Wdowik nutrition column: Energy drinks are not the best summer beverage

Note to Reporters: The following column was written by Melissa Wdowik, PhD, RDN, an assistant professor at Colorado State University in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and director of the Kendall Anderson Nutrition Center.

Red Bull, Monster and Rockstar dominate the energy drink market, while sales of Full Throttle, Amp, NOS and others continue to climb. Energy shots are also hot, including 5-hour Energy and similar products. What’s the attraction? Caffeine, of course. An energy drink is defined as any beverage that acts as a physical and mental stimulant. Popular especially among young adults and teenagers, they seem to be the perfect pick-me-up, yet health experts and organizations have cautioned against them. Below are the top five concerns.

1. Caffeine content is between 80 and 300 mg, depending on the product and size. Research shows an intake of up to 400 mg daily by healthy adults does not produce negative side effects, but as little as 100 mg can cause high blood pressure in adolescents. Energy drinks often contain additional stimulants such as guarana, and many people consume more than one serving daily, or include other caffeine sources such as coffee and soda. That adds up to a lot of jolts! Why does this matter? Caffeine is dehydrating, making it a poor choice during warm weather when water needs are higher, especially for anyone who is physically active. These products are different from sports drinks, which do provide hydration and are better summer beverage choices.

2. Other negative reactions frequently reported range from dizziness, headaches and depression to nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. More serious side effects include high blood pressure, high heart rate, hyperventilation, convulsions, tremors, involuntary muscle contractions, paralysis and even death.

3. Many energy drinks and shots are marketed as dietary supplements, and are therefore not regulated by the FDA. That means they may contain ingredients in unsafe amounts or ones that have not been tested. For example, there is insufficient research to establish the safety of carnitine, ginseng and taurine, common additives in popular energy drinks and shots.

4. Energy drinks are dangerous when combined with alcohol. First, both are diuretics, increasing the risk of dehydration and heart problems. Second, combining the two can make people believe they are sober so they are more likely to drink more alcohol, drive drunk, and misjudge their capabilities, even though their reaction time and judgement are highly impaired.

5. They can make a deadly combination with Adderall, a medication used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Unfortunately, young people may be taking Adderall without a prescription and thus, no medical supervision. With its mixture of stimulants, Adderall is not intended to be taken with other stimulants such as those found in energy products. According to Dr. Barry Braun, head of CSU’s department of Health and Exercise Science, Adderall plus exercise, energy drinks, and hot weather can be harmful. His studies of young adults showed that Adderall and exercise resulted in elevated heart rate and blood pressure, which when mixed with caffeine and hot weather can add up to a dangerous combination.

If you are thinking about using energy drinks, limit them, and consult your health care provider to make sure you do not have an underlying medical condition that could worsen as a result of using them.

Melissa Wdowik, PhD, RDN, is an assistant professor at Colorado State University in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and director of the Kendall Anderson Nutrition Center.