Energy drinks are popular among gamers, students, athletes, professionals, and anyone who has to drive overnight from Milwaukee to St. Louis. They’re big business, too. Americans spent $12.5 billion on energy drinks in 2012. Market experts predict that number to climb to $21.5 billion in 2017. It’s clear that these drinks are only growing in popularity. With so many people guzzling them down every day, can energy drinks really be that bad? The short answer is yes.
Energy drinks can be devastating for your health. They contribute to heart problems, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, anxiety, insomnia, and a host of other health risks. In some rare cases, energy drinks have even proved fatal.
A Growing Public Health Concern
In 2011, 16-year-old Sara Milosevic went to a party where she consumed several pre-mixed alcoholic energy drinks. A few hours later she was vomiting violently. Other partygoers just assumed she couldn’t handle her alcohol. At 11 pm, the teen called her parents to come pick her up. By 3 am, Sara was dead. An autopsy revealed that her blood alcohol content was only .04—not even enough to be considered legally drunk. Sara’s father, a chemist, believes the energy drinks caused her death.[2, 3]
In 2011, mere days before Christmas, 14-year-old Anais Fournier suffered a fatal heart attack. In the 48 hours before her death, she consumed four energy drinks. In total, Anais consumed 480 mg of caffeine—less than one-tenth the official fatal dosage of the stimulant, but almost five times more than the recommended limit for adolescents. Doctors speculate that the energy drinks agitated a pre-existing genetic heart condition.[4
It’s not just teens who are affected. In 2015, 28-year-old Martin Bowling suffered a heart attack after consuming eight energy drinks at a pub. Bowling was rushed to a hospital and survived. He had been spending $150 a week on energy drinks.
Even popular athletes can succumb to the toxicity of energy drinks. In 2003, professional wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was hospitalized with severe heart palpitations. He believes that his then habit of consuming 3-5 energy drinks every day was a primary cause of the health crisis.
“I think I’m dying, dying for sure,” Austin recalls of the event. “My heart’s beating so hard it feels like it’s going to crack a rib jumping out of my ch
est. My heart might be doing 160 or 180 beats per minute. My legs are shaking and I can’t make them stop. I’m sure I’m having a heart attack.”
Between 2004 and 2014, energy drinks have officially been a factor in at least 34 deaths. Unofficially, perhaps many more. Caffeine deaths are often attributable to other factors and may be severely underreported and undiagnosed. Some doctors suspect that the actual number could be much higher. Thousands of people have been hospitalized with symptoms of energy drink overdose, including insomnia, anxiety, convulsions, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and other cardiovascular complications. The wings that energy drinks give you might just come with a harp and halo.
How Your Body Reacts to Energy Drinks
We all need a little energy boost now and then, but there are healthier options. Energy drinks are a chemical cocktail of caffeine, refined sugar, and other ingredients. Some of which, like herbs and vitamins, may even sound healthy. What is it that makes energy drinks so dangerous?
One study looked at the effect that consuming just one 16-ounce can of a leading brand of energy drink had on basic, vital functions. The findings? Blood pressure jumped an average of 6.6 points within thirty minutes of consumption, and norepinephrine, a stress hormone, increased by 75%. Norepinephrine also enhances the production of cortisol, a fat-storing hormone, significantly increasing the risk of weight gain.
Energy drink manufacturers maintain that their products are safe when consumed in
recommended amounts. Do you know what the maximum recommended intake is? For most brands, it’s two or three cans per day. For some, it’s only one.
These warnings are easy to miss. Manufacturers usually hide them in small print on the back of the can with the other information that few people bother to read—that’s if the warning is on there at all. Make no mistake, beverage companies want you to drink as much of their product as possible.
There are two main health dangers of energy drinks—neurological and cardiological. In other words, your nervous system and your heart. These problems are caused by the very same ingredients that make you feel energized—staggeringly high levels of caffeine and sugar.