Energy Drinks and Safety

Energy drinks have become a very popular way to introduce massive amounts of sugar and caffeine into the human body. In fact, they have overtaken bottled water as the fastest-growing category in the beverage industry. As a result of this surge in popularity, the number of emergency room visits involving energy drinks doubled between 2007 and 2011.

Some energy drinks claim that they improve things like athletic performance, concentration, vigilance, reaction speed, and even metabolism. While caffeine can improve reaction speed and alertness in the short term, these claims are misleading. The amounts of caffeine required to improve performance vary wildly from person to person and the effects are typically lessened once a person is used to caffeine. A study of collegiate runners found that a sugar-free version of Red Bull, while loaded with caffeine, did not improve the athletes’ run-to-exhaustion times, possibly because the athletes were so habituated to the stuff. Meanwhile, because it is a diuretic, caffeine can contribute to dehydration. A large amount of sugar in energy drinks has been known to cause diarrhea and other gastrointestinal upset as well. These conditions certainly don’t improve performance.

Energy drinks are marketed as dietary supplements, and the FDA does not approve or review the products before they are sold. As a “self-regulated” industry, no one but the energy drink manufacturers themselves oversees the safety and efficacy of these products. Studies have shown that 30% of unregulated supplements give inaccurate information about the types and amounts of ingredients they contain. Theoretically, these beverages could include undisclosed, potentially dangerous stimulants or larger amounts of caffeine than what is labeled on the container. Mixed with taurine, guarana, or other common energy drink components, these unknown substances could wreak havoc. Certainly, it is a risk to drink these beverages in the amounts that many people choose to.

How Energy Drinks “Work”

When we say something “gives us energy”, what do we mean?  Calories are energy, plain and simple.  Any food or drink that provides calories can accurately be said to give energy, and energy drinks that are loaded with sugar provide a quick boost.  A recent study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that men who drank a 6% glucose drink were able to bicycle 22 minutes longer than those who went without the extra sugar. However, refined sugar is detrimental to your health, and makes it difficult to maintain stable blood sugar, which is more conducive to consistently available energy.

Caffeine (and guarana), on the other hand, don’t increase or assist in the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) at all. In fact, it simply blocks the binding adenosine, a chemical your body uses to signal when it’s used up all its available ATP. Far from giving you energy, caffeine actually just prevents you from realizing when you’re out of energy!

Many energy drinks also contain ginseng and/or taurine. Ginseng doesn’t seem to help boost physical energy, but some studies indicate that it may combat mental fatigue and improve cognitive function. However, most energy drinks don’t contain enough ginseng to provide these benefits.  Taurine is an amino acid used in great abundance in the human brain. Taurine ingested in drinks cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, and there is little evidence that it provides any benefits in these concoctions.

The Biology of Energy

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created, but must be transferred or converted from one form to another. Like an automobile only runs on gasoline, the human body runs on only one kind of energy: chemical energy. More specifically, the body can use only one specific form of chemical energy, or fuel, to do biological work: a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

ATP is like a battery the body can draw from. Energy is stored in the molecular bond that distinguishes ATP from ADP, a shorter molecule.  After using the energy in these bonds, the body then recycles ADP into more ATP and the cycle continues. The energy in ATP can be released as heat, or it can be used in our cells as a power source to drive various types of chemical and mechanical activities.

Our bodies have three different chemical systems that convert different forms of energy into usable ATP.  The phosphagen system is the system the body uses to generate immediate energy.  When the muscles need to undergo a short, intense, period of activity, the phosphagen system engages the small amount of ATP that circulates our muscle cells at any one time, along with a high-energy phosphate called creatine phosphate.  An enzyme mobilizes a phosphate group from the creatine phosphate and this is quickly transferred to ADP to form ATP. So the muscle cell turns ATP into ADP and the phosphagen quickly turns ADP back into ATP.  Because the amount of ATP stored in the muscles is limited, this process only works for short periods of time.

The glycogen-lactic acid system, sometimes called anaerobic glycolysis, is a series of ten enzyme-controlled reactions that utilize carbohydrates to synthesize ATP and pyruvate, which ferments to lactic acid, as end products. Glycolysis is the preferred energy system by the human body when any sort of exercise work is required. The process is fast, there is generally plenty of glucose available in the body, and the reactions can occur anywhere within a cell’s sarcoplasm. This system produces enough ATP for about 90 seconds of high-intensity activity. If the lactic acid concentration in the muscle gets too high, it can cause muscle soreness. Therefore, this system cannot be accessed for long-term energy requirements. Given the fact that under anaerobic conditions the body does not use oxygen, this and the phosphagen system provide short term energy without having to engage the cardio-respiratory system to the same extent the aerobic system does, saving time.

For general day-to-day energy expenditures and exertion that can be sustained for over two minutes, the body uses the aerobic system to synthesize ATP. This system utilizes a specific organelle of the body’s cells: the mitochondria often called the “powerhouse of the cell”. The body uses carbohydrates first, then fats, and finally amino acids to combine with oxygen and synthesize ATP. The bulk of the ATP produced by the human body comes from this process in the mitochondria.

Improving Energy Levels

The best way to maintain energy levels is to make sure the body has everything it needs to work properly. Moving around, stretching, and exercising improves circulation and kicks up your metabolism, giving a wholesome energy jolt. Deep breathing helps you force more oxygen into your cells, which slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and improves circulation, ultimately providing more energy. Eating consistent, small, healthy meals throughout the day can help stabilize blood sugar, which will help keep energy levels up. Ideally, all your meals and snacks should contain complex carbohydrates (produce, whole grains) to provide fuel, and protein (beans, soy, nuts, eggs) to give you endurance. Make sure you’re properly hydrated since dehydration causes fatigue.

If you require an extraordinary boost in energy, there are healthy ways to go about it. Surprisingly, a 2009 study found that beet juice could boost your workout endurance by as much as 16 percent. Several nutritional supplements have been shown to reduce fatigue and help the body generate more ATP, including carnitine, DHEA, magnesium, vitamin B-12, and coenzyme Q10


  1. Harnessing the Energy Systems that Fuel Performance
  2. Do Energy Drinks Improve Athletic Performance?
  3. The Inconvenient Truth About Energy Drinks
  4. ATP
  5. ATP: Energy’s Currency
  6. The New Power Brew: Do Energy Drinks Really Work?
  7. Caffeine Doesn’t Give You Energy
  8. Do the Ingredients in Energy Drinks Work?
  9. The Best Supplements for Increased Energy


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