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.

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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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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.

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