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Watch for These Hidden Dangers Lurking in Energy Drinks

Maybe you haven’t slept well, or you simply feel like your energy levels are low, and you don’t have time for a nap. It can be tempting to reach for an energy drink. After all, these drinks are promoted as just the thing you need to give you a boost to help you get through your day.

But you might want to think twice before cracking open an energy drink can or bottle. We talked to Anne-Michelle Ruha, MD, a medical toxicologist at Banner Health. Although they may seem to “wake you up”, Dr. Ruha said that these drinks don’t provide any real benefits. In fact, they can be loaded with caffeine, sugar and other stimulants. 

Don’t confuse energy drinks with sports drinks. Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade are designed to replace the electrolytes and water you burn when exercising. Energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster Energy are intended to increase your energy levels.

The health risks of energy drinks

The high levels of caffeine and sugar in energy drinks can have serious health effects. “People make the mistake of thinking caffeine is harmless. Energy drinks can contain much more caffeine than you find in a cup of coffee or even medications. Consuming caffeine in high doses can kill. Although not common, deaths do occur from overconsumption of energy drinks,” Dr. Ruha said.

While the effects of caffeine can boost energy and help you feel more awake and alert, the large amounts of caffeine could lead to side effects such as:

In serious cases, lots of caffeine can lead to seizures and cardiac arrhythmias. “Small amounts of caffeine are not generally dangerous to most people. But large amounts can increase blood pressure and accelerate the heart rate,” said Dr. Ruha. “There are many situations in which these side effects can be hazardous.”

And keep in mind that caffeine combined with other products can increase your risk of adverse effects. Be careful of your caffeine consumption if you take certain over-the-counter supplements or prescription medications, such as ephedrine. Talk to your health care provider or pharmacist about potential interactions.

Energy drinks are also often high in sugar, high fructose corn syrup and carbohydrates, so they can increase your risk of developing diabetes. The sugar may spike your blood glucose levels. But it won’t necessarily give you more energy.

It’s a bad idea to combine alcohol and energy drinks

Mixing alcohol and energy drinks is a dangerous combination. The caffeine found in energy drinks can mask the depressive effects of alcohol. So, if you drink them together, you might not notice how alcohol is impairing you. That can lead you to drink too much alcohol and put you at risk of alcohol-related problems.

And despite what you may have heard, caffeine doesn’t make you metabolize alcohol more quickly or “sober you up,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What to know about choosing an energy drink

Energy drinks are often regulated as supplements rather than food products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines for supplements are different than those for food. That means manufacturers can add a lot of caffeine and other stimulants to energy drinks. You also can’t be sure that the information on the label is accurate.

Ingredients in energy drinks can include guarana, ephedra, taurine, ginseng and green tea. These may either contain large amounts of caffeine or mimic the effects of caffeine. Some energy drinks also have high levels of B vitamins. While those aren’t stimulants, they can create an allergic reaction in some people.

Dr. Ruha doesn’t think anyone should consume energy drinks. But if you’re a healthy adult and you want an energy drink to boost your energy temporarily, consider choosing one that doesn’t contain sugar or alcohol.

Energy drink marketing targets children, teens and young adults with ads. And children and adolescents have high levels of energy drink consumption. But the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend using them.

What can you do to boost your energy instead of turning to energy drinks?

Dr. Ruha said to improve your energy levels, you should get enough rest and stay well hydrated with water or sports drinks. For most people, plain water is the best choice for hydration. Exercising regularly and eating a healthy, balanced diet can also help. “That’s the best way to stay energized,” she said.

The bottom line

If you find your mental alertness and energy flagging, you might be tempted to turn to energy drinks for a boost. But the caffeine, sugar and other ingredients contained in energy drinks, like soft drinks, can be bad for your health. If you’d like to talk to a health care professional about safer alternatives for improving your energy levels, reach out to Banner Health.

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