By Julie Robles
Nearly every college student has pulled an “all-nighter” with the help of energy drinks, but few have seriously considered the negative effects the long list of chemicals and ingredients could have on the body. As the job market diminishes and acceptance to professional schools becomes more competitive, students must work harder to gain an edge over their peers. Since energy drinks promise to maintain focus and mental performance, it is not surprising that the consumption of beverages such as Rockstar and Red Bull is on the rise among young adults; however, with their mysterious additives and lack of ingredient regulation, students would be better off getting their caffeine fix elsewhere.
There is a wide variety of energy drinks and an even wider variety of ingredients. Not only is caffeine the most prevalent of the ingredients, it is also one of the most common psychoactive stimulants in the world. It acts as an antagonist in the central nervous system, blocking alpha-receptors and increasing catecholamine interaction with beta-receptors. The catecholamines increase the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the “fight or flight” response. Increased sympathetic activity leads to an increase in energy and mental alertness and a decrease in appetite. Caffeine also acts as a diuretic, increasing the body’s fluid output. The loss of fluid from the body decreases blood plasma volume, and to maintain homeostasis the cardiac output must increase. This further improves mental and physical performance. Another common stimulant present in energy drinks is sugar, and a lot of it. The high sugar content causes a stimulating “high” that is eventually followed by a “crash.” With the exclusion of diet and low-calorie options, energy drinks contain between six to nine teaspoons of sugar per serving. Since most cans contain multiple servings, the average sugar content per can is realistically around fourteen to twenty teaspoons of sugar, which translates into many additional calories.
While caffeine and sugar can usually be found in the average diet, guarana and taurine, two other common ingredients in energy drinks, are not. Guarana is a native plant of the Amazon, and the single seed of its fruit contains nearly five times more caffeine than a coffee bean. Since it mostly contains caffeine, guarana is believed to have many of the same effects as caffeine including increased energy and physical performance as well as weight loss due to appetite suppression. Another unfamiliar ingredient is taurine, which is believed to improve focus as well as increase mental and physical performance. Taurine does not contain caffeine, but is an amino acid that aids in the development of the nervous system.
When put under scientific scrutiny, energy drinks seem to live up to their claim of giving the consumer more energy along with increasing mental and physical performance. Studies have shown consuming energy drinks can improve driving capability and stimulate concentration in a tired individual. In a study comparing energy drink consumption to the consumption of a placebo, researchers found that “the energy drink showed clear energizing effects compared to a placebo.” There seems to be strong evidence for the effectiveness of energy drinks, but research has yet to distinguish whether or not these energizing effects are due to the high caffeine content or the herbal supplements found in energy drinks. Energy drinks may be scientifically proven to be effective, but their effects may be no different than drinking a few cups of strong coffee.
While caffeine can be found in both coffee and energy dinks, the manner in which the average consumer drinks an energy drink greatly differs from sipping a morning cup of coffee. Served chilled and with a taste akin to soda, there is much higher probability that energy drinks will be consumed quicker and in higher quantity. Faster intake combined with the incomplete documentation on labels can cause the accidental over-consumption of caffeine. This increased intake is associated with many health risks. High levels of caffeine in young adults can cause high blood pressure, irritability, insomnia, heart arrhythmia, acid reflux, ulcers and a decrease in calcium levels in bones. Scientific literature defines a high level of caffeine as consuming 250mg or more in a limited time span. To reach this level, you would have to drink about four regular-sized cups of coffee, but it would only take about one and a half full-sized energy drinks. The amount of caffeine per serving in energy drinks is around 160mg compared to the 100mg found in coffee, and most energy drinks contain multiple servings.
Alarmingly, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require the additional caffeine dosages be listed on the label. In fact, most energy drink labels do not account for the substantial amount of caffeine added by guarana. Taking into account the levels of guarana per serving, it is a reasonable estimate that consuming a single energy drink containing multiple servings could easily produce this high level of caffeine in the body. The danger zone of 400mg and above may be reached much quicker and unknowingly due to this discrepancy in information. In addition, very little research has been done on the other exotic supplement, taurine. Evidence suggests it may decrease heart rate, but the findings were somewhat inconclusive. Disturbingly, the FDA has not even approved the safety of consuming taurine due to insufficient data, nor do they regulate many of the other supplements found in energy drinks.
The effectiveness of energy drinks ironically presents another health risk. Energy drinks can cause disruptions in sleeping patterns and lead to a chronic lack of sleep. Without adequate sleep, daily functions could become impaired or even become dangerous in the case of driving. In addition to sleep deprivation, the health risks from energy drinks are very real. The over consumption of energy drinks has sent many young adults to the emergency room and has even caused death. An 18-year old in Ireland died after consuming four energy drinks before a basketball game. This tragedy resulted in a temporary ban of energy drink use in many European countries.
Red Bull may give you wings, but they come at a high price. The high and unregulated level of caffeine in energy drinks can cause cardiovascular and digestive problems, and there have been very few studies done on its long-term effects. In addition, the beneficial effects of energy drinks may be due solely to their high caffeine content, meaning the additional supplements may be useless and only serve to increase the consumer’s exposure to health risks. Coffee is a better option since it does not contain extraneous supplements and the consumer can better regulate their caffeine intake, all the while providing the same increase in energy.
 Alpha-receptors are associated with the parasympathetic nervous system, which is involved in the “rest and digest” body response. Beta-receptors are associated with the sympathetic nervous system, which is involved in the “fight or flight” body response. Catecholamines are the messengers responsible for the activation of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. The blockage of alpha-receptors would increase their interaction with beta-receptors, and therefore increase sympathetic activity in the body.
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