Energy drinks: do they really give you wings?
In the past 10 years there has been a significant increase in the consumption of energy drinks, particularly by young people. There has also been considerable debate about the contents of energy drinks and whether consumption of them is safe.
This fact sheet provides information on caffeinated energy drinks and their effects, including when they are mixed with alcohol.
What are energy drinks?
Energy drinks are beverages that contain varying amounts of caffeine, taurine, guarana, amino acids, vitamins and sugar. Energy drinks are promoted as being beneficial in increasing stamina, and improving physical performance, endurance and concentration.
What are the ingredients of energy drinks?
Energy drinks typically contain a mixture of:
- caffeine—a stimulant that acts on the central nervous system to speed up the messages to and from the brain. Caffeine is the main active ingredient in energy drinks
- guarana—an extract from a plant that contains about twice the amount of caffeine as coffee beans
- theobromine—from the cacao plant. It has a similar effect to caffeine and is found in chocolate and many other foods
- theophylline—a drug used for the treatment of respiratory diseases and asthma, marketed under a variety of brand names. It is structurally similar to caffeine. It is also naturally found in tea at very small levels
- taurine—occurs naturally in food, especially in seafood and meat, and is necessary for normal skeletal muscle functioning
- ginseng—a substance that comes from a variety of plants and is believed to have medicinal properties, but has been found to interact with a number of prescription and herbal drugs.
Source: Gunja N & Brown J 2012 "Energy drinks: health risks and toxicity", Medical Journal of Australia, 196:1, 46–49
Caffeine content of some popular energy drinks and soft drinks
|Mother energy drink
||500 ml can
||250 ml can
|V energy drink
||250 ml can
|Pulse: Vodka, soda & guarana (alcoholic)
||300 ml can
|Cola soft drink
||375 ml can
|Diet cola soft drink
Effects of energy drinks
- feeling more alert and active
- need to urinate more frequently
- rise in body temperature
- increased heart rate
- stimulation of the brain and nervous system.
Serious injury or death from caffeine overdose can occur. The Australian Medical Journal has reported an increase in energy drink related reports to the Poisons Information Service in NSW, and they assume that this increase would be reflected in national statistics.
Some of the adverse health effects associated with excessive energy drink consumption are:
- rapid heart rate
In small children, caffeine poisoning can occur through much smaller doses—up to 1 gram of caffeine (equal to around 12 energy drinks).
Find more information on caffeine and its effects.
Who should avoid energy drinks?
Children and young people
There is no reported evidence that energy drinks are of any nutritional value. Research has found that children and young people who consume energy drinks may suffer sleep problems, bed-wetting and anxiety.
Pregnant or breastfeeding women
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised to avoid energy drinks, as high amounts of caffeine can increase the risk of miscarriage, difficult birth and delivery of low-weight babies. Caffeine crosses the placenta, so breastfeeding mothers are also advised to avoid energy drinks.
Sportsmen and women
People who play sport are advised to avoid caffeinated energy drinks as caffeine can cause dehydration. The combination of dehydration and exercise can be dangerous.
Caffeine sensitive people
Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. If you are susceptible to the effects of caffeine, just small amounts—even one energy drink—may prompt unwanted effects, such as restlessness and sleep problems.
Combining energy drinks with alcohol
Health professionals have expressed concern about the consumption of energy drinks containing alcohol and the combining of energy drinks with ‘shots’ of alcohol. Drinking energy drinks with alcohol places the body under great stress and can mask some of the effects of the alcohol. For example, if a person combines energy drinks with alcohol they will still be affected by the alcohol but may not feel as relaxed or sleepy. They may feel more confident, take more risks and increase the chances of experiencing alcohol-related harm such as drinking too much or being injured in a fight or accident. It is therefore recommended that the consumption of alcoholic energy drinks be avoided.
Preventing and reducing harm
It has been suggested that the actual caffeine content of energy drinks is under-reported, meaning a person may be drinking more caffeine than the label on the drink states. Energy drinks should be avoided by anyone who feels negative effects after consuming them.
The consumption of energy drinks by young people, pregnant and breastfeeding women as well as people with ‘caffeine sensitivity’ should be avoided.
Mixing energy drinks with alcohol should be avoided due to the masking effects of the caffeine, meaning the person doesn’t feel as drunk as they actually are and so there is more risk of alcohol-related harm.
For more information on alcohol and other drugs, and drug prevention, contact DrugInfo.
Last updated: October 2012