Sunday, May 20, 2012
Energy Drinks: What’s the Big Deal?
Are energy drinks capable of pushing some people into caffeine-induced psychotic states? Some medical researchers think so, under the right set of conditions.
Red Bull, for all its iconic ferocity, is pretty tame, weighing in at approximately half a cup of coffee. Drinks like Monster Energy and Full Throttle push it up to 100-150, or the equivalent of a full cuppa joe, according to USDA figures at Talk About Coffee. That doesn’t sound so bad—unless you’re ten years old. A little caffeine might put you on task, but an overdose can leave you scattered and anxious—or worse. If you cut your teeth on Coke and Pepsi, then two or three energy drinks can deliver an order-of-magnitude overdose by comparison.
Readers are entitled to ask: Are you serious? Can’t we just ignore the inevitable view-this-with-alarm development in normal kid culture, and move on?
My interest began when I ran across a 2009 case report in CNS Spectrums, describing an apparent example of “caffeine-induced delusions and paranoia” in a very heavy coffee drinking farmer. “Convinced of a plot against him,” the psychologists write, “he installed surveillance cameras in his house and on his farm…. He became so preoccupied with the alleged plot that he neglected the business of the farm…. and he had his children taken from him because of unsanitary living conditions.”
The patient was not known to be a drinker, reporting less than a case of beer annually. He had shown no prior history of psychotic behaviors. But for the past seven years, he had been consuming about 36 cups of coffee per day, according to his account. Take that number of cups times 125 milligrams, let’s say, for a daily total of 4500 milligrams. At that level, he should be suffering from panic and anxiety disorders, according to caffeine toxicity reports, and he would be advised to call the Poison Control Center. And that certainly seems to have been the case. “At presentation,” the authors write, “the patient reported drinking 1 gallon of coffee/day.”
On the one hand, the idea of caffeine causing a state resembling chronic psychosis is the stuff of sitcoms. On the other hand, metabolisms do vary, and the precise manner in which coffee stimulates adenosine receptors can lead to anxiety, aggression, agitation, and other conditions. Could caffeine, in an aberrant metabolism, break over into full-blown psychosis? At the Caffeine Web, where psychiatrists and toxicologists duke it out over all things caffeinated, Sidney Kay of the Institute of Legal Medicine writes: “Coffee overindulgence is overlooked many times because the bizarre symptoms may resemble and masquerade as an organic or mental disease.” Symptoms, he explains, can include "restlessness, silliness, elation, euphoria, confusion, disorientation, excitation, and even violent behavior with wild, manic screaming, kicking and biting, progressing to semi-stupor.”
That doesn’t sound so good. In “Energy drinks: What is all the hype?” Mandy Rath examines the question in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Health Practitioners.
Selling energy drinks to kids from 6 to 19 years old is a $3.5 billion annual industry,Rath asserts. And while “most energy drinks consumed in moderation do not pose a huge health risk,” more and more youngsters are putting away higher and higher doses of caffeine. At the level of several cans of Coke, or a few cups of strong coffee or, an energy drink or three, students can expect to experience improved reaction times, increased aerobic endurance, and less sleepiness behind the wheel. Most people can handle up to 300 mg of caffeine in a concentrated blast. Certainly a better bargain, overall, than three or four beers.
But first of all, you don’t need high-priced, caffeine-packed superdrinks to achieve that effect. A milligram of caffeine is a milligram of caffeine. But wait, what about the nifty additives in Full Throttle and Monster and Rockstar? The taurine and… stuff. Taurine is an amino acid found in lots of foods. Good for you in the abstract. Manufacturers also commonly add sugar (excess calories), ginseng (at very low levels), and bitter orange (structurally similar to norepinephrine). However, the truly interesting addition is guarana, a botanical product from South America. When guarana breaks down, it’s principal byproduct is, yes, caffeine. Guarana seeds contain twice the caffeine found in coffee beans. Three to five grams of guarana provide 250 mg of caffeine. Energy drink manufacturers don’t add that caffeine to the total on the label because—oh wait, that’s right, because makers of energy drinks, unlike makers of soft drinks, don’t have to print the amount of caffeine as dietary information. And on an ounce-for-pound basis, kids are getting a lot more caffeine with the new drinks than the older, labeled ones.
All of this increases the chances of caffeine intoxication. Rath writes that researchers have identified caffeine-related increases among children in hypertension, insomnia, motor tics, irritability, and headaches. Chronic caffeine intoxication results in “anxiety, emotional disturbances, and chronic abdominal pain.” Not to mention cardiac arrhythmia, seizures, and mania.
So what have we learned, kids? Energy drinks are safe—if you don’t guzzle several of them in a row, or substitute them for dinner, or have diabetes, or an ulcer, or happen to be pregnant, or are suffering from heart disease or hypertension. And if you do OD on high-caffeine drinks, it will not be pleasant: Severe palpitations, panic, mania, muscle spasms, etc. Somebody might even want to take you to the emergency room. Coaches and teachers need to keep a better eye out for caffeine intoxication.
Note: There is a “caffeine calculator” available at the Caffeine Awareness website, designed to determined whether you are a coffee addict. I can by no means swear to its scientific accuracy, but, based on my own, distinctly non-young person daily intake, the test told me that my consumption was likely to manifest itself as “high irritability, moodiness & personality disorders.” Can I blame it all on those endless cokes we had as kids? Growing up in the Baby Boom suburbs, we all drank carbonated caffeine beverages instead of water. Nothing much has changed except the caffeine levels.
Rath, M. (2012). Energy drinks: What is all the hype? The dangers of energy drink consumption Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 24 (2), 70-76 DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-7599.2011.00689.x
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