Exploring the Effects of Energy Drinks: Are They Addictive?

Are Energy Drinks Good or Bad for You?

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Are energy drinks addictive, or do they have other harmful side effects? As energy drinks continue to enjoy popularity, consumers don't know whether these beverages, associated with sports and an active lifestyle, are good or bad for them. And with many energy drinks marketed to children, parents wonder whether they are part of a healthy lifestyle for kids.

Ingredients of Energy Drinks

The ingredients of energy drinks vary a great deal from one brand to another, but many of them contain potentially harmful substances, such as caffeine, taurine, sugars, sweeteners and herbal supplements.

Although energy drinks are easily confused with sports drinks and vitamin waters, they are actually quite distinct in that sports drinks and vitamin waters may be suitable for rehydration, whereas energy drinks are not. Some of the ingredients in energy drinks carry potential risks, so these beverages typically provide little or no health benefits and can cause drug interactions.

The main psychoactive ingredient in energy drinks is caffeine, typically containing from three to five times the amount contained in cola, with the highest concentrations found in "energy shots." Caffeine is a stimulant of the central nervous system, which has effects on the brain that make you feel more alert by blocking the message that tells your brain you are tired. While many people find the effects of caffeine pleasantly refreshing, for some, it can induce anxiety, depression and other unpleasant side effects.

Consumption of Energy Drinks by Kids

Kids are consuming more and more caffeine in the form of soda and energy drinks. The average caffeine consumption of teens in the U.S. is 60-70 mg per day, but it can be as high as 700 mg per day. About a third of American teens and half of college students regularly consume energy drinks.

Many caffeinated beverages, including energy drinks, are deliberately marketed to kids. And the reputation of energy drinks as a rather illicit substance -- "speed in a can," "liquid cocaine" and a "legal drug" -- actually fueled their popularity when introduced in Austria after years of legal resistance. The excitement generated in young people at the thought of risk-taking is unfortunate and at the same time, cynically manipulated by advertisers. Alcoholic energy drinks are particularly concerning as a commodity marketed to risk-taking youth.

In this context, energy drinks can even be seen as a gateway drug, paving the way to experimentation with other substances.

Health Risks of Energy Drinks

There are a number of health risks associated with energy drinks, including:

  • Caffeine intoxication
  • Caffeine withdrawal symptoms, including headaches
  • Caffeine overdose, which can be life-threatening
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Sleep disorders
  • Calcium deficiency
  • Dental problems
  • Increased postprandial hyperglycemia, particularly concerning for people with diabetes

In addition, there is a risk of drug interactions when energy drinks are combined with:

  • Medications for ADD/ADHD
  • Antidepressant medications, including MAOIs and SSRIs
  • Over-the-counter painkillers, which can contain caffeine

Safe Limits to Energy Drink Consumption in Kids

As a psychoactive drug, it would not be appropriate to consider any consumption of caffeine by children or teens to be "safe." A better way to think about it is to limit kids' daily caffeine intake to below 2.5 mg per kg of body weight for children, and 100 mg per day for teens. Bear in mind that many everyday foods and drinks contain caffeine, and these should be included in your calculations.

And remember, energy drinks typically contain a lot of sugar, which can be addictive. Daily sugar consumption in childhood has been linked to violence later in life, and sugar addiction is harmful to kids. It is just one type of food addiction that can continue into adulthood and is a major contributor to the current obesity epidemic in kids and adults.

Sources:

Luebbe, A. & Bell, D. "Mountain Dew® or Mountain Don’t?: A Pilot Investigation of Caffeine Use Parameters and Relations to Depression and Anxiety Symptoms in 5th and 10th-Grade Students." J Sch Health: 79:380-387. 2009.

Seifert, S., Schaechter, E., Hershorin, E. & Lipshultz, S. "Health Effects of Energy Drinks on Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults." Pediatrics 127:511-528. 2011.

Shioda, K., Nisijima, K., Nishida, S. & Kato, S. "Possible Serotonin Syndrome Arising From an Interaction Between Caffeine and Serotonergic Antidepressants." Human Psychopharmacology 19:353-354. 2004.

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