Energy drinks promise a quick pick-me-up and are available everywhere, from the gas station convenience store to high-end grocery stores. What’s in those tiny energy shots or soda-sized cans of energy we are drinking? And how do they affect our bodies?
Energy drinks are the beverage market’s fastest growing segment, representing a $9-billion plus industry in the U.S. They are popular for combating sleepiness, enhancing athletic performance, or encouraging weight loss.
There is no oversight by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for energy drinks because they are classified as supplements and are not obligated to prove their therapeutic benefits. However, sports drinks are classified as food and consequently regulated by the FDA.
Sports drinks are for replacement of electrolytes — such as sodium, potassium and magnesium — when a person exercises vigorously. Energy drinks contain a myriad of ingredients, including taurine, bitter orange, ginseng and ginkgo biloba, but caffeine, sugar and B vitamins dominate.
Caffeine is a stimulant and affects all parts of the body. Blood vessels in the brain constrict, the heart beats more intensely, and muscles contract as caffeine wakes up the body and causes better thinking, reaction time and physical endurance.
A little bit of caffeine goes a long way. Still, tolerance for caffeine quickly occurs, which explains why people who start off drinking 2 sodas per day can easily end up at 6-8 sodas per day to feel the same effect.
The FDA limits caffeine content in soft drinks to 71mg per 12-ounces, yet energy drinks have no limitations and often contain an average of 3 times the amount of caffeine as a 12-ounce cola. An energy shot has 5 times the amount. An energy drink that contains both caffeine and guarana, a plant from the Amazon, can easily triple or quadruple the amount of caffeine.
Too much caffeine can result in the body feeling jittery and anxious. When caffeine ingestion is stopped, the body withdraws, and headaches, low mood, fatigue, and inability to concentrate ensue.
Caffeine and sugar work together to give a desired oomph. Sugar (glucose) fuels the body and is necessary to make energy in the cells. The recommended daily allowance of glucose is 32 grams. An average energy drink contains 21–34 grams per 8-ounce serving. Most canned energy drinks contain more than 1 serving, but are often consumed at once; this can easily amount to 65g or ¼ cup of sugar in one serving. Drinking sugar-loaded calories can quickly show up on our waistlines and, when coming down from a combined sugar/caffeine high, leave us feeling depleted.
Like sugar, B vitamins are required to produce energy. Ingesting more than the daily requirement of B vitamins is unnecessary and simply flushed out in urine.
Since energy drinks can contain a host of ingredients that have varying effects on the body, consider why you need a-pick-me-up: Are you getting enough sleep? Exercising regularly? Drinking enough water? Try a nap, a handful of nuts, or an exercise break to replace the energy drink.
An occasional energy drink is probably not harmful, but daily reliance on them creates an opportunity for self-examination and, hopefully, a healthy behavior change.
Sylvia E. Morris, MD, MPH, is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and holistic medicine. In addition to her clinical practice, she is a community health advocate as well as a medical consultant and commentator for media outlets such as The Weather Channel, Atlanta Fox 5 News, and CNN.com. Tell her what you think on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.