Debate Magazine

Are Energy Drinks Safe?

By Eowyn @DrEowyn

We all have pet peeves.

One of my pet peeves are those TV commercials for 5-hour Energy Drinks telling brainwashing women that buying those drinks is the way to help “fight” breast cancer. The Avon Foundation for Women even has the unmitigated gall to call it a “crusade.”

5-hour energy drink

Every time I see the commercial, I think to myself:

Just wait till some scientist tells us that imbibing those 5-hour Energy Drinks actually cause breast cancer.

That really isn’t so far-fetched a notion.

Researchers already have discovered that energy drinks, which are loaded with caffeine, actually change the way the heart beats and, thus, can increase the risk of potentially fatal heart rhythm problems.

Anna Hodgekiss reports for Daily Mail that research found that even healthy adults who consumed the drinks had significantly increased heart contraction rates one hour later. This means that the chamber of the heart that pumps blood around the body – the left ventricle – is contracting harder even an hour after the energy drink.

The study was presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

The German researchers examined the effect of drinks high in caffeine and taurine – such as Red Bull and other energy drinks – on 18 healthy adults with an average age of 27.5 years.

Each of the volunteers underwent MRI scan of the heart before and one hour after consuming an energy drink containing taurine (400 mg/100 ml) and caffeine (32 mg/100 ml).

After the drink, these people had “significantly increased peak strain” and contractility in the left ventricle of the heart that receives oxygenated blood from the lungs and pumps it to the aorta, which distributes it throughout the rest of the body.

Dr. Jonas Dörner of the cardiovascular imaging section at the University of Bonn, Germany said, “Until now, we haven’t known exactly what effect these energy drinks have on the function of the heart. Usually they contain taurine and caffeine as their main pharmacological ingredients and the amount of caffeine is up to three times higher than in other caffeinated beverages like coffee or cola. There are many side effects known to be associated with a high intake of caffeine, including rapid heart rate, palpitations, rise in blood pressure and, in the most severe cases, seizures or sudden death. We don’t know exactly how or if this greater contractility of the heart impacts daily activities or athletic performance. We need additional studies to understand this mechanism and to determine how long the effect of the energy drink lasts.”

Dr. Dörner said that while long-term risks to the heart from drinking energy drinks remain unknown, children, as well as people with known heart rhythm problems (cardiac arrhythmia), should avoid energy drinks, because changes in contractility could trigger arrhythmias.

He added that alcohol can increase heart rate, mixing energy drinks with it could compound the problem. “There are concerns about the products’ potential adverse side effects on heart function, especially in adolescents and young adults, but there is little or no regulation of energy drink sales.”

In the case of 5-Hour Energy Drinks, Forbes reports that they are so ubiquitous in the United States that those 5-hour Energy shots account for a whopping 90% of the national energy shot market.

According to an article by Barry Meier in The New York Times, 5-hour Energy has been cited in reports of 11 deaths; that is, 11 people who died had ingested 5-hour Energy drink at some time prior to their passing. The first death was reported on December 17, 2009. Non-fatal reports of 5-hour Energy Drink go back to 2005 and include typical symptoms such as dizziness, anxiety, and nausea all the way to seizures, brain hemorrhages, and heart attacks.

Two other brands of energy drinks are also reported to be dangerous:

  • Monster drinks were listed in five deaths and about 35 other non-fatal adverse reactions.
  • Rockstar was listed in 13 cases, none of which were deaths.

So what exactly are the ingredients of these “energy” drinks?

1. High levels of caffeine: Caffeine is a drug, capable of providing us with mental alertness but at higher doses can make us anxious, shaky, and have gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea. Monster and Rockstar contain 160 to 175 milligrams of caffeine in drink sizes ranging from 5 to 16 fluid ounces. That’s about 3-to-5 times the amount of caffeine in 12-ounce serving of a typical mass-marketed soda. The more concentrated 5-hour Energy doesn’t list its caffeine content but Consumer Reports determined that it contains 215 milligrams of caffeine per 2 fl. oz. bottle.

Another consideration relates to what else is being taken by people drinking any high-caffeine product. An increasing concern among neuroscientists is that caffeine seems to increase the lethality of drugs like ecstasy (X, MDMA), amphetamine, and methamphetamine in rats given caffeine doses in the range of human consumption (reviewed here). This is a concern because energy drinks are primarily targeted toward teens and young adults who are more likely than older adults to use illicit drug.

2. Vitamins: with some vitamins far exceeding recommended daily values.

3. Amino acids: Most troubling is phenylalanine, an amino acid that cannot be adequately broken down by people with a genetic disorder called phenylketonuria. This is why you’ll see diet sodas containing the artificial sweetener aspartame listed with a warning for phenylketonurics: aspartame contains phenylalanine. In such individuals, the amino acid gets converted instead to a chemical that can cause seizures, and even mental retardation in developing infants and children. Phenylketonuria is rather common in the US, occurring in 1 out of 15,000 people but is 3-to-5 times more common in Turkey and Scotland.

The bottom line:

Ask yourself why you’d want to drink these so-called “energy” drinks. Are you trying to stay awake while working or studying late or driving long hours? Take some time to get some sleep instead of exposing yourself to high caffeine levels and God knows what else.

If you absolutely must have “energy” drinks, be sure you talk with your doctor or pharmacist to learn if your health status and/or medications might interact negatively with very high doses of caffeine.

~Eowyn


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