According to a 2007 survey published in the Nutrition Journal, at least 51 per cent of university students in North America aged 17 to 25 consume more than one energy drink each month, typically to stay awake for longer periods of time, to increase energy, or to induce a buzz for partying.
These figures are troubling since, according to a 2003 report from the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Centre, the consumption of more than 500 milligrams of caffeine per day can lead to caffeine dependency, nervousness, irritability, and restlessness.
“It makes my eyes open,” François Lacroix, a U2 Management student who consumes an average of four energy drinks per semester, said. “It makes me shake at the beginning. It makes me want to move around.”
Lacroix says he only drinks Red Bull during exam time to stay awake for longer periods of time. He estimates that the burst of energy lasts about six hours.
According to Health Canada, one average-sized 500 millilitre energy drink contains around 180 milligrams of caffeine, about the same as a regular cup of coffee. Infrequent consumption of energy drinks is therefore not likely dangerous. Problems can arise, however, when a person consumes multiple drinks in a short period of time, or with alcohol.
In a 2011 study published in Men’s Health, it was found that energy drinks typically contain methylxanthines, or naturally occurring organic compounds like caffeine, that decrease sleepiness and improve alertness. Most also contain a large amount of sugar to provide an energy source. Many – notably Red Bull – contain taurine, which has been proven to improve concentration and reaction time. Finally, some also contain ginseng, a natural root ingredient that reduces the ability to sleep, a useful quality for an energy drink.
Although energy drinks are known to cause temporary improvements in alertness and cognition, the drinking of them often leads to a crash and burn effect, where the effects of the drinks wear off suddenly and the consumer experiences a dramatic loss of energy. This is because the majority of the energy in the drinks is provided by sugar and caffeine, neither of which remain in your system for very long.
Because of some of the above factors, energy drinks are controversial in some countries. Red Bull was banned in France, Denmark, and Norway in the mid-2000s, but those bans have since been lifted. According to BBC News, in 2009 a town in East Sussex, England prohibited the sale of energy drinks to minors because of the dangers they pose when rigorous physical activities are carried out afterwards or when consumed with alcohol. In 2000, a student in Dublin, Ireland died when he played a rigorous game of basketball after consuming three energy drinks.
Despite the risks and drawbacks, the use of energy drinks is widespread among students looking to stay awake longer to study, to write papers, and to work. Though energy drinks are often mixed with alcohol, such as vodka and Red Bull, the combination can be dangerous, according to the Nutrition Journal. Energy drinks act as stimulants while alcohol is a depressant, which reduces the apparent influence of alcohol. This can cause consumers to underestimate their intoxication and drink much more than they normally would. Additionally, caffeine and alcohol are both diuretics, meaning they increase urine output, which may cause dehydration and vomiting.
According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, the sale of alcoholic energy drinks such as Four Loko and Sparks have been banned or regulated in many states in the U.S. because they may cause cardiovascular failures. These drinks are popular among students because they provide the rush of an energy drink as well as the confidence and social lubricant effects of alcohol. However, the combination of alcohol with caffeine may be unsafe because individuals cannot accurately judge their drunkenness.
Even some students who consume energy drinks are unsure about the health effects posed by these energy boosters.
“I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody,” said Lacroix. “Just because I don’t know what’s in it.”