Many energy drinks have ingredients which can have a harmful effect on adolescent health, especially when mixed with alcohol, says a news report published in Pediatrics in Review.

The article – “Energy Drinks: What Teenagers (and Their Doctors) Should Know,” – summarizes recent evidence regarding the content, benefits and risks of energy drinks which are consumed by teenagers.

Energy drinks are beverages with caffeine added to them. They are advertised as a means to enhance performance, boost the immune system, or create a “buzz”.

The most popular energy drinks contain elevated, unregulated quantities of caffeine and other stimulants which give the caffeine an extra kick.

Caffeine is known to produce detrimental health effects in adolescents, including dehydration, digestive problems, obesity, anxiety, insomnia, and tachycardia.

Some energy drinks contain alcohol. Sometimes, people mix them with alcoholic drinks.

When energy drinks are mixed with alcohol, the potential dangers for adolescent health are much greater; there is also a risk of abuse.

The authors advise health care professionals to ask their adolescent patients whether they consume energy drinks. They should explain what the dangers of consuming both energy drinks alone or with alcohol are. Doctors should become aware of the signs and symptoms of energy drink consumption.

The authors say that teenagers are no strangers to energy drinks. Over the last 24 months, the media has heightened the awareness of doctors, lawmakers and parents.

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About 66% of energy drink consumers are aged between 13 and 35.

Lead author Dr. Kwabena Blankson, a U.S. Air Force major and an adolescent medicine specialist at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, said regarding energy drinks:

“They contain too much caffeine and other additives that we don’t know enough about. Healthy eating, exercise and adequate sleep are better ways to get energy.”

In 2010, nine students at Washington State University were admitted to the hospital. Doctors attributed their illness to fruit-flavored caffeinated alcoholic drinks. One of the students nearly died. Twenty-three students were hospitalized one month later in New Jersey after drinking the same combination as the Washington students.

When we mix energy drinks with alcohol, the “cocktail” can make us feel less drunk than we actually are. Many adolescents are not aware of this, the researchers explained. Consuming just one energy drink with alcohol may be equivalent to drinking a whole bottle of wine and several cups of coffee.

The average cup of coffee has approximately 100 milligrams of caffeine, compared to 160 milligrams in a 16-ounce energy drink.

According to Dr. Blankson, teenagers should consume a maximum of 100 milligrams of coffee per day. Other ingredients found in energy drinks increase caffeine’s potency, such as guarana and ginseng.

According to a US government report issued in January 2013, twice as many people visited hospital emergency rooms because of energy drink consumption in 2011 compared to 2007. The majority of hospital visits were by teenagers and young adults, said the SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) report.

Approximately 42% of emergency room cases in 2011 involved energy drinks mixed with either alcohol or medications, such as Ritalin or Adderall.

Believe it or not, the human body knows when and how much alcohol it is drinking and emits cues when the person should stop for the evening and get some rest. Some people try to overcome these cues by mixing energy drinks with alcohol.

A study carried out by Cecile Marczinski, a psychologist at Northern Kentucky University, found that combining energy drinks with alcohol removes our built-in checks that stop us from overindulging.

Marczinski said:

“Even with just alcohol alone, young, underage drinkers are bad at deciding how safe a driver they are, but I think this (mixing alcohol with energy drinks) would make that situation far worse.”

Nine years ago, the French government banned the sale of Red Bull, a popular energy drink. The French Scientific Committee on Human Nutrition found that Red Bull had too much caffeine, it also raised concerns about the beverage’s other ingredients, taurine, an amino acid which Red Bull promoters say can “kick-start” the metabolism, and glucuronolactone, a carbohydrate.

After an appeal, Europe’s highest court upheld the French Red Bull ban.

In this latest report, the authors say that the readers should be able to:

  • Understand how large the energy drink market is, as well as recognize the most common brands
  • Realize that teenagers are great consumers of energy drinks, which they use as performance enhancers
  • Know what the ingredients of energy drinks are, and how they may impact negatively on health
  • Understand that energy drinks can cause obesity, high blood pressure, tachycardia and other medical problems in teenagers
  • Understand how dangerous it is to mix energy drinks with alcohol
  • Understand the relationship between alcohol tolerance/dependence and caffeine tolerance/dependence
  • Understand how important it is to screen adolescents for energy drink consumption, and offer suitable counseling

Written by Christian Nordqvist