Are Energy Drinks Dangerous?

We all have days when we’re running low on steam.  Whether it’s because we’re running the kids around, not sleeping well, or need to keep awake to finish work, our bodies often resist these hectic schedules and demand rest.  In 1997, Red Bull made its debut with an energy drink that promised to combat our bodies’ natural defense—sleep. Energy drinks are essentially soft drinks that boost energy levels through a combination of caffeine, vitamins and herbal supplements.  Today, Red Bull remains one of the most popular energy drinks in the world. Often marketed as dietary supplements, are these beverages truly safe to consume? 

The list below provides basic information about the most common ingredients found in energy drinks.

Taurine is an amino acid produced naturally by the body.  It helps regulate heartbeat, muscle contractions and energy levels.  Usually, however, the human body makes enough that we don’t need a supplement.  While not proven, it is thought that when the body is stressed by illness, physical exertion or injury, the body may not make enough.

Guarana comes from South American plants.  It has been used by Amazonians to increase alertness and energy.  It has even more caffeine than coffee along with a few other ingredients: theobromine and theophylline, which are known stimulants.

This is another amino acid, one created by the liver and kidneys.  L-Carnitine is supposed to help boost your metabolism and energy levels. So far, research has not yet determined whether it is useful to take as a supplement, however, you can take between 2-6 grams daily without harm.  If you choose to take this as a supplement, make sure the package says L-Carnitine and not D-Carnitine, which can actually hurt endurance levels.

B Vitamins
These vitamins are important for the body to be able to convert food into energy.  Again, research has not determined whether taking B vitamin supplements increases energy levels.  B vitamins can be found in a variety of natural food sources such as eggs, turkey, tuna, lentils, bananas and potatoes, to name a few.

Glucose is the body’s preferred source of fuel.  Energy drinks contain lots of sugar!  For example, a can of Red Bull contains 27 grams of sugar.  Sugar is a carbohydrate and so it is a quick source of energy.  People who consume too much sugar have an increased risk of getting diabetes. 

Ginseng is an herb known to increase energy, relieve stress and increase memory.  Ginseng is not something that is produced naturally in the body, but ginseng supplements have not bee shown to harm the body.  In fact, you can safely take up to 2700 mg a day.

Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo is derived from a unique species of tree.  It is believed to help with memory retention, concentration, circulation, and acts as even an anti-depressant.  It has been shown, however, that most energy drinks do not contain enough ginkgo to be of any benefit.

Antioxidants help protect the body from damage caused by free radicals.  They help fend off illness and prevent cellular damage.  Vitamins C, E, and A are all antioxidants.

Now that we’ve covered the most prevalent ingredients found in energy drinks, the question of their safety remains.  Recently, health professionals and organizations have been calling for warning labels to be placed on energy drinks as more adverse side effects have been revealed.  A scientist at Johns Hopkins University stated, “The caffeine content of energy drinks varies over a 10-fold range, with some containing the equivalent of 14 cans of Coca-Cola.  Yet the caffeine amounts are often unlabeled and few include warnings about the potential health risks of caffeine intoxication.” Other reported side effects are dental decay, energy highs and crashes, headaches and heart palpitations.

While energy drinks invariably keep you mentally alert and wide awake, the list of negative side effects does not seem worth the benefit.  Sure, energy drinks have a few vitamins and antioxidants for good measure, but research has not shown that any of these supplements in energy drinks or even taken on their own benefit our health.  If you want to feel alert, awake and focused, try the natural route: getting plenty of sleep, daily exercise, good food choices and quality time with friends and family.  The good news is that research has shown that following this latter route is not only healthy, but also will provide you with energy without negative side effects.  If you still need that extra spurt of energy, drink a cup of coffee or tea before downing a drink that may be harmful to your body.