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The health dangers of energy drinks

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Examining the worrying effects of regular consumption of energy drinks, especially when combined with alcohol.

A number of recent studies have highlighted the dangers and worrying health implications that go hand in hand with the consumption of both energy drinks and soft drinks. Blood pressure and excessive calorie intake are just some of the things that are compromised by these sugar and caffeine-laden beverages. Energy drinks differ from sports drinks and vitamin water in that energy drinks may contain caffeine, taurine, sugars and sweeteners, herbal supplements and other ingredients. In 2008, the National Federation of State High School Associations in the US recommended water and sports drinks for rehydration, but specifically did not recommend energy drinks, citing the potential risks, the absence of benefit and drug interactions.

One such study, published in the journal Paediatrics and called “Health Effects of Energy Drinks on Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults”, looked at the risks of consumption of high caffeine energy drink on both children and young adults. The findings revealed that the drinks were related to heart palpitations, high blood pressure and even cardiac arrest and death. It also stated that energy drinks have no therapeutic benefit, while many ingredients are understudied and not regulated.

The study raised concern over both the known and unknown pharmacology of agents included in such drinks, combined with reports of toxicity. In the short-term, the authors wrote, paediatricians need to be aware of the possible effects of energy drinks in vulnerable populations and screen for consumption to educate families. It suggested that long-term research should aim to understand the effects in at-risk populations, such as if those consuming the drink already suffer from chronic disease or take other medications. Carried out at the University of Miami, US, the study reviewed a variety of case reports and other studies in an array of countries. It showed that while in Denmark, Turkey, and Uruguay these drinks are banned, Norway prohibits the sale of these drinks to those under 15.

However, in Ireland, Germany, and New Zealand where there have been reported cases of liver damage, kidney failure, seizures, confusion, and arrythmia associated with energy drink use, the drinks continue to be sold with no restrictions. Those behind the research urged paediatricians to discuss risks of energy drinks with their patients, targeting especially those with heart conditions or mood and behavioural disorders. On average, an energy drink contains 70 to 80 milligrams of caffeine per eight ounce serving, around three-to-five times the concentration of cola drinks. The excess calories and sugar also contribute to body mass index (BMI), as well as dental decay problems. In another survey of college students in the US, it was noted that over half regularly consumed more than one such drink each month and a majority of those students consumed them several times a week. Some reasons cited for such a high intake were insufficient sleep and a desire for more energy.

In this study, 54 per cent of the respondents reported mixing energy drinks with alcohol and 49 per cent drank more than three of them while socialising. Another US study of 795 college students found that 39 per cent of the respondents had consumed an energy drink in the previous month and that, on average, men drank energy drinks 2.5 days each month, whereas women drank 1.2 days per month. A separate US study presented to the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions in 2007 found that healthy adults who drank two cans of energy drink a day had a higher BP and higher heart rate than normal. The researchers, at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, asked 15 healthy young adult volunteers, eight women and seven men with an average age of 26 years, to stop consuming caffeine from other sources for two days before and throughout the duration of the study.

On the first day of the study, they measured each volunteer’s BP and heart rate and also took an electrocardiogram (ECG) to assess heart function. Following this, the participants drank two cans of an energy drink containing 80 milligrams of caffeine and 1,000 milligrams of taurine. They then took further BP, heart rate and ECG measurements 30 minutes and then each hour for four hours. This was repeated each day for the next five days, until the seventh day of the study when they repeated what they did on the first day.

It found that within four hours of consuming the energy drink, the maximum systolic BP increased by 7.9 per cent on day one, and 9.6 per cent on day seven. Within just two hours of consuming the drink, the maximum diastolic BP went up seven per cent on the first day and 7.8 per cent on day seven. Heart rate increased by 7.8 per cent on day one and 11 per cent on day seven. Over the total period of the study, heart rates went up between five and seven beats per minute while systolic BP rose by 10mm mercury (Hg) after having the energy drink. The study noted that no significant ECG changes were observed.

In Ireland this year, after sales of the alcoholic spirit Jagermeister skyrocketed at Christmas, Dr Chris Luke, consultant in emergency medicine at the Mercy University Hospital in Cork, warned that the drink, when combined with the energy drink Red Bull, poses a major health risk to those who consume it regularly. He added that a danger of the mixture was that it diluted down the effects of alcohol and meant people were begining to drink well past the limits their bodies could tolerate.

 

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