Just one energy drink could kill you dead, according to a new study, or at least according to how it’s being reported. “Drinking even just one energy drink a day may boost heart disease risk,” screams one headline. “A single energy drink could harm heart health for young adults” yelps another.
Here’s what was involved in the actual study. They recruited 25 non-smoking young adults to come in twice to drink a Rockstar energy drink, and a placebo formulated to look and taste exactly like a Rockstar energy drink (but with no caffeine or other stimulants in it). It was double-blind, so neither the researchers nor the subjects knew which drink they got on which visit.
After subjects drank their drinks. the researchers did a series of physical exams and tests, and what they turned up was that drinking a Rockstar energy drink will raise your blood pressure more than drinking the sugary placebo.1 They also found that norepinephrine levels went up 71% compared to a 31% rise after consumption of the placebo drink. Norepinephrine, which is called noradrenaline outside the U.S., is a neurotransmitter that is associated with stress and stress symptoms (if you’re producing too much) and depression (if you’re producing too little). As an aside, looking up other things that could raise norepinephrine actually got me a bunch of hits for articles about how you ought to eat high-protein foods, green leafy vegetables, and pumpkin seeds to raise your dopamine and norepinephrine levels.
I’m not sure why anyone thought we needed a study to determine whether a drink that consists mostly of caffeine and sugar will raise your blood pressure. It’s well-established that caffeine will raise blood pressure, which is why people concerned about this are advised to restrict themselves to 200 mg or less of caffeine per day. A can of Rockstar energy drink contains 160 mg of caffeine, although some energy drinks (and in fact some formulations of Rockstar) contain more.
Apparently part of the concern here is that people who consume energy drinks tend to chug them down a lot faster than most people do with coffee. (Per the CDC, anyway.) I’m a little unconvinced that they really do drink more, but possibly that’s because my friends are all coffee and tea drinkers and not energy drink drinkers. Is this because I’m old? Oh. Yes. It’s because I’m old.
So, what are the actual risks here? I am honestly still unclear on that. “We now show that the increases in blood pressure are accompanied by increases in norepinephrine, a stress hormone chemical, and this could predispose an increased risk of cardiac events — even in healthy people,” was the statement made by the doctor who was the lead author on the study. I went hunting to see what exactly increases in norepinephrine can do to people and turned up info on adrenergic storms, which are super, super bad but are usually caused by (a) cocaine use, (b) combining an MAOI-type medication with things you are really not supposed to combine with them (there’s a long list), and (c) subarachnoid hemorrhage (a brain bleed). Could you cause an adrenergic storm by overdosing on caffeine? It seems like it ought to be theoretically possible but I couldn’t find any examples. I did find a list of people killed or hospitalized from caffeine overdoses but they all consumed a lot more than 200mg.
The other stimulant chemicals in Rockstar are taurine and extracts of guarana seed, ginseng root, and milk thistle. Taurine is an organic acid used in the body in various ways; apparently in large doses it can be hard on your kidneys. Guarana seed is a caffeine source. Milk thistle can be eaten as a food and appears to be safe as long as you’re not a cow or a sheep. Ginseng root may have some risks; mostly those are in conjunction with other drugs.
Articles about the evils of energy drinks often claim that they’re more caffeinated than coffee: “The amount of caffeine in a single energy drink is the same as three cups of coffee or cans of soda, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.” This is only true if we’re talking about a 6-ounce cup or very weak coffee. I pour my morning coffee into a 16oz mug and fill it most of the way, and plenty of my friends drink more coffee than I do. There have been many, many studies on coffee consumption from suspicious medical professionals convinced that anything we love needs to be bad for us. The final overall consensus is that coffee is beneficial.
No evidence so far has turned up that energy drinks are good for you. But I think the jaded eye here is solidly from the same “if you like it, it’s probably bad” school of puritanical thought. Energy drinks raise your blood pressure and norepinephrine production: so does coffee. I found no explanation for why we’re pretty sure coffee is okay and energy drinks are not, so I’m going with BECAUSE YOU PESKY KIDS LIKE ENERGY DRINKS, GET OFF MY LAWN unless someone wants to chime in with an explanation.
[Post image via Keith Homan / Shutterstock.com]
They found an average 6.2% rise in systolic and a 6.8% rise in diastolic after people drank the energy drinks; a 3% rise after people drank the placebo. ↩