When pop princess Britney Spears needs a pick-me-up, she turns to a popular energy drink for a quick boost. Red Bull
mixed with apple juice, she has said, "really pumps me up."
And that's the idea. Highly caffeinated energy drinks - such as Red Bull, Go-Fast! and Monster - market themselves as sources of increased energy and concentration. Their websites feature high-flying motorcyclists and upside-down skateboarders as dynamic embodiments of all that concentrated energy.
But are these drinks good for you? Maher Karam-Hage, M.D., an addiction specialist at the University of Michigan Health System, raises some concerns about the beverages, particularly when they are mixed with alcohol, ingested before intensive exercise or used by children.
"In the United States, these energy drinks have not had any warnings. In Europe, it's been more cautionary," says Karam-Hage, medical director of the Chelsea-Arbor Treatment Center, a joint program of the U-M Health System and Chelsea Community Hospital. He notes that France has banned some of the drinks and other countries have placed restrictions on them. "In this country, our advertisements for these drinks and the marketing are ahead of the science."
The energy drinks typically contain sugar, caffeine (often 80 mg per can, about the same as a cup of coffee), and taurine, a sulfur-containing amino acid. Some countries have raised concerns about the amount of caffeine in the drinks and the uncertain health effects of taurine. Energy drinks are different from sports drinks, which tend not to have caffeine or taurine and are lower in carbohydrates.
While Karam-Hage stops short of saying people never should consume energy drinks, he says that mixing them with alcohol is dangerous and should be avoided.
"The best analogy I can come up with is it's the same as driving a car, putting one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes," he says of combining the stimulants in caffeine and the intoxicating effects of alcohol.
Mixing alcohol and caffeine is nothing new - think of the people who try to sober up by drinking coffee after a night at the bar - but Karam-Hage says the belief that caffeine makes someone alert after drinking alcohol is a myth.
"You feel a little bit more alert and a little more awake, but in reality, your reflexes are not changed whatsoever. You're still intoxicated," he says. "And that's exactly the same problem that happens with energy drinks: people drink more and feel like, 'oh, I can handle a bit more alcohol then.' "
When people consume these beverages before intensive exercise, he says, they should be aware of the effects the drinks have on people's bodies. They can put a strain on the body due to the caffeine and, in some of the beverages, other diuretics. These can cause dehydration or even collapse, particularly if people drink more than one can before exercising, Karam-Hage says.
He is particularly concerned about the popularity of the drinks among young people. The beverages can cause children to be hyperactive, fidgety or even rageful, he says. And because the drinks are so small in size, people may be inclined to drink more than one at a time, he says.
"Most of us wouldn't really let our children drink two or three or even four cups of coffee, but children go to the store around the corner and find energy drinks," he says. "That can be dangerous."
Facts about energy drinks:
- Most energy drinks contain caffeine, often about 80 mg per can (about the same as one cup of brewed coffee and more than the amount in two cans of Coca-Cola)
- Taurine, which the body produces on its own, is a sulfur-containing amino acid often marketed as an antioxidant, anti-anxiety treatment and a heartbeat regulator, but some scientists and health care providers say it is unclear what effect it has
- Caffeine will not reduce the effects of alcohol