Not all caffeinated drinks created equal

On Tuesday, I reported on the many health benefits of drinking coffee. But don’t be fooled into thinking all caffeinated drinks confer benefits. Far from it.

Take so-called “energy drinks,” for example. These trendy, caffeinated beverages can actually harm your health. But few people know about their dangers, as evidenced by growing global sales.

Energy drink sales in this country now reach well over $10 billion dollars a year. Plus, the industry aggressively markets to teens and young adults. And their marketing strategies seem to work all too well! In fact, one-third of teens and one-half of young adults ages 18 to 24 say they regularly use energy products.

Manufacturers claim their drinks give you more energy. That they make you feel more awake. And that they boost your attention span. You get all this, they say, without taking an actual drug. But at least when you take an actual drug, you do it knowing there’s a risk for harm. With an energy drink, teens think they’re taking something harmless. But nothing could be further from the truth.

A far cry from a cup of joe

Yes, caffeine is the central ingredient in most energy drinks. But they are a far cry from a cup of joe.

For one, today’s energy drinks often contain up to five times as much caffeine as you get in a regular cup of coffee. In fact, many energy drinks contain up to 500 mg of caffeine in just one serving. By comparison, an 8-ounce cup of standard brew coffee only contains about 100 mg of caffeine. Plus, with coffee, you get many other beneficial ingredients, such as antioxidants.

Furthermore, some energy drinks contain as much as 70 grams of sugar, which equates to about 18 teaspoons. So really, you get a sugar boost by drinking these beverages — the worst kind of artificial energy boost of all.

Companies use sneaky tactics to hide the caffeine content of their drinks

Many companies add “natural ingredients” to make their beverages sound healthy. Some of the popular additives are gingko, milk thistle, taurine, guarana (a plant source of caffeine), B vitamins, licorice, and ginseng.

But they clearly have an ulterior motive. Adding these “natural ingredients” allows them to classify their product as a “dietary supplement” rather than a food product. And supplements aren’t required by the FDA to disclose caffeine content on product labels.

Serious, permanent side effects

Previous studies show consuming just one energy drink can increase blood pressure, sometimes to unhealthy levels. Worse yet, energy drinks can even cause abnormal heart rhythms and other cardiovascular complications, according to a new report from the University of Florida.

The report details the case of a 28-year-old man treated in an emergency room after he vomited blood. His test results were normal, except for an elevated heart rate of about 130 beats per minute. An electrocardiogram detected atrial fibrillation — an abnormal rhythm that can result in serious complications.

The patient reported that he typically drank just two energy drinks per day, which each contained 160 milligrams of caffeine.

The researchers concluded that energy drink consumption “played a key role” in the atrial fibrillation. In the report, they wrote, “While the effects of long-term consumption of [energy drinks] are unknown, it may be reasonable to limit their use, especially in combination with alcohol or illicit substances and in patients predisposed to arrhythmias,” which brings me to my next point…

Never combine energy drinks with alcohol

Most people don’t realize exactly why combining an energy drink with alcohol is so dangerous. But just ask your local medical examiner. He or she sees the deadly results far too often.

You see, caffeine is a stimulant. So it can mask some of the cues you use to judge levels of intoxication and impairment. You feel alert, but your blood alcohol level is still very high.

In addition, energy drinks and alcohol can cause dehydration. And dehydration can block your body’s ability to metabolize alcohol, which will increase the toxicity. Therefore, the next day, you can expect a brutal hangover, if not worse.

Energy drinks bad for teens, bad for brains

According to another recent study, teens who downed five or more energy drinks over the course of a week were seven times more likely to have suffered a head injury (traumatic brain injury or TBI) in the past year compared to teens who didn’t drink these “boosters.” Similarly, consuming energy drinks mixed with alcohol raised the likelihood of having had a TBI within the past year.

Energy drinks could also interfere with a teen’s recovery from a TBI, said lead author Michael Cusimano, M.D., a neurosurgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital and professor of neurosurgery at the University of Toronto in Canada.

“Energy drinks contain high levels of caffeine and change the chemical state of the body, which can prevent people from getting back on track after a brain injury,” according to Dr. Cusimano.

Bottom line?

Go ahead and drink three to four cups of coffee a day. But avoid these dangerous energy drinks. And make sure the teens and young adults in your life know about the potentially deadly risks of that seemingly innocent “kick start.”


“Energy Drinks, Alcohol, Sports and Traumatic Brain Injuries among Adolescents,” PloS One ( 9/2015

“Officials Seek Energy Drink Information,” New York Times ( 1/18/2013

“Energy Drink Consumption and Cardiac Complications: A Case for Caution,” Journal of Addiction Medicine July/August 2016; 10(4): 280–282