Cramming the night before a big test. Getting through that mid-morning meeting after the baby kept you up all night. The day you try and beat your best mile time. We all have those moments where we want an extra “boost” – and sometimes, we reach for an energy drink.
If you’ve ever wondered what’s inside those drinks, we’ve got you covered. To find out everything you need to know about energy drinks, we spoke with Kelly Morrow, MS, RDN, FAND, a registered dietitian and clinical affiliate of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Washington, and Clara Di Vincenzo, RD, LD, a registered dietitian for the Digestive Health Institute at UT Health Austin.
What are some of the common ingredients in energy drinks and what do they do?
The main sources of that energy boost: sugar and caffeine. They can give you that energy boost, but it comes at a cost. “Both can give you short-term energy but in the long run, they will make you feel more tired,” says Morrow.
For some, caffeine can provide increased energy and more focused concentration. But for others, it can cause detrimental side effects, especially in the high doses commonly found in energy drinks.
“Caffeine acts like adrenaline in the body and when it wears off, it can leave you feeling more tired, especially if you drink it without food,” explains Morrow.
How harmful are energy drinks?
“Everyone breaks down the caffeine in their body at different rates. Those who drink a lot or break it down slowly may have trouble sleeping and may feel anxious. Depending on how much caffeine (energy drinks) contain – some people have had a dangerous irregular heart rhythm after drinking energy drinks. I would not recommend caffeinated energy drinks to anyone with heart disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety, depression or other mental health problems,” adds Morrow.
The same goes for sugar. Sugar, or carbohydrates, are essential for our cells to function. But excess amounts can be damaging. “With the high amounts of sugar and caffeine seen in energy drinks, we can see a blood sugar spike – which will temporarily increase energy levels, but then we’ll see a crash a couple of hours after,” says Di Vincenzo. “Not to mention some of the long-term effects of excess sugar like insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes,” she adds.
Another key player in energy drinks: artificial sweeteners. “They (energy drinks) can also have an excess amount of artificial sweeteners,” says Di Vincenzo. “When I say excess amounts of artificial sweeteners we are looking at sorbitol, xylitol and sucralose – these are the most common ones,” explains Di Vincenzo. “These artificial sweeteners are known to worsen IBS (irritable bowel disease) symptoms like bloating, gas and diarrhea.”
What are other ways to increase energy?
Both Morrow and Di Vincenzo agreed that there may be better ways to get more energy. They suggest:
- Staying hydrated
- A good night’s sleep
- Eating regular, balanced meals (not skipping meals)
- Getting regular exercise
- Practicing stress reduction techniques like meditation
- Trying more “natural” caffeinated beverages like coffee or tea
Are energy drinks OK in moderation?
Like anything else, the experts agree that with energy drinks moderation is key. But while they may be OK in moderation and on occasion, there are alternatives that may be more beneficial and less harmful than energy drinks.
Read more about diet, supplements here:
How much caffeine is dangerous?Here’s what to know before having that next cup.
Are sugar substitutes healthy?Research doesn’t yet offer comforting answers.