A relatively new phenomenon, energy drinks have become incredibly popular, with profits increasing almost six-fold from just 2002 to 2008 alone. And despite bans on the drinks on college campuses, in entire countries, and proposed bans on sales to minors, the downsides may not be well-known— or at least not well-known enough to curb salesA survey of energy drink consumption patterns among college students. Malinauskas, B.M., Aeby, V.G., Overton, R.F., et al. Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina. Nutrition Journal, 2007 Oct 31;6:35..

Sugar High — The Need-to-Know

Though often marketed separately, energy drinks are basically amped-up soda with some potentially dangerous side effectsThe “high” risk of energy drinks. Arria, A.M., O’Brien, M.C. Center on Young Adult Health and Development, Department of Family Science, University of Maryland School of Public Health, College Park, MD. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2011 Feb 9;305(6):600-1.. Super-sized energy drinks are often packed with calories and sugar— one brand even has as much sugar as six Krispy Kreme doughnuts! And it looks like the dentist was telling the truth: All that sugar actually could rot teeth— more than standard sodas, evenEffect of carbonated beverages, coffee, sports and high energy drinks, and bottled water on the in vitro erosion characteristics of dental enamel. Kitchens, M., Owens, B.M. Journal of Clinical Pediatric Dentistry, 2007 Spring;31(3):153-9..

But it’s not just sugar that makes energy drinks a dangerous choice. Many also contain higher-than-healthy doses of caffeine, which may cause anxiety, insomnia, irregular heartbeat, and increased blood pressure. All that caffeine also acts as a diuretic, which can lead to dehydrationDiuretic potential of energy drinks. Riesenhuber, A., Boehm, M., Posch, M., et al. Department of Pediatrics, Medical University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria. Amino Acids, 2006 Jul;31(1):81-3.. About 400-450 mg of caffeine per day is considered safe for most adults, but it’s easy to overdo it with energy drinksBeverage caffeine intake in US consumers and subpopulations of interest: estimates from the Share of Intake Panel survey. Knight, C.A., Knight, I., Mitchell, D.C., et al. Knight International, Chicago, IL. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 2004 Dec;42(12):1923-30.. Though 8-ounce cans typically keep the caffeine under 100 mg, many manufacturers also have super-sized versions (sometimes nearly double the original’s size!) and concentrated energy “shots” that often contain over 200 mg.

Energy drinks allegedly owe their stamina-boosting powers to more than just caffeine, though. One popular addition is taurine, an amino acid naturally found in foods like meat and fish and a necessary component in our dietsTherapeutic applications of taurine. Birdsall, T.C. Thorne Research, Inc., Dover, ID. Alternative Medicine Review, 1998 Apr;3(2):128-36.. While some research supports the use of taurine to enhance mental or athletic performance, long-term studies haven’t proven its safety (or usefulness) as a supplement. Other common drink additions include herbs (like ginkgo biloba), and vitamins B6 and B12. Often, the supplements’ reps are shaky at best, and a healthy diet likely provides plenty of them— no need to pack in the extra sugar. Plus, while labels may tout the magical contents of these cans, the additions may not even be in high enough concentrations to yield the intended resultsSafety issues associated with commercially available energy drinks. Clauson, K.A., Shields, K.M., McQueen, C.E., et al. College of Pharmacy-West Palm Beach, Nova Southeastern University, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Journal of the American Pharmacists Association, 2008 May-Jun;48(3):e55-63; quiz e64-7..

Jitter Bug — Your Action Plan

While energy drinks can be problematic for many, they can be especially troublesome for certain groups of people. While 30 to 50 percent of adolescents and young adults indulge, this population is more likely to experience negative side effects— including seizures, diabetes, cardiac abnormalities, or mood and behavioral disorders— than adultsHealth effects of energy drinks on children, adolescents, and young adults. Seifert, S.M., Schaechter, J.L., Hershorin, E.R., et al. Department of Pediatrics and Pediatric Integrative Medicine Program, University of Miami, Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine, Miami, Florida. Pediatrics, 2011 Mar;127(3):511-28.. And while the increase in blood pressure caused by energy drinks isn’t usually a problem for healthy adults, those with existing heart problems are especially at-risk for dangerous side effects.

Add alcohol, and there’s an even bigger chance for disaster. Red bull and vodka might be uber-trendy, but the stimulants in the energy drink can mask the effects of the alcohol, increasing risks associated with alcohol consumption like impulsive behaviorEnergy drink consumption and increased risk for alcohol dependence. Arria, A.M., Caldeira, K.M., Kasperski, S.J., et al. Center on Young Adult Health and Development, Department of Family Science, University of Maryland School of Public Health, College Park, MD. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, 2011 Feb;35(2):365-75. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2010.01352.x..

With energy drinks off the table, try turning to caffeinated black coffee and green tea for a healthier energy boost. Plus, they even offer additional health benefits like high doses of antioxidants. Other sources of a natural jolt include high-protein, high-fiber energy bars (though beware of those with high sugar content), dark chocolate, and even a quick run on the treadmillHigh protein high fibre snack bars reduce food intake and improve short term glucose and insulin profiles compared with high fat snack bars. Williams, G., Noakes, M., Keogh, J., et al. CSIRO Human Nutrition, Adelaide, Australia. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2006;15(4):443-50.. And then, of course, there’s always catching a few zzz’s.