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Doc Talk Doc Talk: What’s in energy drinks? How safe are they?

  • Published Monday, April 29, 2013, at 11:20 p.m.

Do you have too much to do? Too many things on your plate? Too many school finals? Balls in the air?

Of course you do. It wouldn’t be 21st-century America if you didn’t have to be somewhere across town five minutes ago.

This problematic pattern has led to many innovations in recent years, most involving getting more done in less time. Examples include fast food restaurants complete with drive-thru windows, drive-up banking, pay-at-the-pump gas refueling, electronic or online (fill in the blank here with just about anything, from mail to shopping to “friending” on Facebook), and my personal favorite: raising the speed limit from 70 to 75 mph — as if we weren’t driving that fast anyway.

Yet there still are those who need just a little more of an edge to get everything done, and for them, the answer is the energy drink. From time to time, I have been asked various questions about energy drinks: What’s in them? Are they safe for me to drink? The most honest and brief response is: I don’t know. In the strictest sense, no one really knows.

Energy drinks generally contain a large but variable dose of caffeine, enhanced with an assortment of other ingredients categorized as “nutritional supplements” by the Food and Drug Administration. While caffeine is considered a pharmaceutical, the status of these other ingredients allows them to be added to the energy drink without much information as to how much or how little each serving contains. These may include ingredients with names like guarana, yerba mate, taurine, glucuronolactone and various vitamins (particularly B vitamins), among others. How many of these sound familiar to you? With the exception of caffeine and vitamins, most of the ingredients in energy drinks have not been researched enough to even establish a safe dose.

Some energy drinks contain as little as 80 mg of caffeine per bottle (that’s about twice as much as a 12-ounce can of cola or 60 percent of the amount in a cup of coffee), while others reportedly contain as much as 400 mg — the equivalent of drinking three cups of coffee. And remember those nutritional supplements mentioned earlier? Some of them contain additional caffeine that may not be listed in the total amount because of their supplemental status.

The bottom line? Most likely, drinking just one a day will be of little consequence to your health. But long-term use — particularly of brands with high amounts of caffeine and mystery ingredients — could be unsafe. Potential side effects include difficulty sleeping, anxiety, palpitations, nausea, vomiting and unsafe increases in blood pressure. Even seizures have been reported. Additionally, the effect of the increased energy may mean you push yourself too far, past your natural limits, because of changes in how you perceive fatigue and pain. While this may be what you are hoping for, it really is not safe.

Because of their high caffeine content, energy drinks are not safe when mixed with alcohol. Caffeine counteracts your ability to know how drunk you are, meaning you easily can drink more alcohol than you intended to without knowing it. Just because you don’t feel drunk doesn’t mean you aren’t.

So how can you safely increase your energy levels?

First of all, try nature’s energy drink: water. Exercise regularly. Don’t skip meals and even consider eating small meals frequently rather than three large meals. Spreading your caloric intake throughout the day will help with your energy. Exercise regularly, even if it’s just getting up for a short walk a few times a day. Get enough sleep. And perhaps most importantly, reduce your stress.

Doc Talk is a column about health issues by Wichita-area physicians. This column was written by Jared Johnson, family medicine, Via Christi Clinic, 13610 W. Maple, 316-773-4500.

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