Do We Need to Re-Think Our Drinks?

Debbie Melvin  |  12/12/2006 9:24:51 PM

One of the cultural trends in the current generation of college students is the consumption of energy drinks. These quasi-soft drinks are being promoted and sold by the millions to students of all ages across the country under some very catchy names, though virtually all of them contain the same ingredients that can give a quick boost of energy. These super-sweet drinks are fortified with lots of caffeine and often other herbal ingredients.

Almost all university students are familiar with caffeine, mostly because they use it to stay awake to study by consuming coffee and cola beverages. For most people, moderate doses of caffeine, 200 to 300 milligrams, or about two to four cups of brewed coffee a day, are not harmful. But how does the energy drink content of caffeine compare to coffee? Caffeine is not one of the ingredients required by the FDA to be listed on the nutrition facts label. Because caffeine content is not disclosed on the label, energy drinks may pose a health threat to unsuspecting consumers who should limit their caffeine intake, such as those with hypertension, pregnant women or those who are sensitive to caffeine. Energy drinks are not included in the FDA regulation that limits caffeine in colas or sodas to 65 milligrams per 12-ounce serving.

Energy drinks are typically sold in tall slender cans. For the most part, a container can have 70-115 milligrams of caffeine, regardless of the number of ounces. A cup of coffee has similar amounts. But energy drinks have more than caffeine. Coffee does not have taurine, guarana or as much sugar. It is all these ingredients together that give energy drinks their kick. Taurine is not an essential amino acid but is added in to many energy drinks. Claims that improved reaction time, concentration and memory are linked to taurine are unsubstantiated. The herb guarana, a South African plant, or the guarana seed used in some drinks, has stimulant properties that are similar to those of caffeine. The amount of caffeine in guarana is not considered part of the added caffeine in these products. So the true caffeine content is difficult to estimate with the additional ingredients. Some energy drinks may also contain other stimulants.

The downside of energy drinks is related to their overuse and misuse. When a teenage girl brings energy drinks to school and relies on them, instead of eating food, to give her energy for the day, it is a problem. When an athlete believes he or she will gain a competitive edge by consuming several cans before a sporting event, it is a problem. Excessive caffeine, more than 500 to 600 milligrams, can cause:

  • restlessness
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • muscle tremors
  • sleeplessness
  • headaches
  • nausea, diarrhea or other gastrointestinal problems
  • abnormal heart rhythms

A person’s sensitivity to caffeine depends on body mass, their history of caffeine use and their level of stress. People with smaller body mass feel the effects of caffeine sooner than those with larger body mass. People who do not regularly consume caffeine tend to be more susceptible to its negative effects than people who do. All types of stress, psychological stress or heat stress, can increase a person’s sensitivity to caffeine.

The most serious area of misuse of energy drinks is when they are mixed with alcohol. It is a common practice today. There is presently no law that prohibits the mixing of alcohol with energy drinks. However, The Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration did send warning letters to several manufacturers of energy drinks that also included alcohol in their products. Since energy drinks are stimulants, and alcohol is a depressant, the combination can mask how intoxicated a person is. The stimulant effect makes a person think they are not impaired so they are more likely to get behind the wheel of a car. Once the stimulant effect wears off, the depressant effects of the alcohol will return and could cause respiratory depression or other effects. Both energy drinks and alcohol are dehydrating which can hinder the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol and will increase its toxicity.

If you have found yourself consuming several cans of energy drinks each day, just to get by, and you are not sleeping very well at night, it is time to take a look at your caffeine habit. Remember that chronically losing sleep results in sleep deprivation. Sleep loss is cumulative, and even small nightly decreases can add up and disturb daytime function. Sleep deprivation can cause impaired memory, mood swings, lack of concentration, and poor performance at work or school. Using caffeine to mask sleep deprivation can create an unwanted cycle. For example, a person drinks caffeinated beverages because they have trouble staying awake during the day. But the caffeine keeps them from falling asleep at night, shortening the length of time they sleep and causing restless sleep. They are then tired the next day and need another jolt of caffeine to have enough energy for the day. The best way to break this cycle is to start limiting caffeine and add more hours of quality sleep. Also, avoiding caffeine beverages eight hours before the desired bedtime can help one to sleep better. The body does not store caffeine but it takes many hours for it to eliminate the stimulant and its effects.

The bottom line: don’t fall for the hype. Drink iced tea, coffee or cola in moderation. As a parent, keep an eye on what your children are drinking, especially around exam time and encourage them to start studying early so they don't need to stay up all night to cram. According to the drug and alcohol abuse professionals, parents are the best anti-drug. This topic should be no less important.

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