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Energy drinks may boost your bounce but beware of side effects

by Matt Doyle
Sep 30, 2008

Those handy energy drinks do improve athletic performance and maybe even cramming for exams, a new study shows.

But medical and nutrition experts warn that they can cause insomnia and other harmful side effects and are no substitute for energy from a healthy diet. 

“Energy drink effects on cognitive performance,” recently published in the Dutch Journal of Psychiatry suggests several benefits from energy drinks. “Not only did focused and sustained attention improve significantly but so did reaction speed in all sorts of reaction-time tasks,” the study reports. 

The study is based on a review of previous research and scientific literature reported on the human consumption of energy drinks from 1997 to 2006.

Aggressive marketing campaigns have given energy drinks traction in the beverage market, since the introduction of Red Bull in the late nineties. Young athletes devour these drinks for a lift before competition, while college students use them as a tasty alternative to coffee when exam time rolls around. But some experts in the medical and fitness field are still skeptical.

“We don’t encourage young athletes to go that route to get their energy and improve their performance,” said Steve DeBoer a registered dietician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

“There is a tendency for young athletes to overdo what they try,” he said. 

Energy drinks commonly contain high amounts of caffeine, along with sugar, guarana, ginseng and taurine. Caffeine can cause harmful side effects to users.

“The thing that causes side effects is caffeine,” DeBoer said. “The other things are in such small amounts that they really don’t have a therapeutic effect. Caffeine can cause insomnia and headaches and there have been some cases of individuals who have experienced seizures.”

Another report about energy drinks supports the possibility of seizures with high consumption of these beverages. Researchers at the Department of Neurology at the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Ariz., offered the case report last year. 

The report, “New-onset seizures in adults: Possible association with consumption of popular energy drinks” describes four cases in four different individuals where researchers associated the onset of seizures with high-volume ingestion of popular energy drinks. "On abstinence from the energy drinks, none of the four patients reported any seizures,” the report stated. 

These findings only show four cases, making this serious side effect rare.

Clint Phillips, a top personal trainer in the Chicago area, advises doing research before deciding on an energy drink.

“You have to be a smart consumer,” Phillips said. “Read the labels and the labels can be tricky. What exactly is in the one you are drinking? They are no magic bullet [for energy].”

Although energy drinks can give people a temporary lift, there are alternative and safer ways to increase energy, according to Dr. Paul Lento of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

“When you are talking about a sustainable form of energy you are talking about carbohydrates, fat and protein,” Lento said. “Carbohydrates will metabolize first and then you start getting into your other sources like fat. The energy drink is only going to provide you with the carbohydrate and is not going to provide you with the level of a balanced meal.” 

“Energy drinks are not adequate substitutes for the time, training, rest, recovery and fueling required for sports,” concluded Leslie Bonci, a registered dietician, in a report for the Gatorade Sports Science Institute.