“Aside from the jet packs and the monkey overlords, one of the things that science fiction promised us in the new millennium was food in convenient pill form. But reality cheated our imaginations on every level. Instead of jet packs, we got Segway scooters. Instead of monkeys, we got the Bush administration. And instead of food pills, we got energy drinks.”
– Jeff Penalty, Swindle Magazine
A boost to beat “that 2:30 feeling.”
A remedy for a poor diet.
Athletic prowess like never before.
Such are the promises of energy drinks. This trend seems to be a natural evolution of our love for (and, in some cases, dependence on) caffeine, starting with coffee and progressing to cola and super-charged sodas such as Mountain Dew. You can even purchase caffeinated soap to get your buzz before your coffee is done brewing!
Let’s face it — we love being wired. But do energy drinks go too far?
What the hell is this?
I first saw an energy drink during a half-marathon a couple years ago, when someone ahead of me chucked an empty Red Bull can over his shoulder, hitting me in the head. In rage, I picked it up to throw it back at him, but the small size of the can piqued my curiosity: What the hell is this?
I thought I had discovered a runner’s secret. I’ve never been much of pop drinker, so I had missed the displays of Red Bull and Monster in the convenience store coolers. It sounded like a miracle tonic: “Red Bull gives you wings.” Wings? Awesome.
My tenure as an energy-drink consumer lasted one day. If by “wings,” Red Bull meant anxiety, shaky hands, nausea, and an eerie resemblance to Philip the Hyper-Hypo after a candy bar, then yes, I had wings.
I stared at the can again, wondering: What the hell is this? Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out the answer, even studying the drinks as part of my dissertation for my doctoral program. As I sifted through the research, I found that under the heavy data and big words, there was one common theme:
Energy drinks promise a lot, sure — but there’s a lot more they aren’t telling us.
It can’t be worse than coffee…right?
Energy drinks are more complex than simple ground coffee beans or carbonated water and sugar. These drinks claim to go beyond the effects of the simple caffeine buzz by adding more stimulants derived from vitamins, herbs, and amino acids to create a more intense energy effect.
Many energy drinks studied have double or even triple the amount of most other caffeine-containing beverages, such as soda or iced teas, even though the serving size of an energy drink is often two-thirds (or less) of a typical soda on the market.
Let’s think about that for a second — you’re packing a powerful punch of caffeine into a tiny, tiny package.
And you’re probably not sipping it throughout the morning, like a cup of coffee. Many energy drinks can be finished in three gulps (some, like 5-Hour Energy, can be downed like a shot glass). That’s a powerful caffeine bomb.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limits the caffeine content in soda to 65 mg per 12 ounces, but energy drinks are not regulated under any FDA standards. Additionally, many of the herbs, vitamins, and minerals frequently used in energy drinks have no set recommended value by any reputable agency in America. Some of these common ingredients in energy drinks can include guarana, taurine, ginseng, L-carnitine, inositol, choline, and sugars. Some drinks may also add creatine, gingko biloba, milk thistle, and vitamins, especially the B vitamins.
Apart from sugars and vitamins, none of these ingredients have daily recommended values, and many of these ingredients have not been deemed truly safe for public consumption. Because these are not regulated by the FDA, energy drink manufacturers are able to make claims of the efficacy of various ingredients in increasing the energy of a person who consumes their product. Even if you wanted to investigate the validity of a manufacturer’s claim, there is very little unbiased, scholarly research to help you.
You’re putting what into your body?
Caffeine, a major ingredient in the energy drink domain, has long been touted for its ability to increase physical energy. However, at high doses, such as those found in energy drinks, dangerous physical effects such as heart palpitations, rapid heart rate, nausea, vomiting, and chest pains occur.
Creatine, another ingredient found in some energy drinks, is used in some muscle-building programs. However, in excessive dosages or combined with other energry-drink ingredients, Creatine has been associated with muscle cramps, gastrointestinal distress, electrolyte imbalance, and dehydration.
The physical benefits of taurine, touted by energy drink manufacturers, have been deemed “scientifically doubtful” by researchers.
B-vitamins, especially Vitamins B6 and B12, are also common energy drink ingredients. But here’s the thing about B vitamins in energy drinks: They don’t actually work. As the chairwoman of chairwoman of Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionists for the American Dietetic Association said in an interview with LA Times Newspaper:
“It’s brilliant marketing, but it doesn’t have any basis.”
Vitamins and minerals are an essential part of any diet, and as vegetarians and vegans, many of us try to get extra doses of some (like B12). But doctors warn that too much of a good thing will have consequences. Vitamins B6 and B12, in large doses, have been found to contribute to a variety of unpleasant effects: numbness and tingling in the hands and feet; insomnia; hyperthyroid; and the degeneration of vital organs, such as the liver, kidneys, and nervous system.
Perhaps even more frightening is the lack of reputable information on other ingredients of energy drinks. A search for scholarly, unbiased material on the effects of such ingredients as choline, rhodiola, rosea, crenulata, and astragalus turns up no true evidence of the effectiveness, safety, or hazards of these materials at the doses present in energy drinks.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Though no conclusive proof is available directly linking the energy drinks to serious injury and death, some researchers have recently provided insight into the matter:
- Heart damage has been shown to result from cases of major caffeine overdose, which could contribute to death or serious injury.
- Researchers from the University of Wisconsin examined the combination of caffeine and taurine, discovering the two together contributed to a marked increase in blood pressure and bradycardia (a potentially dangerous decrease in heart rate).
- Doctors in Phoenix, Arizona observed four patients experience and survive new-onset seizures after consuming energy drinks with caffeine, taurine, and guarana. Once the patients stopped all energy drink consumption, the seizures ceased as well.
I don’t know about you, but I’d place that in the “Damning Evidence” file.
At best, it’s borrowed energy
Brendan Brazier, in his nutrition guide and cookbook Thrive Foods, says it best:
“Obtaining energy by way of stimulation is like shopping with a credit card. You get something you desire now, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have to pay eventually. That bill will come.”
A 2003 study examining the link between caffeine and sleep patterns discovered those who consume high amounts of caffeine, regardless of time of day they consume it, experience smaller amounts of sleep at night. A person who downs a Red Bull before a long run may find they can’t get to sleep that night. When we disturb our body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, we’re more at risk for drastic consequences, including extreme fatigue, difficulty regulating moods and emotions, difficulty thinking, and accidents leading to injuries.
But will it make you faster?
Findings on whether energy drinks are effective in improving physical performance have been conflicting. Some studies have found no measurable change in performance between athletes who consumed a commercially-available energy drink and a group of peers who consumed a placebo drink.
Others found the stimulative benefit of energy drinks to last for approximately 60 minutes, followed by what’s popularly referred to as a “crash.” You’ve probably experienced it at some point: sudden drop in energy, marked fatigue, and the desire to drop everything and go back to bed.
The bottom line? If you think a can of Monster or Rockstar is going to suddenly turn you into Ryan Hall, think again.
Better ways to increase your energy
If you’re using energy drinks just to get enough energy for work/training/studying, you need more than a Red Bull. Step back, look at what you’re doing, and figure out why you’re so sluggish. If you need to, talk to a doctor about your diet and sleep habits to figure out why your energy is lacking. Using these drinks to mask a lack of energy won’t fix the problem — and it may even make it worse.
If you’re still looking for a boost to your workouts:
- For natural energy sources, check out some of the recipes for natural energy gels and bars that can fuel your workout in natural ways.
- Try a singular, moderate source of caffeine, such as coffee, green tea, or yerba mate, instead of high levels or combinations of multiple energy-inducing ingredients (which is where many of the problems seem to arise).
- Remember that the more you use caffeine before and during workouts, the less effective it becomes.
I wish I could say I found that magic tonic that gives you wings, but it simply doesn’t exist. If you want your running to feel easier, run more. If you want to feel less tired and more energetic, sleep more and eat better. But guzzling down an energy drink is a temporary fix — and, given the possible consequences, may not be worth it.
Oh, and the guy who threw the Red Bull over his shoulder at that half-marathon?
He bonked eventually. I beat him.
Wings are overrated, anyway.
Contrary to what her daily wardrobe may indicate, Susan Lacke is not a spokesperson for DorkyLoudAndSmellySpandex.com. In addition to serving as No Meat Athlete’s Resident Triathlete, she has a monthly column in Competitor Magazine and weekly blog on Competitor.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.