Doctors warn of side effects
While standing in the courtyard at St. Thomas University, Mike Reich shakes his head and laughs about a time when he was 16 years-old. He had just moved from his comfortable hometown of Craik, Saskatchewan where the population is around 400 to Spokane, Washington. He was chasing a professional hockey career, and like most teenagers, would do anything to gain a competitive edge. Most players at the time relied on water or Gatorade to prepare for a game until the team struck an informal deal with Red Bull. There was an unlimited supply of a drink that allegedly ‘gave you wings’.
“I can remember junior hockey where I used to drink two or three of them before a game when they were new to the market,” Reich explained with a grin of guilt on his face.
Like so many athletes, students and overworked people this is how they become introduced to energy drinks. Some drink them because of sleep deprivation, lack of energy, stress and also as a mixture with alcohol. Since Red Bull was first introduced in the United States 1997, energy drink consumption has gained an immense level of popularity. Consumption has steadily increased which resulted in a rapid expansion of the industry throughout the world. In 2006 alone, consumption increased 17% and more than 500 new brands launched. An additional 200 brands were introduced to the market the following year.
According to Dr Graham Young, head of the emergency unit at the Everett Chalmers Hospital in Fredericton, said that they began as a drink that would temporarily increase mental alertness and reduce fatigue. Now they have turned into a drink of casual consumption; a source of hydration if you will.
“Most of them [energy drinks] have a minimum of 180mgs of caffeine and some of them have upwards to 350mgs. If you look at a large Tim Horton’s coffee, which we all know about, you are looking at about 100-120mgs of caffeine,” said Young, who is concerned with the public’s misconceptions.
The results of one study showed that the ingestion of one 250mL can of sugar-free Red Bull had an immediate detrimental effects on the thin layer of cells that lines the interior surface of blood vessels inside the heart. Its purpose is to lubricate the circulatory system and allow blood to be pumped easier. The effects temporarily raised the cardiovascular risks of individuals to a level comparable to someone with an existing coronary artery disease. The researchers who conducted the study cautioned anyone under stress from drinking Red Bull; exactly who one would expect to be drinking one. There have been a handful of cases in which users have suffered seizures and even died from over consumption.
Added benefits not always beneficial
“I’ve had lots of them. The one I really like is, Coca-Cola makes the full throttle energy drink. It taste pretty good and I do find that if I am like really, really working hard like long-boarding all day I’ll take one and it will kind of keep my muscles from burning out,” said Lucas Hayward, a resident of Fredericton.
Matt Eagles, the former captain of the Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL) and now a student at St. Thomas University, said he initially drank coffee at the age of 15. “I used to have one before hockey games on the way to the rink. I think I did it because my dad always did when he played and I thought it was kind of cool,” said Eagles who has since transitioned into various type of speciality energy drinks.
“I enjoyed caffeine and that energy rush it gave you so when I started having energy drinks, at first I didn’t have that many because there was tonnes of sugar in them but when I found a couple that I could get with less sugar I started drinking those. They taste good; it’s like having a pop with no sugar and more energy.”
Red Bull and other companies have aggressive marketing campaign targeting one major demographic. The majority of their endorsements focus on sports like mountain biking, motocross, windsurfing, snowboarding, skateboarding, kayaking, wakeboarding, surfing, skating, formula 1 racing, and many popular video games. Implicit in all of their brand names, Full Throttle, Battery, Reload, Spike, Hype, and Relentless all target the presence of young, thrill-seeking males between the ages of 16-24. Red Bull now generates over $1 Billion in annual sales and owns roughly 70% of the energy drink market.
Dr. Young explained that caffeinated energy drinks do provide some beneficial ingredients such as Taurine, Guarana,, Ginseng, B Vitamins and other antioxidants. Taurine is naturally produced in the body and common in many energy drinks. It promotes the detoxification of harmful substances in the body and replenishes natural levels of taurine that are lost as a result of stress. Other ingredients like B Vitamins can bolster metabolism, maintain healthy skin and muscle tone as well as enhancing the immune system. Ginseng is believed to increase blood supply and circulation and aid in the recovery of illness. Many of the ingredients are not scientifically proven.
A 2008 review published at the University of Australia on the effects of the key ingredients in most energy drinks. The study found that there are no documented reports of positive or negative health effects associated with the amount of taurine, guarana, and ginseng found in popular energy drinks; in fact they are far below the level to have any therapeutic benefits. The study concluded that the level of caffeine and sugar are high enough to cause a variety of undesirable health effects which include headache’s nausea and anxiety.
Energy drinks rarely deliver more than a temporary energy spike which can solely be attributed to the added sugar and caffeine content, which outweigh any advantage the natural ingredients add, according to Dr. Young.
Chris Beaudoin is a certified personal trainer at Kingswood Fitness and he explained that several of his clients use energy drinks as a pre-workout stimulant.
“Every day you do see people taking energy drinks; the Red Bull, Rockstar and all of those things,” who said it is typically clients with low energy and looking for an extra jolt of energy to increase their performance. “You come in feeling lethargic and sometimes the hardest part of going to the gym is getting to the gym,” said Beaudoin who strongly discourages his clients from drinking energy drinks. Instead he said those lacking energy should drink more water, eat balanced meals and get a minimum of eight hours sleep a night.
Restricting sale of energy drinks not uncommon
Regulating energy drinks varies between countries and several have enacted regulations against labelling, distribution and the sale of brands that contain high levels of caffeine. The European Union requires energy drinks to have a label indicating “high caffeine content”. In Canada, the law stipulates that they should not be mixed alcohol and maximum daily consumption should not exceed two 8.3 oz cans. Norway restricts the sale of Red Bull to pharmacies. France and Denmark have completely banned the sale of Red Bull. In 2009, several German retailers banned the sale of Red Bull after traces of cocaine were found in it. The concentration of cocaine only amounted to 0.03mg per litre.
“There are some benefits from all of these products,” said Dr. Young “It’s the way the public interprets them; you know, if a little is a good then a lot’s got to be better. Well that is certainly not the case when it comes to these energy drinks, in fact, it’s quite the opposite.”
Caffeine is responsible for stimulating the central nervous system which gives user a sense of alertness and a quicker thought process which amounts to better coordination. The most common negative side effect is the “lull” after the initial sugar rush. Because they often result in a crash period, the most pressing concern is mixing energy drinks with alcohol. Reich admits that he occasionally consumes an energy drink or two before going out with friends.
“It’s kind of a thing to mix red bull with vodka so I’ve done that a few times. Say I am a little tired and I want to go out to the bar, instead of having a beer maybe I’ll mix something like that and it will give me a bit of energy. It’s probably not that healthy but I do it,” said Reich.
But when it comes to mixing alcohol with energy drinks, Dr. Young warns users that it will enhance a users ‘high’ and decrease the ‘low’ the following day. “Not only does alcohol dehydrate your body, it also dehydrates your brain and some of the effects from that come from alcohol,” said Dr. Young who added that they are both natural diuretics. “It would make your hang over much worse and the effects of the alcohol somewhat intensified.”
North America leading the way
Since 2006, the energy drink market has grown at a rate of 26 percent a year, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down. North America is becoming the global driver of this trend. Canadian per capita consumption has soared from half a litre in 2002 to more than four litres in 2008. By 2007, no one consumed more energy drinks than North Americans as they surpassed Asia; the birth place of Red Bull. More companies are doubling the size of their standard can from 250ml to 500ml and bigger. There is no saying what effect that will have on consumption. The Canadian market has also introduced more diet and sugar-free drinks to increase long-term sales.
Although the majority of claims remain unsubstantiated, the most consistent result to emerge is that caffeine reduces performance due to a temporary spike followed by a crash which reduces alertness. Other studies have shown that caffeine can increase long-term exercise endurance and improve speed and/or power output. Mixing alcohol and energy drink is of great concern because one is a natural depressant and the other is a stimulant. However, both are diuretics and increase the likelihood of users to suffer from dehydration or in some cases caffeine overdose. This is defined by symptoms of nerviness, anxiety, insomnia, gastrointestinal problems and in some cases has resulted in death.
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