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The Dangerous Buzz on Energy and Power Drinks


In the past, people used to turn to coffee or orange juice to get through a midday slump, but today, many are turning to power and energy drinks for a quicker and longer-lasting jolt. The power drink industry is booming with projected sales of $9 billion and no sign of slowing down anytime soon. Power drinks were originally marketed for athletes as an aid to increase their stamina, but now they are being advertised to the general office worker trying to beat the 3 o’clock blues, college students trying to stay awake for class, and even the sleep-deprived stay-at-home mom. They are popular since they claim to increase energy and alertness with the help of natural ingredients, so what could be the problem?

Energy drinks were popularized in the U.S. with the 1997 introduction of Red Bull, a carbonated beverage from Austria that contains 80 mg of caffeine. Today there are several brands available including 5 Hour Energy, AMP Energy, Crunk, Jolt, and Rockstar, just to name a few. Some contain as much caffeine as five cups of coffee.

“Many energy products use several ingredients to illicit a buzz, but we don’t know the effects of their interactions when taken at higher doses,” warns Rachel Begun, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Energy drinks are classified as dietary supplements, which are not regulated by the FDA. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) prevents dietary supplements from being subjected to approval by the FDA.

The biggest consumers are children and young adults under 25, and they are the ones mostly targeted in advertisements. However, power drinks are seen as so harmful to this demographic that some countries like Denmark, Turkey and Uruguay have banned them completely and Norway prohibits sale of these beverages to children under age 15.

Energy drinks are linked to heart palpitations, high blood pressure and cardiac arrest and even death. If a child takes medication for ADHD, for example, and then drinks a power drink, the results can be overwhelming to the body, since the drugs act as a stimulant and drinking this type of beverage only adds more stimulants to an already overactive body. The risk rises if the child suffers from chronic diseases or takes other medications, according to the journal Pediatrics.

College students are even more at risk for over-consuming power drinks since they rely on their high caffeine and sugar content to stay awake for exams and class. In a survey, it was revealed that 51% of college students regularly consumed more than one power drink per month. They are also more likely to mix the drinks with alcohol.

Pregnant or nursing women need to especially be wary of power drinks since their high caffeine levels can affect the brain development of fetuses and nursing babies. Power drink consumption is also a suspected cause of late term miscarriages, low birth weights and stillbirths.

However, energy drinks promise to give you strength through the use of mainly sugar, caffeine, B vitamins, ginkgo biloba and other herbs, so where is the harm?

The sugar levels in these drinks are so high that they can cause or aggravate diabetes, and promote obesity, according to Peter Glassman, MD, who has spent the last 20 years of his practice in addiction medicine and understands the addictive nature behind energy drinks.

Caffeine levels in energy drinks are also very high and this can cause nervousness, irritability, sleeplessness, increased urination, abnormal heart rhythms and dyspepsia. Just to give you an idea of how dangerous their caffeine content is, consider this: one once of cola contains anywhere from 12.8 to 25 mg caffeine per ounce, but energy drinks contain up to 35.7 mg per ounce and the smaller packaged energy drinks offer a concentrated level of up to 90-171 mg of caffeine per ounce!

“From a natural medicine perspective, these drinks take us out of tune with our bodies and knowing when we need to rest and recuperate” says holistic nutritionist, Melanie Angelis MSCAM, who practices alternative medicine in Florida.

Taurine is another potentially dangerous ingredient in these drinks. It is an amino acid which is produced in our body from the food (meat, fish, and dairy products) that we eat. It maintains our energy levels by regulating our heartbeat and our muscle contractions. Combining caffeine and taurine has been linked to heart attacks and sudden cardiac deaths.

At least four caffeine related deaths associated with energy drinks have been documented. Caffeine dosage is not required to be on the product label for food in the United States, unlike drugs, but some advocates are urging the FDA to change this practice.

Many also don’t realize how harmful these drinks are to one’s teeth. A recent study published in the journal General Dentistry found that the high acidity level in sports and energy drinks can cause irreversible tooth damage by eroding enamel, especially in adolescents.

Ginseng is another natural herb commonly added to power drinks which increases energy and endurance and reduces fatigue and effects of stress. However, abuse of this substance can lead to hypertension, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, headaches, agitation, restlessness and insomnia.

Denise Baron, an, integrative wellness coach who works with people who are addicted to sugary drinks, recommends supplements, teas and herbal water like Ayala’s Herbal Water for those who want to kick the energy drink habit. She cautions that if you need an energy boost, there is no quick fix. The best way to become energized is by allowing yourself hours of sleep, daily exercise, taking a nap or a cold shower, or drinking juice or green tea.

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