinks are marketed as herbal supplements and despite the fact that there isn’t any proven health benefits from consuming them, companies are allowed to use the label due to the inclusion of ingredients such as Vitamin B3, ginseng, taurine, quercetin, and a few others. The herbal ingredients are mostly safe if consumed in smaller amounts but do pose health dangers when consumed at higher doses. Someone drinking multiple cans of energy drinks a day can easily consume more of these ingredients than is deemed safe.

Niacin, also known as Vitamin B3, is included in many energy drinks. It is considered safe with moderate usage but has been linked to stroke, liver damage, and increased heart rates when ingested in a larger quantity.

Taurine has been seen to cause kidney damage at higher doses.

Quercetin is sold as an energy supplement so it’s abundantly included in energy drinks. It is safe to consume up to 3.6 grams per day but going over that limit may lead to kidney damage.

Sugars

Unlike the other two factors that are related to drinking multiple cans of energy drinks a day, the sugar content comes into play with only a single can. The amount of sugar in an energy drink ranges from 26g to 35 g. To give a good idea of how high this is, the notorious sugary Coca-Cola brand soda contains 39g of sugar per can – only 4 grams more than some energy drinks.

According to the World Health Organization, the daily intake of sugar should not exceed 37.5 g to maintain a healthy diet. So, with just one can of an energy drink, you’ve already come close to meeting the limit. With two cans, you’ve far exceeded it. Consuming too much sugar is linked to a number of different health issues, particularly obesity, so the negative impacts of the sugar content in energy drinks can be quite large.

Some energy drinks come in sugar-free versions but these are not any healthier. To keep the drink from tasting bitter or medicinal, they have to add some type of sweetener. When they remove the sugar without drastically changing the taste of the drink, they replace it with a ton of artificial sweeteners that come with a plethora of health risks as well.

Overall, energy drinks won’t send you to the hospital after one can, but they can’t be considered healthy either. They come with a large risk for caffeine overdose, herbal supplement overdose, and have a high sugar content. Energy drinks are entirely safe to consume every once in a while but if you’re looking for a routine energy-boosting beverage, you’re better off sticking to the tried and true cup of coffee.

Resources:

Ali, Fahad, Hiba Rehman, Zaruhi Babayan, Dwight Stapleton, and Divya-Devi Joshi. “Energy Drinks and Their Adverse Health Effects: A Systematic Review of the Current Evidence.” Postgraduate Medicine 127.3 (2015): 308-22. Web.

Alsene, Karen, Jürgen Deckert, Philipp Sand, and Harriet De Wit. “Association Between A2a Receptor Gene Polymorphisms and Caffeine-Induced Anxiety.” Neuropsychopharmacology 28.9 (2003): 1694-702. Web.

Menci, Daniele, Francesca Maria Righini, Matteo Cameli, Matteo Lisi, Susanna Benincasa, Marta Focardi, and Sergio Mondillo. “Acute Effects of an Energy Drink on Myocardial Function Assessed by Conventional Echo-Doppler Analysis and by Speckle Tracking Echocardiography on Young Healthy Subjects.” Journal of Amino Acids 2013 (2013): 1-7. Web.

Sanchis-Gomar, Fabian, Helios Pareja-Galeano, Gianfranco Cervellin, Giuseppe Lippi, and Conrad P. Earnest. “Energy Drink Overconsumption in Adolescents: Implications for Arrhythmias and Other Cardiovascular Events.” Canadian Journal of Cardiology 31.5 (2015): 572-75. Web.

Svatikova, Anna, Naima Covassin, Kiran R. Somers, Krishen V. Somers, Filip Soucek, Tomas Kara, and Jan Bukartyk. “A Randomized Trial of Cardiovascular Responses to Energy Drink Consumption in Healthy Adults.” Jama 314.19 (2015): 2079. Web.

“FDA Releases Death, Injury Reports on Monster, Rockstar, 5-Hour Energy.” WebMD. WebMD. Web. 01 Mar. 2016.

“New Research Links Energy Drinks to Anxiety in Young Men.” Telethon Kids Institute. Web. 01 Mar. 2016.