This article originally appeared in the Oct. 14, 2010, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
With clever marketing and catchy names, super-caffeinated energy drinks have become a sensation with many young people. But the energy drinks that students take to cram during late-night study sessions or student athletes take to get themselves through long days of sport practices pose more of a threat to their health than a benefit to their performance.
“The concern is the perception of energy drinks helping to replenish the body's fluids and energize the body, like after exercise or sporting events,” says Peggy Kinamore, public education coordinator with the Missouri Poison Center, a program of SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center. “That’s when your body needs to be rehydrated, and caffeine is a diuretic, so it’s actually a dehydrating-type drug.”
Caffeine-charged drinks have flooded convenience and grocery stores in recent years, and many are consumed by teens because they are thought to boost performance and to replenish fluids. They’ve also become go-to drinks for parties and late-night studying.
Energy drinks are aggressively marketed to teens and young adults. Most contain large amounts of both caffeine and sugar along with a combination of legal stimulants and supplements. The caffeine content of energy drinks remains unregulated, and is equivalent to two or three cups of coffee. Young people are especially vulnerable to the harmful side effects of caffeine, and are at a far greater risk of caffeine overdose and related health problems.
“These products cause a health risk and a concern because if the drinks are guzzled, and many of them are because they taste so sweet from all the sugar, then that is a real health risk,” Kinamore explains. “Drinking energy beverages too quickly or in too great an amount can cause an accelerated heart rate or even chest pain.”
If improperly consumed, or drunk too quickly, energy drinks can cause symptoms that include upset stomach, sweating, tremors, sleeplessness, restlessness, headache, chest pain and heart problems. Caffeine overload is just one of the many hazards of energy drinks.
Many people think of caffeine as a food rather than a drug. Caffeine is a diuretic drug and large doses can cause dehydration. This poses a problem for people drinking energy drinks while playing sports, or during or after exercise. Many of these drinks also contain additional ingredients whose safety or effectiveness has never been tested in children — including herbal supplements, guarana (a source of caffeine), and taurine (an amino acid thought to enhance performance).
Another concern for students and adults is the combination of energy drinks and alcohol.
“A commonly held misconception is that energy drinks can improve driving safety by reversing symptoms of drunkenness and reducing alcohol-related driving impairment,” Kinamore says. “This is simply not true, and the consequences of this false sense of control could be devastating.”
The bottom line is this: Energy drinks offer no real health or performance benefit. Children who participate in sports should learn that they can improve their game through hard work and practice — values that will serve them well both on and off the field. Talk to your teen and college student about caffeine drinks, alcoholic beverages, the combination of both caffeine and alcohol, and their dangerous consequences.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at www.cardinalglennon.com.