How do energy drinks affect our health?

Better performance, energy boost, enhanced alertness — these benefits take center stage in the marketing of energy drinks, popularly consumed by teenagers and young adults.

But what are the concerning health effects that loom beyond these short-term benefits?

There are a number of them, with younger age groups being particularly vulnerable to health risks. It is not surprising a recent study from the United Kingdom even encouraged banning the sale of energy drinks to children.

First off, we know that too much sugar can increase the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, tooth decay, inflammation, etc. Unlike sugar sourced from fruits, energy drinks cause a rapid spike in blood sugar levels since they do not contain any fiber.

As per dietary guidelines in the United States, the recommended limit for daily sugar intake is 50 grams or four tablespoons. However, the World Health Organization recommends halving this limit to 25 grams or 6 teaspoons.

Estimates revealed energy drinks like Monster and Rockstar contain over 50 grams of sugar per can while Redbull, the most popular energy drink in the country, contains nearly 27 grams.

And aside from sugar, these drinks can also contain anywhere between 80 mg to over 500 mg of caffeine varying by size and brand. For comparison, coffee only contains 60 to 120 mg of caffeine in an 8-ounce serving.

Energy drinks are “highly marketed to adolescent boys in ways that encourage risky behavior, including rapid and excessive consumption,” said Dr. Jennifer L. Harris from the University of Connecticut. “As a result, emergency room visits by young people in connection with energy drinks are rising.”

Caffeine takes longer to be eliminated from the body in children and teenagers compared to adults. As a result, these drinks could potentially lead to headaches, behavioral problems, insomnia, and anxiety issues in younger age groups.

When considering effects on the brain, harmful outcomes are evident when alcohol is involved. Just like soda, people also mix energy drinks with vodka or other liquors, a combination which can increase stimulation. But experts also warn this can turn off natural cues in our brain and make us more likely to overindulge (i.e. binge drink) and lose control.

“The disconnect between what you feel and how you act is what is the problem here,” said Cecile Marczinski, a psychologist at Northern Kentucky University. “Stimulation may not be a good thing when you’re drinking because you may drink longer, decide to stay at a party where you’re drinking longer, and drink far more than you originally intended.”

Energy drinks also contain ingredients like taurine and ginseng, which are not found in other beverages. It is speculated such additional supplements may be associated with heart-related problems, as suggested in a few small studies.

In a 2017 study, for example, researchers divided participants into two groups where one consumed soda-like drinks while the other consumed energy drinks. Despite both groups consuming the same amount of caffeine, those who drank the energy drinks experienced a longer QT interval i.e. how long the heart’s ventricles take to prepare to beat again.