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Given the “global popularity” of the multibillion dollar energy drink industry, it’s critical we figure out if there are any potential adverse effects. “There are currently more than 500 energy drink products [for sale] on the market today.” “The most popular, and most studied…is Red Bull”—a single can of which was found to bump blood pressure by three or four points within 90 minutes of consumption. What about all the other energy drinks? Studies show they similarly increased blood pressure three or four points on average.
Oh, but come on: three or four points? What’s the big deal? 20% higher risk of dying from a stroke is the big deal, and 12% higher risk of dying from a heart attack. Yeah, but that’s if you have elevated blood pressure day in, day out. To see if Red Bull can increase your day-long average blood pressure you’d have to…put it to the test. A “comparison of the effects of energy drink versus [just] caffeine supplementation on…24-hour…blood pressure.”
“The FDA imposes a limit” on caffeine in soda, but the way energy drink manufacturers get around that is by claiming that their carbonated sugar water is not soda, but a “natural dietary supplement…” But, Red Bull doesn’t have any more caffeine than a cup of coffee. The question is, what are the effects of all the other proprietary ingredients they add to the energy drinks? So, they gave people four of the small cans of Red Bull, or four cups of coffee—same amount of caffeine—and then measured their blood pressure over the entire day. Same amount of caffeine, yet significantly higher average blood pressure by about five points over the coffee. So, maybe it’s the taurine, or some other combination of added ingredients, in energy drinks that makes them so harmful?
Energy drinks may also impair artery function. One big can of Monster Energy drink, and a significant drop in your arteries’ ability to relax normally within 90 minutes. The biggest risk, though, is likely the EKG changes that signal an increase in the risk of our hearts flipping into a fatal heart rhythm. And indeed, there are cases of young people suffering cardiac arrest after consuming like seven or eight cans in a row, or even just three cans back-to-back. Some people are just more susceptible. Yeah, there are a number of case reports highlighting “multiple potentially fatal cardiac side effects from high-energy drinks in the general population.” But, it’s the “families with a history of sudden cardiac death” or fainting that education about the risks are “even more critical,” as energy drinks may unmask a “potentially life-threatening genetic condition such as LQTS”—long QT syndrome, which occurs in about one in 2,000 people.
Yes, there are safety issues, but do the benefits outweigh the risks? Unfortunately, “[l]ittle evidence exists…to support [any] beneficial effects.” What about for athletes, though? That’s who energy drinks were originally marketed for. And boy, did that marketing work, with 80% of college athletes reportedly drinking them. So, does it help? You don’t know…until you put it to the test. And, as you can see by the title, “pre-exercise energy drink consumption does not appear to improve endurance.” But it does seem to increase inflammation. Twenty-five mile simulated road race, and they could not find any “ergogenic potential”—any athletic performance-enhancing potential of Red Bull above that of just straight sugar water and caffeine. “In addition, the data indicate that [Red Bull] induced greater inflammatory-related responses than did just [straight caffeinated sugar water or placebo].”
No apparent effect on resistance training either—not just endurance sports. And, those hoping energy drinks will help rev up their metabolism to lose weight may be disappointed to learn you can get the same stimulatory effects with straight caffeine. Or, maybe they won’t be disappointed—black coffee or tea is way cheaper.
No wonder there was no change in athletic performance, because unlike nitrate-rich vegetables, energy drinks don’t change oxygen utilization or ratings of perceived exertion. But, what they do is raise your resting blood pressure. So, the opposite of vegetables likes beets and greens, which both improve athletic performance and reduce blood pressure at the same time—whereas “[e]nergy drinks [appear to] have no therapeutic benefit.”
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