Caffeine fashion has evolved. In the sweet yore-days, I worked at Starbucks, where this one strung-out guy would roll deep with his posse every night before closing and ask for his “late 8,” a packed 8 shots of espresso he’d promptly slam to demonstrate he actually could compensate for his shortcomings. Bartending through grad school, I’d see a different dude stumble in; he, too, would ask just a little too loudly for a Redbull-vodka, bragging to the nearby barstool that the caffeine “metabolizes the alcohol so I can drink more.” (PS, dude #2: not true!) And now, we have the calorie-conscious, I’m-so-productive-I-exhale-steam 4 AM worker-outers who heed Jim Rome’s morning plugs for a 5-Hour Energy shot, with all the caffeine you need in one little 1.5 oz mini iridescent bottle.
What gives? Is this cool? Should we all trade in our coffees for some Venom Hyperdrive so we, too, can dominate our own little worlds with a swagger and some to spare, despite the fact that our eyelid twitches and we absentmindedly consume our cuticles during “downtime”?
It’s difficult to talk about energy drinks generally. First, because there are so dang many of them, (over 300 varieties!) and there is huge variability from drink to drink. The range of caffeine stretches from 50 to 505 mgs. Each drink contains different combinations and amounts of other ingredients, such as herbs and vitamins, that the manufacturers claim will increase your energy. Finally, the drinks vary in volume; 18 oz down to just 1.5 oz of “energy shots.”
Secondly, not a lot of quality research has looked at either the effectiveness or the safety of the specific amounts and combinations of these ingredients. As the drinks increased in popularity since when they first hit the scene, there has been a backlash of commentaries and reviews published in medical journals, warning about the potential adverse effects of something unregulated, untested, and at the same time en-vogue with almost cult-like followings. The bulk of the documented harm, however, comes from cases where energy drinks were combined with alcohol (I’ll talk about it later). Additionally, physicians are, rightfully, worried about the chronic and large consumption among adolescents in particular. So in sum, there are lots of different drinks, and no research regarding the long-term effects of acute or chronic consumption of them, especially in younger, developing bodies.
Great, thanks for the lame blog. I can’t believe I clicked “read more” for this.
That being said, let’s hit up some of what is known about the ingredients in these fashion accessories, and see how they may affect your body and mind, if not your number of friends.
Start with caffeine, then: Good or bad?
Just for your comparison ballpark, one cup of coffee has between 77 and 150 mgs of caffeine. The FDA limits the maximum amount of caffeine a soda can contain (71 mgs / 12 fluid oz), but energy drinks are not under this guideline. The highest amount of caffeine so far in an energy drink is 505 mg (in, you guessed it, WiredX505).
Caffeine has been shown to make us better at some things. First off, if you are sleep deprived, it can counteract some of the cognitive effects of that. Many studies aimed at improving performance and safety for shift and night workers, like pilots and truck drivers, have deprived subjects of sleep and then shown that caffeine can decrease errors and increase alertness (1). Caffeine can also increase attention, improve planning, and make you react quicker in certain tests. Turns out, caffeine even helps you if you aren’t sleep-deprived, and even if you don’t notice a difference (2). The downside of caffeine is that if you take too much, too late in the day, and you haven’t built up a tolerance for it, it can affect your sleep that night.
Can caffeine help my workouts?
There’s a lot of evidence that caffeine enhances endurance performance, meaning that people have a much longer time to exhaustion when performing high intensity aerobic activity with the use of caffeine. It also improves sprint times in some studies. The relationship of caffeine to resistance training or anaerobic bouts of exercise lasting from 4 – 180 seconds is less clear, however. It seems that caffeine may enhance power, increase repetitions to failure, and increase isometric contraction times, but only preliminary, and slightly inconsistent, evidence supports this.
So, I guess the more the better!?
That’s probably not a good way to view anything, even broccoli. Many of the studies I cited above used the amount of caffeine contained in 2 cups of coffee, not close to the up to 505 mg of caffeine that can be found in energy drinks. Too much caffeine can not only disrupt sleep, but can also cause heart palpitations, as well as make you irritable and jittery. And FYI, you can die from extreme overdose of caffeine, and at the very least be hospitalized for intoxication (3). People with preexisting cardiac issues or a history of seizures are at greater risk for caffeine OD. Also, while coffee is often sipped over a period of time, many of these energy drinks now come in “shot” size, so the amount of caffeine that gets ingested at once is more than what you’d naturally be limited to when drinking your cups o Joe.
Lots of labels scream that B-vitamins give me energy! Should I start getting B-vitamin tablets to act as a little mini-Viagra throughout the day?
B-vitamins are involved in energy-related metabolic reactions; but they don’t provide any energy for you whatsoever. In fact, unless you’re deficient, they will probably only succeed in giving you B-vitamin-rich urine while sucking away some of your money. If you are deficient, you still wouldn’t feel any energy from taking them. The only thing that is actual “energy” is calories. But these drinks refer to energy as the psychological kind.
Taurine is named after a bull, and makes me feel bull-like and awesome. Is it made from bull-sperm?
What? No, taurine is a non-essential amino acid, meaning we make it in our own body (4). It’s not going to give you energy. But the energy drink people think that since it plays a role in muscle contraction, supplementing with more of it may make you contract…more? But, like B-vitamins, just because a compound does something in your body, doesn’t mean that if you take more of that compound that something will happen more or more often. No research to my knowledge has looked at the effect of taurine alone on energy or exercise. Also, according to one review, the amounts of taurine in energy drinks are too low to actually give any effect whatsoever.
That being said, research on other effects of taurine supplementation is exciting. When studied by itself, in cells and animal models, it seems to have a heart protective effect. Controlled human studies that directly test the effects of taurine dosing are needed before we start totally freaking out. Also, no one has tested taurine’s benefits when it’s mixed into a drink that resembles highlighter ink.
Something about the word “guarana,” another ingredient in energy drinks, makes me feel exciting and exotic. What do you think?
Guarana, found in many drinks like SoBe No Fear, Venom, and Beaver Buzz, (don’t you love the names!?), actually contains caffeine in it. The amount of caffeine in guarana varies, and may or may not be included into the calculations of the caffeine content listed on the bottles. It’s basically a stimulant, so the same stuff said about caffeine could be applied to this. However, because you don’t know the amount of caffeine in it, and supplements are not regulated at all, don’t go out and buy yourself a bottle.
Some of the energy drinks also have sugar in them. Will that make me ricochet off the walls even more?
No, the “sugar high” is a myth. Sugar doesn’t make you more hyper. So 1. stop perpetuating the myth, and come up with a different reason for your kids when telling them they can’t eat their Halloween candy before bed. And 2. See mom? I could’ve eaten Cocoa Krispies without turning the living room into my own giant Bounce-House!
How about downing a Rockstar to “sober up” after I drink?
I can’t tell you how many cups of coffee I’d pour or Redbulls I’d sell after “last call” at the bar. All from people swearing that it would “sober them up.” I’d always tell them (to no avail) that they’d still be drunk, they’d just be a wide-awake drunk.
Who cares? Well unlike those over-indulgers who drink until they pass out, these people don’t pass out…they stay awake and continue to drink longer, bypassing that body warning system yelling at you to knock-it-off and call it a night. Also, some studies show that large amounts of caffeine when intoxicated can make you feel more coordinated and with-it, when in reality your blood alcohol level has not changed. This makes you more likely to do stupid things (already a problem for someone who is drinking!).
So, Little Miss Hedge, what’s your opinion then?
If you’re going to make me take a stand on energy drinks as an entire category, then, at the risk of sounding like a boring loser who is hated by teens, banished from the world of cool, and disowned by my cousin who gets his weekly doses of Redbull from Costco, I’m going to give them a thumbs down.
I will write a future blog about the antioxidant and other health benefits of coffee, so if you’re into caffeine, I’d encourage switching to that. I think the amounts of caffeine in these energy guys are unregulated and tend to be high; you also tend to drink energy drinks faster than you would coffee, especially these energy shots. Plus, while the ingredients by themselves appear benign, who has mixed all these active compounds up and systematically fed them to people (especially young growing adults) while tracking the health outcomes? (No, don’t try it at home on your own!)
Do what you will, but I think the jury is still out. My tip is to instead head to your nearest non-Starbucks coffee shop and support their local brew.
MS, RD, PhD
PS. HUGE props to Seth Casteel, the genius who takes pics of dogs underwater. It’s slightly creepy-looking, but still really cute!
1. This one study measured the nighttime highway driving after either 200 mgs of caffeine, an equal amount of decaf coffee with 15 mgs of caffeine, or a nap in the car for 30 minutes. They had the subjects drive between 2 and 3:30 AM. When compared to daytime driving, there was no difference in “line-crossings” for 75% of the people who had caffeine and 66% of those who napped.
2. Compared to a placebo, caffeine improved alertness even though both placebo and caffeinated people reported that they felt similar.
3. There is an LD50 for caffeine. This means that at this dose, 50% of the population would die. The LD50 for caffeine is about 150 to 200 mgs / kg of body mass, or about 80 – 100 cups of coffee for the average adult. Don’t do it.
4. One thing you should know about any amino acid supplementation is that too much of one thing can knock out the absorption of another, especially when it comes to supplementation of individual nutrients. There aren’t specific gates from the small intestine into our body for every single compound. For example both calcium and iron can only get in through one type of door, and so if there’s a ton of calcium, and not a lot of iron, in some meal you eat, chances are, as all of that stuff is racing down your small intenstinal slide, mostly the calcium will win, and the iron misses its shot.
Same thing with amino acids. Taurine shares a door with other similarly structured amino acids. So when you have a ton of taurine, chances are it will win against some other amino acid you have that is trying to get in.
Energy drink summaries, cautionary commentaries, and warnings:
Arria, A.M., O’Brian, M.C. (2011). The “high” risk of energy drinks. JAMA, 305(6), 600-601. (Commentary)
Babu, K.M., Church, R.J., Lewander, W. (2008). Energy drinks: The new eye-opener for adolescents. Clinical Pediatric Emergency Medicine, 9, 35-42.
Clauson, K.A., Shields, K.M., McQueen, C.E., Persad, N. (2008). Safety issues associated with commercially available energy drinks. Journal of the American Pharmacy Association, 48, e55-e67.
Reisseg, C.J., Strain, E.C., & Griffiths, R.R. (2009). Caffeinated energy drinks- A growing problem. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 99, 1-10.
A great summary of up to 2009 research on caffeine and anaerobic exercise:
Davis, J.K., Green, J.M. (2009). Caffeine and anaerobic performance: Ergogenic value and mechanisms of action. Sports Medicine, 39(10), 813-832.
An energy drink and exercise review (seems to be swayed towards energy drink promotion):
Hoffman, J.R. (2010). Caffeine and energy drinks. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 32(1), 15-20.
A more rounded review of energy drinks and exercise:
Duchan, E., Patel, N.D., Feucht, C. (2010). Energy drinks: A review of use and safety for athletes. Physician and Sportsmedicine, 38(2),
A stellar summary of energy drinks from a market perspective:
Heckman, M.A., Sherry, K., Gonzalez de Mejia, E. (2010). Energy drinks: An assessment of their market size, consumer demographics, ingredient profile, functionality, and regulations in the United States. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science, 9, 303-317.