Energy Drinks: Friend or Foe?

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They claim to put you in tiptop shape both physically and mentally. But do energy drinks really give you energy or are they the reason you’re tired?

Caffeine is the drug of choice for most people. It’s one of the only drugs in America that’s cheap, legal and socially acceptable. It promises a quick pick-me-up, a jolt of energy and laser sharp focus. And in the last few years, the caffeine fixes of choice are the magical, chemical and questionable energy drinks.

What are energy drinks?
Any beverage that claims to boost your energy can call itself an energy drink. That self-proclaimed title isn’t regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) or the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) because those energy surging beverages fall under the dietary supplement category rather than actual food or drink commodities. Who knew?

Without regulation, these energy spikers can put a whole slue of ingredients into those shot sized shooters or gargantuan cans to give you a powerful boost in energy. They can easily contain way more caffeine than your regulated, run-of-the-mill coffee or soda. But even though they may be packaged like soda, have a soda-like taste, or even be owned by the soda companies, these energy drinks sure aren’t your typical beverages.

The idea of energy boosting drinks started in Japan in the 1960s (with Arnold Schwartzenegger even starring in the commercials). And cola companies tried to introduce similar products in the US in the 80s, but they just never caught on (does anyone even remember Pepsi AM?).

It wasn’t until Red Bull was introduced to the US in 1997 did energy drinks really take off here in the States. And they sure hit the ground running. Their sales have continued to skyrocket. In 2015 alone, they raked in almost $40 billion in global sales. Yes, with a “B.”

A photo of the logo red bull part of energy drinksThese drinks are selling faster than hotcakes and soda companies are trying to get a piece of the pie. Cocoa Cola just recently teamed up with Monster in what we can only assume will become a immensely profitable partnership. Heck, even McDonald’s is testing the sale of energy drinks through their chains.

And those little cans and shooters only cost you a few bucks. With the change you could find scattered around your car, we have catapulted energy drinks into an incredible, addictive and booming market. One that’s going to surpass the sale of soda in just a few years.

But what are we really getting for our money?
Here are some of the most common ingredients:

Caffeine: The main goal of an energy drink is to boost your energy. Yes, thank you Captain Obvious. Caffeine stimulates your central nervous system and gives you a higher sense of alertness, dilated blood vessels, and increased heart rate and blood pressures. Basically it gives you energy (notice I said energy, not wings…). But too much caffeine leads to sleeplessness (but maybe that’s your goal), jitters, anxiety, inability to concentrate, short attention spans, and foggy focus. Click To Tweet
Taurine: Taurine is an amino acid that regulates your heartbeat, your muscle contractions and your energy. Taurine basically lets your brain neurons communicate with each other. Click To Tweet

Glucuronolactone: (It’s okay if you skimmed over that long word). This substance is produced when your liver converts glucose to energy. It’s assumed that it helps detoxify your body.

Guarana: It’s pretty much shrubbery from our South American neighbors. But it acts kinda like caffeine, just a little bit more powerful. A standard coffee bean has about 1-2% concentration of caffeine while guarana is closer to 4%.

Ginseng: Another plant. And what’s added to your drink is just the extract form of it. Your body doesn’t produce this in anyway, so it’s just a foreign substance. But it’s thought to increase concentration and focus.

B-Vitamins: B-Vitamins are good for your cells. They keep your metabolism rolling, your blood flowing, and your food converting to energy. Click To Tweet

Sugars: Okay, we know sugar has no nutritional value. But it’s added to make that energy drink palatable. But sugar can also help with the energy boost. The huge quantities of sugar in these cans flood your bloodstream with glucose. The end result is a spike in energy (and of course the crashes and fat storing that come with to much sugar).

Artificial Sweeteners: The zero calorie energy drinks are made of only the artificial stuff, but almost every drink, even ones with real sugar, have artificial sweeteners. That’s because most of these other “helpful” ingredients have dare I say, disgusting, tastes. The artificial sweetener helps masks the potent flavors and turn a cough syrup tasting beverage into something you crave. It’s like Mary Poppins, adding sugar to help the medicine go down. Artificial sweeteners come without calories and people assume they don’t spike your glucose like sugar does.

So do energy drinks even work?
The quick answer: yes. Energy drinks are made with a combination of sugar and caffeine. And those two ingredients have been widely studied. We know for certain that caffeine and sugar can give you energizing effects. And we even know that those energizing effects last for about 90 minutes after you guzzle down.

But what about the rest of the ingredients? What purpose do they serve?

This question gets tricky. In theory, these other added ingredients seem to make the energy drink healthier or more beneficial or more powerful or something. But the limited research out there doesn’t necessarily give us the answers we need.

Glucuronolactone (that long annoying word) is supposed to extend your energy. And it did show this in the research, but only in rats. In humans, the research more shows that it weakens connective ligaments and leads to ankle sprains.

Ginseng is sometimes marketed to increase your energy. But there’s no research to give that claim any leg to stand on. It’s been shown to boost your brainpower, but only slightly. And in order to see the brain powering perks, you need a bigger dose than most energy drinks pack.

Guarana should work kinda like caffeine, but does a 30 milli-second increase on a performance timed-test really prove it can boost your speed? I don’t know.

Some of the research even shows these ingredients have the opposite effects than what’s marketed. When taurine is supplemented into your body, it actually acts as a sedative and slows down your brain activity rather than perking it up. Not something I want to happen if I’m trying to focus at work.

But maybe the effectiveness of these added ingredients doesn’t matter too much, because a few of the ingredients, like the B-Vitamins or taurine, aren’t even able to pass through your membrane walls when ingested. So even if it did have positive effects, you likely wouldn’t be able to even absorb it to notice!

There are plenty of theories that those added ingredients are good for your health, your focus or whatever. But is there literature to prove they help? Sadly no.

A photo of energy drinks cans You might get the exact same effect through a cup of black coffee or plain tea. Do they taste as good? Not for some. But then again, if you added 63 grams of sugar (like one energy drink has) to a cup of coffee, it probably would be just as delicious.

Okay, well since we know it gives you energy, will it at least help me through my workout?

I would love to have the ability to power through 2-hour workouts while sipping on a Monster. But the research is just too conflicting to know.

There have been a handful of studies, but they all seem to point in different directions.

Here are some of the interesting ones though:

One study showed that energy drinks increased how much you could lift! The participants lifted heavier weights for both upper and lower body exercises. But those folks didn’t have any boosts in their high intensity or sprint performances. So maybe that Red Bull gives you extra strength.

But then another study gave energy drinks to cyclists and runners to see what happened. In these studies, the athletes didn’t necessarily improve their performance, but they felt like they had more energy. The placebo group didn’t have any changes. So maybe energy drinks only make you think things are easier without actually making you faster or stronger.

But then a more recent study was done that only complicates things. In this study, they found that energy drinkers did have some improvements on their aerobic workouts (dang it, conflicting the first and second studies now). They found that those taking the energy drink had increased oxygen and could go longer before they hit exhaustion without increasing their heart rate any more than the placebo group. This would mean that the energy boost was effective.

The research is out there. The studies just don’t agree on the effects of those energy drinks. And there’s just no way to know right now if the boost in performances are just from caffeine or if there’s something a little more magical to these energy drinks.

But let’s run with the idea that they do increase your performance.

How much would you need to see the benefits?

Researchers in Spain tried to tackle this question. They found that participants that drank 1mg of caffeine/kg of body weight didn’t have any changes on muscle performance. And not surprisingly, neither did the placebo group. But the group that had 3 mg/kg did see increases in their squat and bench press numbers.

So for a 200 pound guy, that would be just shy of 300mg of caffeine to see the perks.

Okay, we think they might help with our performance. Maybe.

So why do we find them so dangerous?

Some physicians have connected energy drinks with sudden deaths. Caffeine levels can become dangerous when they aggravate underlying heart conditions or cause arrhythmias. And the popularity of energy drinks in the younger, hipper generation is starting to lead to more ER visits for the caffeine guzzlers.

Here’s why:

The danger of caffeine overdose and addiction:
The average energy drink has more than 4 times the caffeine as a single can of soda. But most folks don’t know this because remember, these drinks aren’t regulated by the FDA. The companies don’t even have to list their caffeine content on the can!

Now, I know some people drink multiple sodas in a day or an entire pot of coffee. And here’s why energy drinks (and having too much caffeine in general), is concerning:

Photo showcasing the adrenal gland and what energy drinks can cause When you take caffeine, you force your adrenal glands to secrete huge amounts of adrenaline. The more often you get this rush of energy, the more you learn to tolerate it. You grow accustomed to those levels and eventually you need more and more of this energy hormone to feel the awakening effects. That means you need more and more caffeine and your adrenal glands go into working overtime.

Eventually they can’t regulate your energy levels normally anymore. So in order to have any energy, you have to supplement caffeine to get those glands producing again.

Because you have to rely on caffeine for energy, you run into some serious trouble when you don’t get it. Just picture a junkie needing a fix. Headaches or fogginess might seem minor, but eventually you lose mental focus and function without your fix. It’s just like any other drug addiction.

The other risky business of all of this caffeine is that it messes with your hormones and vitamins, specifically your B6 and B12 Vitamins. Without their control, your blood vessels constrict and you have a higher chance of getting blood clots. So too much caffeine can lead to strokes and arthritis, but also heart palpitations, tremors, sweating, nausea, diarrhea, chest pain and neurological symptoms.

A man overweight man measuring the causes from energy drinksThe danger of high sugar and artificial sweeteners:
Some energy drinks contain huge amounts of sugar. Your poor little pancreas has to flood your blood with insulin just to combat the sugar spikes. And too much sugar in your blood means fat storage.

Sugar hijacks your brain’s reward center and can be as addictive as cocaine. Click To Tweet That sugar increases brain inflammation and cortisol levels. It leads to mood swings that can make you irritable and jittery and wreaks havoc on your attention span, short-term memory, and ability to learn. Too much sugar for too long even starts changing your brainwave patterns, fogging up your thinking.

But all of that sugar also makes your adrenal glands release cortisol and epinephrine (as if they weren’t already working overtime). These give you quick swings in energy and then big time crashes. That sugar roller coaster will eventually wear on your immune function, damage your free radicals and lead to insulin insensitivity. Hello Type II Diabetes and fat storage.

But wait, there are sugar free versions of your favorite energy booster! And those are packed with artificial sweeteners. Now these sweeteners might not have any calories and might not impact your insulin levels like the glucose-converted sugars. But your body doesn’t take these artificial sweeteners lightly. Most research is suggesting that even when you have artificial sweeteners, you still release some gastric hormones (the ones coming from your gut). Those tell your brain that you got food, but because it has no calories or nutrients, your body is a little confused. You ate something, but it’s not helping fuel you in any way. So as a reaction, your brain tells your body to go find a new fuel source. That means you turn to other food to get that boost in energy your body is waiting for. Low calorie drinks often lead to overeating on real sugared foods.

Photo of a woman with stomach pain But this hunger doesn’t happen for everyone after drinking a zero calorie drink. And if a zero calorie energy drink makes you feel full, that doesn’t mean you don’t suffer any negative consequences. Artificial sugars are still linked to stomach irritations, mood swings, birth defects, cancer, diabetes, emotional instability, epilepsy, seizures, neurological disorders and yes, obesity. Yep, zero calorie treats can lead to storing more fat.

The dangers of high acid contents:
The last dangerous concern with these energy drinks is the high levels of acid. Carbonated energy drinks have carbonic acid, citric acid and phosphoric acid. Now these acids in high enough doses are powerful enough to dissolve the enamel of your teeth! But they can also cause ulcers, break down the minerals of your bone, give you osteoporosis and bone fractions and upset the pH balance of your entire body. They turn you all wonky.

So if they’re so dangerous, why do we keep drinking them?
The energy drink industry is a billions of dollar industry. That means those companies have millions of dollars to spend on marketing to try and combat the negatives.

Have you seen the drinks that say they have no caffeine? Well they don’t have caffeine, but they do have guarana (and remember, its pretty much the same). And the cans that claim you won’t have any sugar crashes? Well they just mean you won’t have any sugar crashes because they only use artificial sweeteners (and you can’t have a sugar crash without sugar).

They know how to market their stuff. They know how convince us to skip what they write in the fine print and just grab those stunning cans without questioning the ingredients.

Just say no to energy drinks photoBut here’s the thing, we know energy drinks aren’t the healthiest option for us. In fact, some countries have even banned energy drinks. But here in the US we don’t. We let consumers make their own choices of what they want to indulge on.

Moral of the story, it’s hard to pin point exactly if these drinks are friends or enemies. There isn’t any clear-cut evidence that they are good for you, but there also isn’t any data on the flip side. They might boost your energy, but they might also pump you full of toxins, fake sugars or more caffeine than your body can handle.

So here’s my recommendation. If you’re looking for a boost in energy to start your day or power you through your workout, we know that caffeine can absolutely help. If you enjoy the tasty coffee flavors, then go with a natural source. But if you like to live life on the edge (or you hate the taste of coffee), then there might be a time and place for an energy drink.

But that all depends on what type of nutritional plan you follow and what school of thought you believe in.

  • If you are a calorie in, calorie out believer, then as long as your drink fits within your calories, you are good to go.
  • If you follow the just eat real food principals, then clearly a chemical and sugar loaded can of toxins is not going to make it into your nutrition choices.
  • If you follow macros, then the real sugar options are probably out because of the carb content. But the zero calorie choices might still be in.

Now is that good for your teeth and your organs? It doesn’t sound like it. But what else are you eating that’s full of chemicals and crap?

Are energy drinks healthy options? It sure doesn’t seem so. Are they the worst thing, you could be drinking? The jury’s still out. But are they going to negate any weight loss or fitness goals? Probably not as long you drink them in moderation.  It all comes down to what you believe in.

Energy drinks are certainly full of lots of questionable components and ugly side effects, but there still might be a little good in those delightfully tasty treats. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough info out there to know for sure.

So until we have more info, let’s just call them frenemies.

To see how your favorite caffeine fix compares, unlock your Caffeine Comparison download by sharing below.

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