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Experts are raising some concerns about energy drinks and heart attack risks. HandmadePictures/Getty Images
  • For people with certain genetic heart conditions, drinking energy drinks might pose a small risk of heart attack.
  • Further research is needed to prove this association and determine whether similar risks apply to a general population.
  • Energy drinks might be “arrhythmogenic foods” that include not only high amounts of caffeine as well as compounds such as taurine and guarana that could have adverse effects on heart health

Drinking energy drinks could pose a small but significant risk of experiencing a life-threatening cardiac event among those with genetic heart conditions, new research suggests.

In a study published today in the journal Heart Rhythm, researchers from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota looked at a group of 144 recent sudden cardiac arrest survivors with pre-existing genetic heart conditions.

They reported that 7 people, about 5% of the participants, had consumed energy drinks prior to their cardiac arrest, suggesting a possible link between that health event and energy drink consumption.

The researchers caution that this is merely an association and more robust studies will be required to prove causation, but the results are concerning enough to prompt further examination.

“Although the relative risk is small and the absolute risk of sudden death after consuming an energy drink is even smaller, patients with a known sudden death predisposing genetic heart disease should weigh the risks and benefits of consuming such drinks in the balance,” said Dr. Michael J. Ackerman, the lead study author and a genetic cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic as well as the director of the Mayo Clinic Windland Smith Rice Sudden Death Genomics Laboratory, in a press release.

“Although this is a very small retrospective study of a very rare, select population, these clinical findings appear to be well beyond chance and are likely to have significant clinical relevance and even impact on a much larger population,” Dr. Mustali Dohadwala, a cardiologist and medical director of Heartsafe, a cardiology-focused private practice in Boston who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today. “These findings may be illuminating unwanted light over an en vogue, unregulated market of energy-deriving foods and beverages and their widespread consumption which may in-end lead to a much broader public health concern.”

This isn’t the first study to question the safety of energy drinks, especially consumed in great quantity and for those predisposed to cardiac issues.

Leaving aside the varying compounds often added to energy drinks such as taurine and guarana, consuming high levels of caffeine alone present in most energy drinks can pose a threat to health.

This was shown most recently when Panera Bread was forced to pull their highly caffeinated “Charged Lemonade” product from the market following the deaths of a 21-year-old woman and a 46-year-old man.

An editorial accompanying the new research explores categorizing energy drinks as an “arrhythmogenic food,” which are foods that might cause heart arrhythmia.

Arrhythmogenic foods fall into three areas, including known toxic plants that get into food (essentially poison), dietary supplements that produce adverse cardiac reactions, and now energy drinks that include caffeine and other compounds that might produce arrhythmia in certain circumstances.

For instance, taurine and guarana compounds present in most popular energy drinks have both demonstrated “proarrhythmic changes” in heart function, the editorial notes.

“We have known proarrhythmic drugs for many years. We should be more aware of ‘proarrhythmic food’,” the study authors wrote.

Finally, while this study is only associative, colleagues in a second editorial say there is urgent need for additional research, especially as the energy drink industry has grown into a $58 billion enterprise.

“For the general population, the actual risk [of energy drinks] could be low, but for patients with channelopathies and with ischemic heart disease, it could be high, and often these patients are still asymptomatic and without a diagnosis,” the editorial authors wrote. “Admittedly, we have no final proof that the association is causal, but old common sense often can be of help: If it looks like a duck, if it swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”

Dr. Majid Basit, an interventional cardiologist with Memorial Hermann in Texas, agrees.

“The study does not conclude that energy drinks cause these near-fatal events,” Basit, who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today. “However, frequent and excessive use of substances like energy drinks and alcohol have been shown to cause other cardiac disorders including heart failure, stroke and irregular heart rhythms like atrial fibrillation.”

“About two people out of 100,000 have a disorder in their heart electrical system and could be at risk of sudden cardiac death. A history of passing out or a family history of unexplained death early in life are both clues that a cardiac workup may be warranted,” he said.