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The Low-Down on Energy Drinks

The Low-Down on Energy Drinks

Are they really that bad for you? Should they be replacing your morning coffee?

October 2nd, 2012 by Daryl Nelson of ConsumerAffairs in News

I used to like a good cup of coffee in the morning. In early adulthood I would stagger to a bodega, as we call them in New York, on my way to work, with heavy and sleepy eyes as if my lids were made out of genuine leather.

Black and sweet is how I would take it, and I would consider the stomach battle that followed a sort of trade-off for being awake at my cubicle. I would consider it a type of occupational hazard.

Then slowly, all these energy drinks began to surface on commercials, billboards, and yes, on the shelf of my neighborhood bodega. I'll give it a try, I thought. I mean how bad can a small skinny can of Red Bull really be for you?

I slowly replaced my morning coffee with an energy drink, since it wasn't that expensive, it was cold and sweet like soda, and there were no stomach pains involved. Well, at least not at first, but over time a few side effects crept in. Occasional jittery feelings, coupled with a bit of stomach rumblings made me rethink my drinking options for the morning time.

Today, the energy drink business is in full swing and with products like 5-Hour Energy, AMP, and Rockstar Energy, the entire industry is making a pretty decent go at standing side by side with coffee when folks need a morning jolt or a much-needed afternoon pick-me-up.

How safe?

But how safe are these things if they're overused, and just what type of side-effects should one expect to encounter from consumption?

Melissa from San Diego, Calif. wrote to ConsumerAffairs about some pretty nasty ailments she received after frequently consuming Rockstar Energy Drinks.

"I am a 25-year old single mother," she wrote. I started drinking Rockstar Energy drinks to help me study and focus during a class I was taking. I would drink the smaller cans of Red Bull about twice a day, once a while three a day. Then I started drinking the larger cans twice a day. Eventually I started drinking Rockstars because Red Bulls seemed like they have side-effects, and I thought Rockstars had less caffeine."

"Over a 1.5 month period of time, I started experiencing these symptoms: Foot drop, foot and leg practically numb, tingly. If I sat too long in class my right foot and lower part of leg would stay practically numb," she explained. "If I sat too long in class my right foot and lower part of leg would stay partially numb/tingly for about three hours. I had to walk differently due to the right foot not working right, it's called foot drop."

Melissa goes on to explain how her symptoms eventually got worse, and how she had to go to the emergency room, while learning that her symptoms were similar to a patient having multiple sclerosis, said doctors. But they never found out what was wrong with her. 

"Finally after 4 days in the hospital I left," she added. "I have not drank one energy drink and my foot numbness is gone, my anxiety is almost gone, and all these symptoms were results of drinking too many and too often of those Rock Stars and Red Bulls."

Strange combination

To get some expert advice on energy drinks, we reached out to a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Karen Ansel, MS, RD, who also co-authored the book, The Calendar Diet: A Month By Guide to Losing Weight While Living Your Life.

Ansel says what can be dangerous about drinks like Rock Star and 5-Hour Energy is their strange combination of unnatural ingredients.

"The concern with many energy drinks on the market is that they combine many ingredients not usually found together in nature," she said to ConsumerAffairs in an interview. "As a result, people who don't know that they have underlying conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure or seizure disorders may unknowingly be susceptible to dangerous elevations in blood pressure and heart rate or the risk of seizures."

"In addition, energy drinks are easy to chug much faster than you would ever drink a cup of coffee so you could end up inhaling much more caffeine than you normally would from more natural sources such as coffee or tea. The labels of some of these suggest limits as to how much is safe per day, but few people actually read the label.

Plus, "There's nothing healthy about energy drinks. Even though they promise an energy boost they're often packed with sugar, calories and excessive caffeine", she said.

Natural remedies

Ansel suggests using natural remedies to give you a morning boost, and says what you choose to eat will have a direct impact on your energy level throughout the day.

"One thing people can do if they want to stay alert and focused is to be sure to include some lean protein in each meal such as lean beef, skinless chicken or fish. Research reveals that protein packed meals are more likely to keep us alert while carb-heavy meals are prone to make us drowsy."

And people are taking huge risks by mixing energy drinks with alcohol, says Ansel.

"Energy drinks and alcohol are a dangerous combination. When combined with alcohol, energy drinks interfere with the body's natural sensation of inebriation so a person may not feel drunk even though they may have had way too much to drink," she explains.

Ansel also says that people really shouldn't be replacing their coffee with energy drinks, as we mainly know what the ingredients are in coffee, and know much more about what it does to our bodies.

"If you want an energy kick, stick with coffee," she says. "It's 100 percent natural and for the average healthy person, a couple cups of coffee a day are perfectly safe."