Caffeine can kill: The dangers of energy drinks

Last year, there were more than 20,000 emergency room visits attributable to the ingestion of energy drinks – following a 2011 government report that expressed real concern about the emerging problem posed by energy drinks and shots. Recently, a South Carolina high school student collapsed and died after consuming a very high dose of caffeine in a short time: coffee, soft drinks and an energy drink. The coroner reported that the student died from a caffeine-induced lethal cardiac arrhythmia. Today in the U.S., the energy drink business is a multibillion dollar industry (estimated to reach $61 billion by 2020), and most of these products have been marketed directly to children and adolescents. When these drinks are combined with other drugs and alcohol, the adverse events can become even more severe. Over the last decade, the number of ER visits related to energy drink consumption has more than doubled.

[See: 'Healthy' Foods You Shouldn't Be Eating.]

What Exactly Is in These Energy Drinks and Shots?

Energy drinks are sugary beverages that are loaded with caffeine as well as additives such as vitamins, minerals, taurine, herbal supplements and guarana (a plant extract with a high concentration of caffeine). From a medical standpoint, they have absolutely no nutritional value – they're high in calories due to their sugar content.

Caffeine. It's the primary ingredient in energy drinks; caffeine content typically ranges from 50 to 500 milligrams, compared to 100 milligrams in a regular cup of coffee.

Guarana. This is a plant from Brazil that contains a high concentration of a caffeine-like compound. In fact, 1 gram of guarana is equivalent to 40 milligrams of caffeine.

Sugars. Energy drinks contain anywhere from 21 to 34 grams of sugar per 8 ounces, and this can be sucrose, glucose or high fructose corn syrup – which is known to be associated with obesity. Children and adolescents who consume energy drinks are at high risk for obesity and dental problems. If you drink two energy drinks per day, you could be consuming nearly six times the maximum daily recommended amount of sugar.

Taurine. This is one of the most common amino acids – or building blocks for proteins – in the body. Taurine supports brain development and helps enhance athletic performance. The amount of taurine in energy drinks is much higher than that found in foods such as meat, seafood and milk. There is no evidence to support that higher levels of taurine have any beneficial effect on our bodies.

Related: Natural ways to boost energy

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19 natural ways to boost energy
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19 natural ways to boost energy

Take a walk.

When people think of exercise they often envision high-intensity, calorie-busting, sweat-pouring workouts. But to boost energy you don't need to go to that extreme. A brisk 10-minute walk will zap the flat feeling, especially if you aim for three 10-minute walks a day.

Ride a bike.

Like walking, riding a bike for a short 10 minutes can really get the heart pumping and energy levels up. Again, as little as three 10-minute sessions can do the trick. Biking (or walking) is also a great way to soak up some sunlight and increase the body's level of vitamin D, which can also boost energy levels.

Exercise at the right time of day.

While many people squeeze in a workout first thing in the morning, a better time to boost energy is in the early afternoon, when fatigue really sinks in. A lunchtime trip to the gym could be just the thing to get back on track.

Sit up straight or stand up.

Holding a hunched-over pose in front of the computer can cause blood vessels to close off and blood flow to slow. Stand up or even sit up straight to loosen the neck and shoulders, and bring circulation into those narrowed blood vessels.

Practice deep breathing.

Breathing patterns used in yoga relax the mind and boost energy. This one can be done seated at your desk: When fatigue strikes, sit up straight, close your eyes, and take a deep breath in. Place your hand on your belly and, as you exhale, push on your belly nine or 10 times to help release all the air from your chest. Repeat several times to get oxygen flowing.

Cut back on sugar and white flour.

Sugar and white flour are deceiving. When consumed, they give a quick energy burst, followed by a lower low. The spike and drop of blood sugar levels does nothing but zap more energy. Avoid snacks and meals loaded with these energy saboteurs.

Eat the right foods.

Instead of sugar and white flour, eat meals and snacks consisting of various plant-based antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, iron, vitamin D, magnesium, and zinc, which can do wonders to boost your energy levels and keep blood sugar spikes to a minimum.

Blink often.

It sounds silly, but instead of staring at a screen without blinking for hours on end, try blinking 10 to 20 times a minute while getting your screen time. It allows the brain to take mini breaks and stay engaged.

Drink plenty of water.

Dehydration is a huge culprit of fatigue. Even if you don't realize it, your flagging may be due to a lack of water. Aim to drink enough that your urine is pale yellow.

Eat breakfast daily.

Start the day off right with breakfast, and not just a small meal. Make sure it contains a complex carbohydrate, a protein, and a little healthy fat.

Have regular snacks.

Protein helps keep blood sugar level, so adding in a protein snack a few times a day is a good way to combat fatigue before it even starts.

Sip on green tea.

While coffee is the main go-to for many, green tea can have the same or even better benefits, especially when sipped in the afternoon. Epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG, found in green tea is associated with weight loss, while the small amounts of caffeine in green tea provide an energy boost without interrupting sleep patterns at night.

Snack on fruit.

Pair that green tea with an apple to get lots of energy. Apples are a great source of plant-based antioxidants, vitamin C, complex carbohydrates, and fiber. All work together to keep blood sugar in check. Berries are a good choice too. They pack a big dose of anthocyanins, which naturally boost energy.

Monitor your blood pressure.

This is especially important for men. A University of Wisconsin study found that 60 percent of Americans 18 to 39 have high blood pressure and don't know how to control it. High blood pressure is a major source of fatigue, and a health condition that needs attention and treatment.

Get your sinuses in check.

Suffer from allergies? It could be stealing your energy. Sinus issues can contribute to a lower level of oxygen and less circulating through your body, plus greater effort with every breath. Try an over-the-counter sinus pill to combat sinus allergies and improve energy levels. Savings tip: Generic allergy pills are just as effective as brand name and a fraction of the cost.

Hang out with energetic people.

Have friends who are always full of energy and motivation? Hang out with them more often; their enthusiasm will rub off, improving your mood and energy levels.

Laugh.

Laughter is good for the soul -- and, as it turns out, the body, too. Laughing boosts your heart rate and blood pressure enough to add some energy when you're dragging.

Lose the extra pounds.

Being overweight by even 5 pounds takes a toll on your energy. The closer you are to your ideal weight, the more energy you'll have.

Tap your chest.

A practitioner of emotional freedom techniques, a form of acupressure therapy commonly known as tapping, tells Shape that the thymus can play a role in energy levels. This gland is located on the chest below the collarbone. Tapping this area for 20 seconds while taking some deep breaths stimulates T-cell production, relieves stress, and boosts energy.

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[See: How to Know if You're Exercising Too Much.]

Ginseng. This energy drink additive is derived from the ginseng root and has been linked to insomnia, high blood pressure and headaches. There is no scientific evidence that ginseng can enhance athletic performance, improve mood or stimulate the immune system, as many energy drink makers claim.

B vitamins. These are important minerals typically obtained in adequate amounts in a normal American diet. There's no evidence that taking larger amounts of these vitamins (unless you have a proven deficiency of some type) can have any impact on your overall health.

It's important to remember that energy drinks are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and vary greatly in their composition; there's no standard formula. Unlike pharmaceuticals, the FDA does not require any proof for the safety and efficacy of energy drinks and energy shots. When alcohol is added to these beverages, the risk for negative health effects increases significantly.

What Are the Potential Health Effects of Energy Drinks?

Caffeine has powerful effects on many of our vital organs – particularly the cardiac and nervous systems. After drinking an energy drink, heart rate increases, blood vessels stiffen and your blood may become thicker; all changes that can precipitate a heart attack or stroke in those who are at risk. A recent study suggests that the other ingredients, such as taurine, may significantly increase heart rate and blood pressure, as well as risk for heart rhythm problems independent of caffeine content. These drinks can also cause periods of anxiety, changes in sleep patterns and mood swings – particularly in children and adolescents. Energy drinks have also been associated with serious complications including seizures, stoke and sudden cardiac death.

[See: The 12 Best Diets for Your Heart.]

What Can We Do to Stay Safe?

The World Health Organization has stated that energy drinks "may pose a danger to public health," and the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that "children should not consume" these drinks. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests these drinks have no positive benefits and may put consumers at significant risk for health-related side effects. A study from 2014 found that nearly 40 percent of the calls to poison control centers concerning children under the age of 6 were related to energy drinks. It's now clear that under no circumstances should children or adolescents be given access to these beverages. For adults, it's important to consider your risk for heart disease or stroke: If you're predisposed to these conditions, the consumption of an energy drink can precipitate an event. If adults do choose to drink energy drinks, never combine these beverages with alcohol or drugs, as this can potentiate their effects.

From a medical standpoint, energy drinks have no nutritional value and should be avoided. Water is a healthy beverage choice, and one that has been proven time and again to be part of an overall healthy lifestyle.

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

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