Energy drinks: They're readily accessible, legal, and potentially addictive. They claim to improve performance, increase concentration, and stimulate metabolism, yet these highly caffeinated, sugar-laden beverages are causing considerable concern among health professionals.
Excessive caffeine has been linked to elevated heart rates, hypertension, anxiety, headaches, and interrupted sleep patterns. Some energy drinks warn that they're not for use by individuals younger than 18, those pregnant or nursing, or if there's a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, caffeine-sensitivity, glaucoma, and other ailments. But most carry no warning.
A recent statewide Patient Poll conducted by the Pennsylvania Medical Society’s Institute for Good Medicine found that:
• 20 percent of respondents ages 21-30 had used energy drinks in high school or college to stay awake longer to study or write a paper.
• 70 percent of respondents knew someone who had used an energy drink to stay awake longer to study or work.
A cup of brewed coffee has between 80 and 135 milligrams of caffeine. Some energy drinks contain two to three times that amount plus the equivalent of 5 teaspoons of sugar.
Growing children and teens beware
"My colleagues and I are seeing more patients coming in with sleep disturbances, often caused by energy drinks," notes Philadelphia family physician and Chair of the Philadelphia Assembly, PA Academy of Family Physicians, Suzanne Steele, MD. Dr. Steele feels that most people should not be drinking these beverages, especially growing children.
"They can often be harmful. Energy drinks contribute to sleep disturbances, obesity, tooth decay, and dehydration. Children should be drinking milk instead to strengthen their growing bones. We're looking at a generation that will have serious problems with osteoporosis based on a lack of calcium intake and obesity from too much sugar. Brittle bones and too much weight on them just spells trouble."
Dr. Steele also cautions that if you have an undiagnosed heart condition, you could be risking your life by consuming so much caffeine. Additionally, combining alcohol and/or anti-depressants with energy drinks can be hazardous. "If you need an energy boost, eat a complex carbohydrate like organic trail mix or a spoonful of peanut butter and a glass of water. Increase your energy level slowly and safely, not with a caffeine/sugar rush."
Running on Empty
Elevated caffeine poses particular risks for athletes, according to Pittsburgh pediatrician Anthony Kovatch, MD, who runs regularly.
"In the humid heat of summer, you often hear of high school athletes having adverse effects," Dr. Kovatch says, cautioning that while some athletes consider energy drinks as performance boosters, they may in fact do the reverse. "If you drink this stuff because you’re hot, you’re defeating the purpose. Not only does caffeine raise your heart rate, it’s a diuretic. It increases the kidney's disposal of fluid from the body. You’re likely to go to the bathroom more often, which is a problem in the middle of any sporting event. And you may think you are getting hydrated, but instead, you're getting dehydrated. And that can be dangerous.”
Dr. Kovatch urges parents and coaches to discourage the use of energy drinks. “The level of caffeine in these drinks can be better tolerated by an adult body, but not in children and teens. If you’re getting ready for a sporting event, you’re already pumped up and the additional buzz can make you hyper, and then you lose your focus.”
Energy drink alternatives?
Drs. Steele and Kovatch suggest the following alternatives to energy drinks:• Low fat milk
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