New study finds energy drinks in excess harmful to health

By Amber Jurgensen and Dave Castagno |

Maggie Russell says energy drinks make her feel like she’s going to die.

“They make my heart race,” said Russell, a Flagler College student.

A racing heart is not a figment of her imagination. A new study which came out in February in the online medical journal, Pediatrics, analyzes the health effects that energy drinks have on children, adolescents and young adults and found that energy drinks can cause serious health effects.

“Frequently containing high and unregulated amounts of caffeine, these drinks have been reported in association with serious adverse effects, especially in children, adolescents, and young adults with seizures, diabetes, cardiac abnormalities, or mood and behavioral disorders or those who take certain medications,” the study said.

“People who have cardiac issues to begin with need to limit their intake of caffeine to keep from making their cardiac issues worse,” said Naomi Mellos, a nurse at Naval Hospital Jacksonville. “The most common effects of caffeine that I have seen are heart palpitations, shaky hands and occasionally some nausea.”

Luisa Garcia has epilepsy and is unemployed because she can’t drive or hold a job due to seizures. “Because of my preexisting seizure disorder I try to stay away from caffeine. I can’t imagine having a Red Bull which has so much caffeine. The stress of being so hyper would probably give me a seizure,” Garcia said.

The caffeine in energy drinks doesn’t just affect people with preexisting medical conditions, however.

“I have [patients] with moderately elevated blood pressure after just one Red Bull. Blood pressure in the most recent case was 150/70 — too high for a 24-year-old male,” said Judy Angyalfy, a nurse at Flagler College.

Using self-report surveys, the study found that energy drinks are consumed by 30 to 50 percent of adolescents and young adults. College students reported that “insufficient sleep (67%) and the desire to increase energy (65%) are the most common reasons for use,” the report said.

“I think energy drinks like anything else are OK in moderation. I think they are harmful when used daily in place of good health practices,” Angyalfy said.

“I’ll drink a couple during the week if I need to do an essay,” said Jason Bell, a Flagler College student.

“[Energy drinks] are marketed to appeal to people who probably ‘burn the candle at both ends,’ don’t pay careful attention to eating whole foods, getting adequate rest, cultivating their spiritual nature, and so they get a caffeine fix to boost energy,” Angyalfy said.

Fifty four percent of college students in a survey reported mixing energy drinks with alcohol, and 49 percent drank three or more energy drinks while partying, according to the study.

Four Loko, an alcoholic energy drink, was banned earlier this year until the FDA approved the caffeine to alcohol level was safe. Four Loko takes its name from its four main ingredients, alcohol, caffeine, taurine and guarana.

“The only reason people were getting so drunk so fast was because the alcohol in it and the caffeine being mixed with it. The fact that the caffeine was so high and the fact that other ingredients like ginseng was in it, people would start blacking out,” Bell said.

“I’ve only had Four Lokos twice. I felt my heart skip beats on Four Loko, so I decided to never drink another Four Loko,” Russell said.

Energy drinks can contain “70 to 80 mg per 8-oz. serving (3 times the concentration in cola drinks),” the report said. “Caffeine content can be nearly 5 times greater than that in 8 oz. of cola drinks when packaged as “energy shots.”

Energy drinks also contain additional amounts of “additives, including guarana, kola nut, yerbamate, and cocoa,” the study said. “Manufacturers are not required to list the caffeine content from these ingredients. Thus, the actual caffeine dose in a single serving may exceed that listed,” the study said.

“Taurine is found in many energy drinks. It seems that effects of excessive intake of taurine has not been studied in depth so to me that poses a risk for children and young adults that may still be developing,” Angyalfy said.

Taurine is found naturally in meat, fish and breast milk. “Some studies suggest that taurine supplementation may improve athletic performance, which may explain why taurine is used in many energy drinks. Other studies suggest that taurine combined with caffeine improves mental performance, although this finding remains controversial,” said.

There have been no long term studies on the effects of taurine combined caffeine on humans, according to a psychology page on the Vanderbilt University website.

“Energy drinks in moderation are just as safe as having a glass of iced tea or cup of coffee. The caffeine level in energy drinks is just slightly higher than a cup of coffee, depending on which energy drink you pick,” Mellos said.

“Drink energy drinks always in moderation,” Russell said.

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