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Are Energy Drinks Worth the Risk?

energy drinks

Energy drinks are probably the most popular caffeine products among athletes. The global energy drink market continues to grow. In 2013 the market was worth $39 billion, and it is expected to reach $61 billion by 2021. Thirty-one percent of children aged 12-17 years old regularly consume energy drinks, and the number rises to 34% among 18-24 year olds.

Energy drinks combine caffeine with other ingredients to boost energy. The typical energy drink—about 12 ounces—contains between 72 and 150 mg of caffeine. Larger cans can have up to 250 mg, and energy shots can contain as much as 260 mg. But energy drinks are also loaded with other ingredients, some of which do not mix well with medications, and some of which are on banned substance lists in many sports. According to reports collected since 2004, a total of 34 deaths have now been linked to energy drinks.

Caffeine drinks contain empty calories, and they are often loaded with sugar, which can lead to heart problems. Remember: caffeine is a drug! When they consume coffee, adolescents can experience the same symptoms as adults, and it doesn't take much caffeine to elicit such reactions.

What is an energy drink?

An energy drink is a beverage marketed to both athletes and the general public as a quick and easy means of relieving fatigue and improving performance. In addition to water, nearly all energy drinks contain carbohydrates and caffeine as their main ingredients. The carbohydrates provide nutrient energy while the caffeine acts as a stimulant to the central nervous system.

What are the differences between an energy drink and a sports drink?

Sports drinks are designed to provide rehydration during or after athletic activity. While contents vary, most sports drinks contain a 6 to 8% carbohydrate solution and a mixture of electrolytes. The carbohydrate and electrolyte concentrations are formulated to allow maximal absorption of the fluid by the gastrointestinal tract. Energy drinks often contain a higher concentration of carbohydrate (usually 8 to 11%), and thus a larger number of calories than sports drinks. They also contain high amounts of caffeine and, in some cases, other nutritional supplements. Other ingredients with caffeine-like effects may be present; yet, typically their caffeine content is not noted. Energy drinks are not appropriate for hydrating or rehydrating athletes during physical activity and should not be used in such circumstances.

What ingredients are found in energy drinks?

Carbohydrates- Most energy drinks have from 18g to 25g of carbohydrate per 8 ounces. The high carbohydrate concentration can delay gastric emptying and impede absorption of fluid in the gastrointestinal tract. 

Caffeine- Nearly all energy drinks contain some quantity of “natural” or synthetic caffeine. The caffeine concentration may range from the equivalent to an 8 ounce cup of coffee (85mg) to more than three times that amount.

Herbs- Many energy drinks include herbal forms of caffeine such as guarana seeds, kola nuts, and Yerba mate leaves, in addition to synthetic caffeine. The “performance-enhancing” effects, safety, and health benefits of other herbs like Astragalus, Echinacea, Ginko biloba, ginseng, and countless others have not been well established by scientific studies.

Vitamins- Athletes with reasonably good diets should be assured that they are at low risk for vitamin deficiency and typically do not need supplementation. There is no evidence to suggest that vitamin supplementation improves athletic performance. Female athletes may benefit from iron and calcium supplements; but, those are more easily and inexpensively obtained in supplement form rather than from energy drinks. 

Proteins and amino acids- Only a small amount of protein is used as fuel for exercise. Carbohydrates are utilized as the primary fuel source. To date, there is no definitive evidence that amino acid supplementation enhances athletic performance. 

Other ingredients- With the hundreds of energy drink brands that are available, the potential ingredients which they may contain are virtually unlimited. Possible additions include pyruvate, creatine, carnitine, medium-chain triglycerides, taurine and even oxygen.  Recent manufacturer trends to mix energy drinks in alcoholic beverages is specifically concerning for the potential abuse of alcohol and the resultant higher amounts of alcohol consumption.

What are the possible negative effects of using energy drinks?

Central nervous system- Caffeine often has the effect of making a person feel “energized.” Studies have shown some performance-enhancing benefits from caffeine at doses of 6mg/kg of body weight. However, these and higher doses of caffeine may produce lightheadedness, tremors, impaired sleep, suppression of appetite, and difficulty with fine motor control. 

Gastrointestinal system- The high concentrations of carbohydrates often found in energy drinks may delay gastric emptying, resulting in a feeling of being bloated. Abdominal cramping may also occur. Both carbohydrates and caffeine in the high concentrations found in most energy drinks may cause diarrhea.

Dehydration- Energy drinks should not be used for pre- or rehydration. The high carbohydrate concentration can delay gastric emptying and slow absorption from the gastrointestinal tract, and, may cause diarrhea. Caffeine can act as a diuretic and, therefore, may result in increased fluid loss.

Positive drug tests- Like all nutritional supplements, there is little or no regulatory oversight of energy drinks. The purity of the products cannot be assured, and it is possible that they may contain substances banned by some sports organizations.  Consumption of energy drinks by adolescents and young adults has been linked to heart arrhythmia (irregular and/or rapid heart rate), other cardiovascular events such as high blood pressure and heart attacks, and liver problems.

Think next time you or your student athlete grabs an energy drink and ask if it is worth the risk.




February 12, 2018 | By CSilberman | Category: Athletics and Activities

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