It’s not a promising trend: Between 34 and 51 percent of young adults are regularly using energy drinks, as reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association? Although this topic rarely gets mentioned when medical researchers report on the dangers of energy drinks, consuming them daily—or using energy “shots” like 5 Hour Energy every day—quickly leads to addiction. An energy drink addiction is really an addiction to caffeine.
Studies show that taking in as little as 100 mg of caffeine a day, the amount in about 12 ounces of Red Bull or a half-serving of a 5 Hour Energy shot easily causes an addiction in which you develop “tolerance” to caffeine’s stimulating effects. This means you can no longer get the same energy-boosting effects from your usual dose.
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How People Subject Themselves to the Dangers of Energy Drinks
Simply put, if your energy drink isn’t energizing you like it once did, you have an energy drink addition. One study concluded that because people who regularly consume caffeine develop tolerance to its effects on sleepiness, they can no longer benefit from caffeine’s ability to enhance mental alertness and performance.
Going just half a day without caffeine was associated with greater sleepiness, lower mental alertness, and poorer performance on tasks measuring memory and reaction time.
Classic Signs of Energy Drink Addiction
With an energy drink addiction, you first start to need the caffeine just to feel “normal” energy levels; then, if you don’t get your usual dose within a short time, you suffer withdrawal symptoms, like sleepiness and headaches. In one study published in the medical journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, people who drank caffeine every day and then abstained for 16 hours had more fatigue/drowsiness, low alertness/difficulty concentrating, mood disturbances, and headaches compared to people who consume little caffeine.
The dangers of energy drinks mixed with alcohol are related to reduced sensation of intoxication and impaired judgment.
While dependence on caffeine and energy drink addiction is no laughing matter, the serious dangers of energy drinks as reported in JAMA go beyond the addictive nature of caffeine. In one commentary, authors detail the health effects of mixing highly caffeinated energy drinks with various types of alcohol. With as much as 56 percent of college students consuming these mixtures, the concern is that the caffeine offsets the sedating and intoxicating effects of alcohol. Therefore, the drinkers do not realize that they are intoxicated and are thus much more prone to drinking even more and to impaired judgment relative to risky behavior.
The dangers of energy drinks combined with alcohol are mainly related to “increased risk for negative consequences of drinking.” Part of this comes from the misconception by social drinkers that the caffeine from energy drinks can counteract the impairment they would normally get from the alcohol.
The research shows, however, that while caffeine allows moderately intoxicated individuals to respond more quickly than they would without the caffeine, their actual performance was even more impaired. In other words, they may respond more quickly, but their responses are still more incorrect, imprecise, and non-inhibited. Obviously, this is not a good combination.
Other commentaries in JAMA on the dangers of energy drinks highlight problems with caffeine poisoning and toxicity. Increased heart rate and blood pressure, irregular heart rate, and palpitations are potential dangers of energy drinks related to their high caffeine content.
The most common cause of death due to caffeine toxicity is abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias). Drug interactions in which multiple drugs and compounds are being metabolized in the same pathway, underlying heart or liver disease, and the influence of other ingredients in the energy drinks may enhance the caffeine’s toxicity.
According to a free patient handout that JAMA encourages doctors to distribute, adults should consume no more than 500 mg of caffeine per day and adolescents should consume only 100 mg or less. Children shouldn’t use energy drinks at all. A 16-ounce cup of brewed coffee contains 170 mg of caffeine whereas 5-Hour Energy has 207 mg and Rockstar 2X has 250 mg per 12 ounces, two of the highest caffeine levels among the contenders.
Natural Energy Drink Alternatives
If you or someone you care about is has an energy drink addiction, it’s crucial to know about the dangers of energy drinks and the negative aspects of caffeine dependence. Only by breaking your energy drink addiction will you be able to once again enjoy the increased alertness and performance improvements that caffeine offers to those not addicted.
If you continue to feel fatigued once you leave the dangers of energy drinks behind and break your addiction (it takes about a week), it’s important to explore other potential underlying causes of your fatigue and to seek safer, more natural fatigue remedies.
For worthy alternatives to energy drinks, think outside the “drink” arena. Research shows that just taking brisk walk for 10 minutes is a natural pick-me-up. The fresh air and vitamin D you get from sunshine are known energy boosters. Likewise, napping can help. According to research, a 60- to 90-minute nap can restore energy.
Likewise, various foods can fit the bill: Think protein-rich selections like nuts, avocados, whole-grain items like quinoa, oatmeal, or whole-wheat bread, and, of course, fruits and vegetables.
For beverages, you’ll help yourself by replacing energy drinks with tea (iced or hot) or water.
Tell Us About Your Experience with Energy Drinks
Have you known someone who has become hooked on energy drinks? What has he or she done to overcome that addiction? What advice might you give to others who are still trying to withdraw? Share your experience with your fellow readers so we can help each other.
 JAMA. 2013;309(3):243-244.
 JAMA. 2013;309(3):245-246.
 Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2012 Oct 30.
 Drug Alcohol Depend. 2012 Aug 1;124(3):229-34.
Originally published in 2013, this blog is regularly updated.