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6/16/14blog post

the very real dangers of energy drinks

By: Lora Scott, MD, co-director of sports medicine and Shannon Burkett, RD, sports nutrition

This week a news story hit about a 16-year-old girl who died from an energy drink heart attack. Our thoughts go out to this family.

In light of this tragedy, we wanted to take some time to talk about the dangers of energy drinks and what athletes and teens need to know about what they should be drinking.

Patients often ask me what they should drink while exercising. They are surprised by my answer: Water.

With all the products out there marketing as sports drinks and energy drinks, it is hard to believe that the best answer is also the free one! (Ok, almost free. I still pay a water bill and I’m sure you do too).

So, what is going on with all of these products? First, sports drinks and energy drinks are not the same thing. What are they? And when are they appropriate? Let’s break it down with our nutritionist.

Sports drinks

These are meant to replace what athletes lose through sweat. They contain water, electrolytes, carbs, and flavor. Common examples include Gatorade and Powerade. These drinks are beneficial when used in the right setting, but just empty calories if consumed when unnecessary.

For the first 30 minutes of exercise, athletes do not sweat enough or burn enough calories to need sports drinks. Somewhere between 30-60 minutes of exercise, people transition into needing replacement drinks. The exact time to switch depends on many factors, including your body’s natural chemistry, the heat and humidity, and how conditioned your body is to exercising in the heat. Salty sweaters (people who have a salty film on them after the sweat evaporates) should switch to sports drinks around the 30 minute mark. Everyone should switch by the 60 minute mark. As exercise progresses, athletes need to consume carbs to sustain their energy. The carbs in sports drinks are designed to be digested quickly. The body gets a rapid dose of energy and electrolytes without leaving athletes feeling like they have fluid sloshing around in their stomachs during exercise.

Energy drinks

What if I told you I had an all-natural supplement from South America which could give you a boost of energy, help you concentrate, decrease your appetite, and help you lose weight? It sounds pretty good, until I tell you that the natural supplement is cocaine. (And no, I don’t actually have it). Unfortunately people think “natural” translates into “safe.” It doesn’t. There are many “natural” energy drinks available, but all contain chemicals which are nothing more than stimulants. Common ingredients in energy drinks include caffeine, guarana, taurine , ginseng, inositol, and/or glucuronolactone. Popular energy products are Java Monster, Monster Energy Drinks ®, Red Bull ®, Rockstar®, Full Throttle®, Advocare products, such as Spark Energy®, Slam®, Caffeccino ® and 5 hours Energy® drink shots.

Stimulants give a burst of energy, which is why they are so popular. That is also why many are banned at higher levels of sports. The NCAA even bans caffeine in higher amounts. No one advertises the downsides of stimulants, and those are the ones which can affect the athlete more. Negative side effects of stimulants include heart arrhythmias, seizures, increased blood pressure, increased risk of heat stroke, plus decreased energy and depressed mood when the chemical wears off. This fatigues creates the need for more of the product, creating a cycle which is hard to break. This cycle probably sounds familiar to regular coffee drinkers, but it is much more exaggerated in people who consume these energy drinks.