Dangerous Energy

Do you think that Red Bull is just a quick, safe, fix for a busy schedule? It’s time to think again. There is growing evidence that Red Bull and the countless other energy drinks on the market are not only unhealthy- they’re dangerous.

“[I was] at TGI Fridays and was drinking Red Bull drinks [called “Red Bull Slushies”]. I probably had two or three, but they were pretty big…My heart started racing when I went home and I started having palpitations… It felt like my heart was skipping beats and I thought I was having a heart attack. So I ended up going to the ER, and they did an EKG on me and basically I was having heart palpitations due to a caffeine overdose,” explains Jessica Jasinski, a University of Iowa junior.

Though Jessica’s experience may seem extreme, reactions like this are by no means unusual. Her ordeal has caused her to drastically reduce her caffeine and energy drink consumption, and it seems that she isn’t alone. Many young women tend to brush off, or are not even aware of, the potential side effects that can (and do) occur as a direct result of energy drinks. Real, tangible consequences can be detected almost immediately after consumption.

“Once I chased a 5 Hour Energy [shot] with a Monster and I thought my heart was going to break through my ribcage and onto the table in front of me,” said Julie Jagiello, a UI senior and regular energy drink consumer.

Since its debut in 1997, the “Drink That Gives You Wings” has become a household name, and many of Red Bull’s caffeinated counterparts, such as Rockstar, Monster, and Nos are quickly following suit- especially on college campuses. The college woman today juggles studying, late nights, lack of sleep, extracurricular activities, and other obligations that can be taxing on both energy levels and motivation. So what’s a girl to do? Turning to energy drinks as a quick fix seems to be a very popular solution.

According to a report titled “Energy Drinks: An Assessment…” in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, “34% of 18 to 24-y-olds [are] regular energy drink users” as of 2010. The report continues, “About one-half of college students consume at least 1 energy drink per month in the hope to increase their energy level, to compensate for a lack of sleep or to mix with alcohol.” For many women, however, consumption (and the risks that accompany consumption) is significantly higher than just one drink per month, and many are unaware of how their bodies and health can be affected.

With consumption of these drinks on the rise, health officials are concerned about the possible negative side effects, both short and long-term. According to a health and nutrition article from this year on Lifespan.org, some of the known immediate effects of most energy drinks can include (but are not limited to), “Stomach upsets, irritability and sleep disruption, to blood pressure changes and heart arrhythmias for those sensitive to stimulants…the risk of cardiovascular complications increases when energy drinks are combined with other drugs or stimulants, such as caffeine pills.”

There is also a risk of consumers forming a dependence on the beverages, leading them to believe that having an energy drink will allow them to function at normal levels of concentration and alertness during stressful times. For those looking for a change of pace from their usual tall vanilla latte, a fruity, carbonated energy drink can be just what they have been looking for- especially if calorie counting is an issue.

To try and satisfy calorie conscious consumers, many companies have come out with either low-carb, low-sugar, or sugar free versions of their original drinks. One can of sugar free Red Bull is 15 calories per can. However, many consumers forget to check the serving size- some drinks contain up to three servings per can, effectively tripling the caloric intake labeled on the can. Not such a diet conscious solution after all. To further target their female consumer base, many brands of energy drinks have come out with products aimed exclusively for women. Tab energy is encased in a dainty pink plaid can with a ladylike motto to match: “Fuel to be Fabulous”. HER (Healthy Energy Revitilizer) energy drinks tout similar taglines. The HER website says the products are aimed at, “Women who are on the go with active lifestyles, while maintaining that fun and flirty image.”

Surrounded by ads such as these, it’s clear that advertisers aim for women to equate energy drinks with a sense of femininity, power, and a take-charge attitude. Despite the lofty labels and pretty designs, though, the content of the drinks is still unsafe. When asked about their personal views on energy drinks, the women of the University of Iowa have mixed reviews. Shelby Green, a UI Junior said, “A friend got me hooked… it is amazing! [It] gives me so much energy I feel fairly fast, but then it definitely goes away pretty quick. I think I am becoming immune to them…”

Though the drinks clearly have a loyal fan base, some UI women don’t use them so recreationally. Jen DeGeest, a UI junior explains that she, “Hates how they make me feel… All jittery and anxious. I only drink 5 Hour Energy [brand shots] when I have to work an overnight shift, or when it’s in a mixed drink.”

Speaking of alcohol- mixing energy drinks with alcohol has become a commonplace practice among college students, and in many ways, is even more dangerous than consuming energy drinks alone. Mixing the caffeine packed drinks (uppers) with the relaxing effects of alcohol (downers) effectively cancels out the telltale signs that you’ve had enough to drink; drowsiness, lethargy, and a desperate need to curl up on the couch. Energy drinks mask these effects, so that the consumer may believe they are less drunk than they truly are, and consequently continue to drink more than they would have otherwise. For a young woman, the number of bad situations this could result in should be seriously considered.

The epitome of this dangerous mixture is the alcoholic energy drink, “Four Loko”. The drinks boasted up to 12% ABV (alcohol by volume) and were a popular choice for college drinkers. Because of the mix of alcohol, caffeine, taurine, and guarana (its “four” main ingredients), consumers are affected quickly, and in a big way. Four Lokos soon earned the nickname of “blackout in a can”. Transitioning energy drink consumption from day to night seems like a no brainer to many, and despite the negative consequences, a large number of college students continue to use energy drinks as their mixer(s) of choice.

This behavior can have disastrous consequences. Jagiello accurately summed up this growing trend, “When you throw alcohol into the [energy drink] mix, you’re just asking for problems.”

Some of these problems include increased heart rate and alertness to name just a few. Energy drink consumption also leads to an increase in anxiety. This particular side effect is counterintuitive to the drink’s original intent; instead of providing energy to complete tasks and remain relaxed, the consumer may have more energy, but with the addition of stress, nervousness, and anxiety, or “jitters” as well. Over time, the consumer can very easily condition his or her body to react to tasks (tests, projects, long work hours, etc.) in this anxious way, even without the consumption of the energy drink itself.

In a July, 2010 article titled “Coffee vs. Energy Drinks- The Caffeine Wars,” Psychology Today says, “Used regularly, all such drinks create caffeinism, the addiction to caffeine which can move from the buzzing speed of the addict to the withdrawal hell of headaches, nausea, vomiting, and terrifying sleeplessness.”

Julie Jagiello, a UI senior said that she, “Usually [has to] drink at least two Monsters [energy drinks] to get the effect that I’m used to.”

Changes in blood pressure and even heart arrhythmias can also be a side effect of an overdose of caffeine. Even used in moderation, the ingredients caffeine and taurine, (the main components of the drinks) can affect heat rates over time. As noted from Livestrong.com, the average heart beat increases between five and seven beats per minute after consuming energy drinks. This increase can easily spell trouble for those with already high blood pressure or other heart ailments.

Because there are so many possible adverse side effects, energy drink sales and ingredients are regulated in many areas of the world. In the United States, however, no such restrictions apply. Energy drink companies have no limitations over the caffeine content of their beverages because the FDA has placed no restrictions on the caffeine limit in these types of beverages.

With no formal regulations on the content of energy drinks and the negative side effects that can accompany them, it is especially important that energy drinks are consumed in moderation and not with alcohol.

So ladies, even though it’s tempting to pop open another one of those slim, pink cans to help get everything done, know that all that energy can, and does have serious side effects. Green sums up the love/hate relationship with energy drinks: “I love Amp and Monster, but it’s a habit I wish I never started.”

-Stephanie Keltner

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