Energy drinks aren’t anything new, and they often make headlines, but not for “being healthy.” We often hear of folks who have consumed these suffering from side effects or unfavorable symptoms when all they were after was the promise of getting wings and being able to fly.
Most recently, I have noticed energy drink brands are coming out with more flavors that are appealing to children, like “cotton candy,” “purple haze,” and even “rainbow unicorn.” While these sound (and taste) like something that came straight from Willie Wonka himself, they are not anything I would allow my child to consume. Oh no, am I becoming my mother?!
Not so fast, though. If energy drinks were just caffeine, we would be having an entirely different discussion, as caffeine has been shown to have myriad of benefits. But many energy drinks also contain herbs, vitamins, amino acids, and chemicals, such as guarana, taurine, L-carnitine, ginseng, niacin, and yohimbine on top of caffeine. Alone these may not raise many eyebrows, but when you throw all of them together, then add up to 400 mg of caffeine and a hefty dose of sugar, you are talking about a hot mess, leading to those headlines mentioned above.
The Health Downsides of Most Energy Drinks
In one study, energy drinks were shown to cause more forceful heart contractions, which could be harmful to some with certain heart conditions. Research in 2018 showed that just 90 minutes after consuming a 24-oz energy drink, the inner diameter of arteries was cut in half. It’s thought that the high level of sugar and caffeine were to blame.
It may not surprise you to learn that energy drinks can really wreak havoc on your sleep hygiene as well. While energy drinks can do a fantastic job of keeping people awake, when abused, they can cause some people to miss sleep altogether, which has a number of negative consequences.
There are documented reports of consumers feeling increased anxiety when consuming caffeinated beverages such as energy drinks. For example, excessive amounts of caffeine can even bring on panic attacks.
Blood pressure is also something to consider. A study published by the AHA (American Heart Association) showed energy drinks can boost blood pressure more than drinks with just caffeine. The combination of ingredients found in energy drinks are believed to increase the risk of heart-related problems more than coffee or tea.
The following are the most common symptoms associated with energy drink consumption:
- Gastrointestinal upset
- Chest pain/ischemia
- Paresthesia (tingling or numbing of the skin)
- Respiratory distress
Let’s investigate the ingredients mentioned above and why we may want to be wary of combining them or consuming too much.
The Ingredients in Energy Drinks: Pros & Cons
Also known as guarana paste or gum, Brazilian cocoa, and Paullinaia cupana, this ingredient contains caffeine, a stimulant, and by comparison, may contain twice what’s found in coffee beans. Dried leaves of guarana contain from 1 – 4% caffeine, whereas coffee beans only contain roughly < 1 – 2% caffeine. At low doses, guarana is more like a strong cup of coffee, which is safe for most of us. It’s when you consume too much that you can experience the uncomfortable effects. Not surprisingly, they’re similar to the effects of coffee overuse: increased sweating, heart rate, and blood pressure, for example. You may also feel twitchy or irritable. Guarana has a long history of use as a natural energizer. It’s used by indigenous Brazilians as a long-lasting stimulating drink. It also may help stimulate the mind. Today, it’s found as part of numerous natural weight-loss products and, of course, energy drinks.
L-Carnitine, or Levocarnitine, is an amino acid naturally produced in the body, which can be converted into other amino acids called acetyl-L-carnitine and propionyl-L-carnitine. It’s unknown, however, whether or not the benefits of carnitines can be substituted for each other. We do know that L-carnitine helps the body produce energy and is vital for heart and brain function, muscle movement, and other body processes.
Supplements can be used to increase levels of L-carnitine in folks whose natural levels are too low. This can be caused by genetic disorders, certain medications (valproic acid for seizures for example), or some medical procedure (such as hemodialysis for kidney disease), which use up the body’s natural L-carnitine.
In one study, doses of around two grams per day appeared to be safe for long-term use. There were some mild side effects, including nausea and stomach discomfort. That being said, L-carnitine supplements, when added with other ingredients (i.e., stimulants), may raise blood levels of trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO) over time. High levels of TMAO are linked to an increased risk of atherosclerosis or clogged arteries.
Taurine is an amino acid which is important in several of the body’s metabolic processes. It is thought to also have antioxidant properties. But little is known about the effects of long-term supplemental use.
Taurine occurs naturally in food, especially in shellfish (e.g., scallops, mussels, clams) and in the dark meat of turkey and chicken, as well as in other meats and eggs.
While this is considered a safe and effective ingredient, the cause for concern is, of course, when consumed in large doses and when combined with other ingredients, such as caffeine.
The herb ginseng is known by a number of different names such as Canadian Ginseng, Ginseng à Cinq Folioles, Ginseng Américain, Ginseng Americano, Ginseng Root, North American Ginseng, Occidental Ginseng, Panax Quinquefolia, Red Berry, Ren Shen, Sang, Shang, Shi Yang Seng, Xi Yang Shen, and other names.
In small doses, ginseng has been shown to help improve mood and brain function, reduce stress, boost immune system, and aid in weight loss.
Some studies, however, have also linked high doses of ginseng to sleeplessness, while other possible symptoms include low blood pressure, edema, palpitations, tachycardia, cerebral arteritis, vertigo, headache, insomnia, mania, vaginal bleeding, amenorrhea, fever, appetite suppression, pruritus, cholestatic hepatitis, mastalgia, euphoria, and miscarriage.
Yohimbine, also known as Yohimbe and Yohimbehe, is the bark of a West African tree which is rich in alkaloids, and both the crude bark and purified compound long have been hailed as aphrodisiacs.
Yohimbe has also been shown to cause dilation of peripheral blood vessels along with central nervous system stimulation. Therefore, the herb has been investigated for erectile dysfunction. Clinical studies do suggest that yohimbe may be effective in helping relieve male impotence.
Yohimbine is highly stimulatory, and there is a high chance of yohimbine interacting with neurological medication. So, caution should also be exercised. Plus, many supplements containing yohimbine either don’t list on the label how much yohimbine is included, or if they do, the actual dose can range from 25 – 150% of the dose listed.
One of the top ingredients in many energy drinks in sugar in its numerous forms (from high fructose corn syrup to cane sugar to more creative names to make it seem “healthier,” like “natural cane juice”). And even if you opt for a “sugar-free” version, you may be consuming any number of artificial sweeteners, which have a long list of negative health effects as well.
Caffeine vs. Energy Drinks
The question is, do you really need all of the ingredients above? Or is caffeine the key ingredient?
In a recent study, researchers examined participants’ brain activity while they performed a task designed to require attention. For this study, the researchers examined how fast participant’s brains were able to respond to a change in letters appearing on a computer screen.
There were three groups—one consumed only water, one group consumed water with caffeine, and the last group consumed a popular energy drink. To ensure nobody knew which group they were a part of and level the playing field, so to speak, the administrators of the study added a colored dye to each beverage.
The participants who drank the caffeinated drinks had faster brain responses compared with those who drank plain water. However, there was absolutely zero difference in the groups that had regular caffeine added to water and the group that consumed energy drinks.
To help you can get an idea of caffeine levels in your favorite beverages:
- 8 oz cup of coffee contains 110 – 150 mg
- Brewed black tea contains 47 mg
- Brewed green tea which has around 35 mg
- Coca Cola contains 34 mg
- Dr. Pepper contains 41 mg
- Mountain Dew contains 55 mg.
Energy drinks tend to contain more—often a lot more. For example, a 16-oz Rockstar Energy Drink contains 160 mg, a 2-oz 5-Hour Energy Shot contains 200 mg, and 16-oz Bang Energy Drink containing 357 mg.
To find out how much caffeine your favorite beverage contains, check out the following Caffeine Calculator.
The Pros & Cons of Energy Drinks: A Recap
Too much of anything can potentially be dangerous, even water and necessary vitamins. Common sense, moderation, and knowing your own body and how it reacts to stimulants are important when consuming energy drinks.
When consumed in moderation, energy drinks appear to pose few adverse, short-term side effects for most people. However, the long-term side effects of consuming energy drinks aren’t yet fully understood. Caffeine (trimethylxanthine) and other ingredients in these beverages are drugs and should be respected and used in accordance with established recommended daily limits.
It should go without saying that the information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and may not be construed as medical advice. The information is not intended to replace medical advice offered by physicians. If you are being treated for a medical condition or have any underlying medical concerns, please consult your physician before including any caffeinated beverages (e.g., energy drinks) in your healthy diet.