Whether you’re getting ready for a run, a night out with friends or a long shift at work, at some point you may have found yourself feeling so exhausted that your usual cup of coffee just wasn’t cutting it. Energy drinks, with their flashy packaging and long list of stimulating ingredients, promise a solution — but before you ingest such a potent potion, it’s worth asking: Are energy drinks safe?
The short answer is: definitely not entirely, and never for kids. There is a significant body of evidence showing that energy drinks can have serious health effects, especially for younger adults, children and teens. In fact, energy drinks were involved in over 20,000 emergency room visits in 2011, the last year measured in a report from the U.S. government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (For comparison, in the same year only around 10,000 people visited U.S. emergency rooms with fireworks injuries — which are usually considered among the biggest summer health hazards.)
What’s in these drinks that’s so dangerous? The same stimulants that give you an energy boost can put a lot of strain on your circulatory and nervous system — and the main culprit is old familiar caffeine. Overconsumption of caffeine can result in symptoms like nausea, anxiousness and an elevated heart rate, and in high enough doses it can cause seizures or heart arrhythmia.
The FDA suggests that healthy adults drink no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day, and caffeine in energy drinks typically ranges from 40 to 250 milligrams per 8 fluid ounces. But even reading the label might not keep you perfectly safe. The FDA doesn’t require energy drink labels to specify how much caffeine is in their product, and some studies have found that some labels the do specify caffeine content list inaccurate amounts.
Michelle Routhenstein, a registered dietician in New York City who specializes in heart health, confirmed that these drinks can do a number on your heart. “Whether it is a high dose of caffeine or a combination of toxic ingredients such as sugar, taurine or guarana, it can illicit heart issues,” she told The Active Times via email.
These drinks are especially harmful when consumed with drugs and alcohol, which was the case with 42 percent of energy drink-related emergency room visits in 2011. Plenty of studies have found evidence that stimulants can make drunk behavior even worse — a 2010 report in the journal Addictive Behaviors, for instance, found that people who drank energy drinks at a bar were three times more likely to leave intoxicated and, terrifyingly, four times more likely to plan to drive home in that state.
And there is huge concern about the use of energy drinks among kids and adolescents. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, holds that “energy drinks have no place in the diets of children or adolescents” and states clearly that “dietary intake should be discouraged for all children.” A study presented to the American Heart Association in 2014 analyzed data from a roughly three-year period and found that over 40 percent of energy drink-related calls to U.S. poison control centers involved children younger than 6 — a total of over 2,000 calls, many of which involved “serious cardiac and neurological symptoms.”
Even if an energy drink doesn’t land you in an ambulance directly, health professionals like Routhenstein are concerned about the drinks’ long-term effects, especially in kids. “Energy drinks are advertised and being bought by children, which can impact their growth, particularly in the brain, heart, muscles and bone development,” she told us. (And that’s before even considering all that added sugar.)
So while you’ll probably survive your one-can-per-morning energy drink habit, it’s not doing your body any favors — and for some people (or for anybody who takes too high a dosage), the drinks can actually be dangerous. There are probably better ways to get an energy boost — and if you are compensating for your lack of sleep through caffeine intake, remember that getting a good night’s rest will positively affect your body in more ways than you know.