Energy Drinks: Harmful or Helpful?

Teenagers and young adults have become the target audience of popular energy drinks in recent years containing ingredients such as caffeine, guarana, taurine and sugar, according to Jeffery Downing, registered nurse and graduate assistant.

Downing explains that while energy drinks provide a desired boost of energy and temporary solution to lethargy, the effects of the ingredients on the human body are mostly negative. One of the active ingredients, caffeine, is considered a drug by definition because of its an effect on the body. “Caffeine is legal and inexpensive and is found in many popular beverages around the world,” said Downing.

Some effects of caffeine include nervousness, anxiety, tremors, tachycardia, restlessness, insomnia, gastrointestinal (GI) upset and agitation. Adverse effects include nausea, heart palpitations, headache, irritability, seizures and hallucinations according to Downing. Despite these potential effects, caffeine is listed by the Federal Drug Association (FDA) as “generally regarded as safe.”

“It is believed that up to 400 milligrams per day is safe,” said Dr. Merrily Ervin, professor of nutritional science. However, it is not an optimal choice before engaging in sports or physical activity. “[Caffeine] is also a diuretic and if an athlete becomes dehydrated his/her muscles will not be able to perform to capacity,” said Ervin.

She continued by saying that other varieties of ingredients in energy drinks are sometimes used to enhance the effects of caffeine, or claim to provide a range of benefits. “But the FDA does not regulate these drinks and so the claims do not have to be proven,” said Ervin.

According to Kathy Maloney, Director of Health Services, another danger of energy drinks is a lack of nutritional value and surplus of sugar. These “empty calories” can lead to weight gain and further the nation’s obesity epidemic. Ervin agrees and added that, “For people who do not use [energy drinks’] calories, the energy will be stored as fat.”

According to an article by M. Rath in Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, Red Bull, Rockstar, Full Throttle, Amp and Monster are some of the more popular brands of energy drinks. These companies have focused their sales and marketing on teens and young adults and account for over 3.5 billion dollars in sales. Another article in Journal Of The Academy Of Nutrition & Dietetics written early in 2013 stated that “31.3 percent of adults surveyed consumed a sports and energy drink within the past seven days. Of those 31.3 percent, 21.5 percent reported consuming one or more per week.”

Maloney explained that the influence of these marketing strategies has had a great impact on college students. “A number of college students will look to energy drinks to provide them with a caffeine boost as a way of coping with busy schedules and academic demands,” said Maloney.

When the consumption of energy drinks mixes with another popular activity on college campuses, the results can be twice as dangerous. “Some students mix energy drinks with alcohol, which results in a wide-awake inebriated person,” said Maloney. “In some persons, this can turn into irritability and rage.”

Downing and Ervin agree that the best alternatives to energy supplements are a good diet, hydration, and plenty of sleep. Downing recommends recording and reviewing the daily diets of those who are looking to regain energy. He said websites such as can be a tremendous help and learning tool.

Equally as important according to Ervin is self-education on the active ingredients in energy drinks and their effects. “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides reliable information on these ingredients on line at,” said Ervin. “Be very skeptical of websites that provide information and offer to sell products.”