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Energy drinks show ‘damaging’ effects on young adults, studies show

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Energy drinks are increasingly becoming the go-to solution for college students seeking a boost as the end of the semester draws near, according to Brittany Krim, a registered dietitian and University of Texas kinesiology professor. However, these beverages could pose more harm than aid to students’ well-being, several studies have shown.

“The research has either been a denying health outcome or a negative one,” Krim said. “So if it’s neutral or bad, I just tend to shy away from either of those outcomes.”

Krim said it is important to use caution when it comes to energy drinks because of effects such as sleep disturbances. 

The lack of sleep 

Drinking energy drinks to stay alert was found to have sleep efficiency effects in a study earlier this year on college students in Norway. Those who drank energy drinks slept about a half hour less each night, compared to those who didn’t drink energy drinks or had them only occasionally, according to the research.

Students who drank energy drinks also took longer to fall asleep, according to the study, conducted by researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and the University of Oslo, Norway.

Keryn Pasch, a UT kinesiology and health education associate professor, has done research on energy drink consumption for more than 10 years. She said students should prioritize their sleep rather than stay up to study more. Pasch said getting good sleep can lead to a more successful academic career and an overall healthier lifestyle.

“When you get good sleep, you don’t have to turn to energy drinks. You don’t have to turn to fast food,” Pasch said. “You can have more energy to do your day without these things.”

Pasch found in her last study on energy drinks that a lower GPA was associated with energy drink consumption. A total of 844 first-year undergraduates in 2016 participated in this study. Although this was not a cause-and-effect situation, she said this correlation shows that getting enough sleep can be far more effective than energy drinks.

“Energy drinks are not going to be a permanent solution. It’ll treat the symptoms for a moment,” Pasch said. “But it’s not going to treat the underlying issue that you’re not getting enough sleep.”

Other energy drink effects

Pasch said students who take energy drinks are more likely to binge drink as a whole. She said that students who binge drink also correlate with having an increase in alcohol consumption.

“They are able to use the energy drink to stay awake longer which allows you to drink more because you’re up longer,” Pasch said. 

Pasch said energy drinks are addictive substances just like anything else can be. In another study Pasch collaborated with, energy drinks were correlated with poorer eating habits. This study explored the relationship between energy drink consumption and dietary behaviors within a sample of college students at a large southwest university.

Pasch said drinking caffeine suppresses appetite, which makes it difficult to feel hungry. She said it should never be a substitute for eating. Pasch recommends students change their habits surrounding what they are eating and drinking.

“If you’re struggling with caffeine or thinking, ‘Maybe I want to reduce my caffeine,’ drinking water is a substitution, you know, not gonna hurt, and it could start a healthy habit,” Pasch said.

Pasch said when prioritizing someone’s health, it is important to pay attention to how many energy drinks the person consumes. Young adults’ recommended caffeine consumption is around 200 to 300 milligrams a day, according to Pasch. 

“If you’re consuming an energy drink with 400 milligrams of caffeine and you also have chocolate and a soda that you don’t think about and also have a coffee, it can add up very fast,” Pasch said. 

Bar graph of caffeine consumption in common drinks. (Source: Bishoy Wassef, Michelle Kohansieh, and Amgad N Makaryus from World Journal of Cardiology)

Pasch said energy drinks have been around for a much shorter time compared to other kinds of caffeine. She said energy drinks have a lot of unknown ingredients, which can have potential consequences for avid drinkers.

Tea Davila, a Texas State student, experienced anxiety and lightheadedness after drinking an energy drink on March 15.

“My heart was beating super fast. I was anxious, lightheaded, and I couldn’t sleep,” Davila said. 

She said she was confused about why she felt sick since she had drunk energy drinks before. Davila said she decided to take a break from energy drinks until she learns what made her react this way.

Krimm said research is limited on the long-term effects energy drinks can have. She said, so far, the available research has shown only neutral or negative health outcomes.

“We’re seeing more and more studies showing heart arrhythmia and abnormalities in college students that consume gross amounts of these energy drinks,” Krimm said. “We don’t know everything in it.”

Krim recommends finding other ways to consume caffeine versus energy drinks. Although other caffeine drinks may cause negative effects such as anxiety or sleep disruption, she said there are also a lot of benefits compared to energy drinks.

Natural caffeine 

Natural caffeine, like coffee, tea and cocoa, can have positive health impacts, according to the American Heart Association:

  • lowers your risk of Type 2 diabetes
  • lowers your risk of heart failure
  • increases focus and productivity
  • specifically, the consumption of tea can increase a person’s lifespan

Pasch said students do not have to let go of energy drinks altogether but should work to make sure every part of their lives stays healthy. 

“Getting enough activity, eating healthier foods, moderating the number of unhealthy foods and getting enough sleep — I think that is key,” Pasch said.

Pasch said that research encourages these healthy habits to be implemented while in college like sleeping well and eating throughout the day.

“So start thinking about how to form those healthier habits now,” Pasch said, “so that you can maintain those habits throughout adulthood.”

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