In 2011, a 14 year old girl unexpectedly died after drinking two 24-ounce cans of Monster brand energy drink. The coroner’s report listed “caffeine toxicity” as contributing to her death. The FDA subsequently shared that it was investigating five reports of deaths that involved the Monster brand energy drink.
Since 2009, 13 wrongful death lawsuits have been filed against 5-Hour Energy, another brand of energy drink. In addition, there have been over 90 filings with the FDA, with one-third involving serious or life-threatening injuries, such as heart attacks, linked to the consumption of energy drinks.
While caffeine is targeted as the cause of most of the issues surrounding energy drinks, there may be other factors that are putting consumers (mostly young adults and teenagers) at risk. Join me as we dive into this very heated debate about the safety of energy drinks.
Clearly, the demand on our adrenals has changed radically in the last 30 years. While skiing a double black diamond bump run was once stimulation enough, today that same “charge” would require a snowy cliff, ridiculous and unpredictable air, and maybe even a sail strapped to your back.
Why we drive ourselves so hard here in the western world is a complex issue, but it is hard to ignore the extreme demand on the adrenal glands to make more and more energy.
In a world of supply and demand, it is not surprising that we now have a market filled with energy drinks promising you a “free lunch” – energy that just keeps on going.
The question is, is this safe?
The lethal dose (LD50) of caffeine is about 150-200 milligrams per kilogram of body-weight, which comes out to a heck of a lot of coffee – 80 to 100 cups to be precise! For a 180 pound man, this would come to about 16,000mg of caffeine.
An overdose of caffeine – which is much more common – requires considerably less caffeine. Depending on one’s sensitivity, it can range from 5,000 to 10,000 milligrams, according to most experts.
Here are some references for products containing caffeine (1):
Interestingly, the amount of caffeine in these drinks does not seem excessive, so what is causing all the complaints? Let’s take a look.
Can You Trust a Nutrition Label?
According to Consumer Reports (CR) the numbers on the nutrition label are not always accurate.
The consumer group tested 27 popular energy drinks. Eleven didn’t list the amount of caffeine on the label at all. Of the 16 products that did, five contained more than 20% more caffeine than the label claimed. One had about 70% less.
A “Safe” Dose of Caffeine is Much Lower
While the amount of caffeine required to cause toxicity and overdose is quite high, what is considered a safe dose of caffeine is much lower. Consumer Reports suggests safe daily doses of caffeine:
- Adults 400mg/day
- Pregnant Women 200mg/day
- Children 45-85mg/day
- Teenagers 100mg/day
A common and potentially dangerous practice in consuming caffeinated energy drinks is to drink more than one. Typically, cramming for tests, marathon movie nights, and just staying up late to party are the times teenagers and young adults consume multiple servings of an energy drink just to stay awake. In these situations, caffeine ingestion along with co-ingesting other non-compatible substances can significantly increase the risk of a reaction.
Symptoms of Energy Drink Overdose
In 2010, the Australian Poison Control Center reported receiving 297 calls regarding health reactions to energy drinks from 2003 to 2010. The average age of the callers was 17. One hundred of the callers had co-ingested other substances in addition to the energy drink. Fifty out of the one hundred drank alcohol and 44 ingested another caffeinated beverage (2).
The most common symptoms of reaction were heart palpitations, agitation, tremor, and gastrointestinal upset. Twenty-one subjects had signs of serious cardiac or neurological toxicity, including hallucinations, seizures, arrhythmias and cardiac ischemia. At least 128 subjects (57 of them with no co-ingestants) required hospitalization (1).
So What Is The Real Problem?
It is clear from the reports that some folks are just very sensitive to caffeine and can have toxic reactions to even very small amounts. As Lauren K. Wolf wrote in an issue of Chemical & Engineering News,
Caffeine gets cleared from the body at different rates because of genetic variations, gender, and even whether a person is a smoker. For this reason, it’s difficult to set a safe limit of daily consumption on the compound. Physiological differences, as well as differences in the way people consume caffeine, have tied (the) FDA in knots as it has debated how to regulate the substance.
It is also clear that the combination of either alcohol or other caffeinated drinks along with an energy drink can trigger a toxic reaction in folks who may normally not react negatively to caffeine.
The body will build a tolerance to alcohol and caffeine if they are used regularly. This means the more caffeine you use to stay up, the more caffeine you need to get the same result over time. In the same way, the body seems to build a tolerance to alcohol, and soon it takes much more alcohol to become drunk.
When the body is slowly building a tolerance to these substances, it is common for a young adult to continue to ingest more and more without realizing the accumulating effect and the potentially dangerous interactions of these substances at high levels.
The Danger of Unstudied Herbal Stimulants
While caffeine and alcohol have been well studied, energy drinks are often loaded with new herbal stimulants that have relatively unknown side effects. What’s more important is that these already potent herbal extracts are often in combination with a cocktail of other energy boosting herbs, vitamins and amino acids.
Most of these energy stimulating ingredients do not exist in nature – especially not in combination with one another. They are extracts of plants, and are therefore much more potent than the plant itself. In my opinion, these potent ingredients have not been studied or observed long enough to guarantee the safety of the consumer.
Some Signs You Might Be Reaching Your Limits
Although moderate caffeine intake isn’t likely to cause harm, too much can lead to some unpleasant effects. Heavy daily caffeine use — more than 500 to 600 mg a day — may cause:
- Stomach upset
- Fast heartbeat
I am not a believer in using stimulants to drive the body to make energy it doesn’t actually have. Repeatedly using stimulants to get energy will drive the adrenals into debt, and soon the body begins to break down from stress.
In Ayurveda, there are many adaptogenic herbs that support the body’s ability to handle stress without the detrimental side effects of stimulants. Instead of stimulating the body to drive itself further into exhaustion, Ayurveda believes in building up the body’s reserves and paying back the exhaustive debt as a means to restore energy and more gracefully deal with stress. Some of my favorite adaptogenic herbs are listed below. I invite you to read more about them at LifeSpa.com.
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera, also spelled ashwaganda) – supports rejuvenation, repair, energy and endurance.
- Shilajit – Known as the “destroyer of weakness,” supports healthy mitochondrial function, which manufactures cellular energy. Can help support energy, memory, intelligence, healthy blood sugar, detoxification and cellular protection.
- Brahmi (Cantella asiatica) – supports healthy cognitive function, memory and focus.
- Gokshura (Tribulis terrestris) – supports healthy testosterone levels.
Supplements for energy and stamina support:
More than half of the world’s population is deficient in the following energy and stamina – supportive nutrients:
- Vitamin D3: At optimal levels acts as a powerful steroid hormone to mitigate stress.
- Vitamin B12: Supports optimal energy for heart, mood, brain and nerve health.
2. Med J Aust. 2012 Jan 16;196(1):46-9.
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