Are energy drinks a good idea?

The popularity of energy drinks has never been higher. Marketing campaigns target teenagers and young adults with promises of improved energy, performance, concentration and more. The perceived association with glamorous lifestyles adds to the appeal. Do these drinks really offer any benefits? Are they safe?

Energy drinks typically include caffeine, guarana (also a source of caffeine), taurine (an amino acid or protein building-block), sugar, ginseng and some B vitamins. It’s the caffeine and the sugar that offer the “energy boost” as well as posing most of the risks. Energy drinks usually contain about 4-5 cups-of-coffee-worth of caffeine (about 500mg caffeine) and contain as much sugar as standard sugary cool drinks like Coca-Cola, if not more.

The upside

Caffeine does increase alertness and this creates a sense of being more energised. The effect is temporary though, and not without downsides…

The downside

  • Excessive caffeine can increase heart rate and blood pressure, leading to palpitations and even cardiac arrest in severe cases (there have been over 1000 hospital admissions in the USA).
  • Energy drinks contain a lot of sugar, known to be a major contributor to obesity and diabetes.
  • Energy drinks mask the effects of alcohol, resulting in more alcohol consumption.
  • Energy drinks can cause dehydration and kidney problems.

In addition to all of these risks, the consumption of energy drinks is something of a “con”: we all need a balance of activity, exercise, and sleep. No drink can change this. So using energy drinks to stay awake with the idea of managing on less sleep is self-defeating and will only cause worsening fatigue over time. This can become a vicious cycle of ever-increasing dependency on energy drinks and other sources of caffeine, much like an addiction. To make matters worse it diverts focus from the right approach to fatigue which is all about healthy living (once underlying medical conditions have been checked for).

The bottom line

There is some controversy in this area and, understandably enough, the huge energy-drink industry is very defensive on the question of safety. There are some real health concerns though and the ultimate reality that you cannot “con” your body with stimulants like caffeine suggests that sensible advice would be to avoid or minimise the use of these drinks. Reserve them for genuine emergencies (e.g. through-the-night deadline work). Never consume more than one energy drink a day. Choose sugar-free versions. Do not use them mixed with alcohol. These seem like reasonable guidelines.