The Buzz Behind Energy Drinks

How They Impact Your Heart

Energy drinks are a popular choice for a quick pick-me-up. In fact, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, next to multivitamins they are the most popular dietary supplement among American young adults. But what do you really know about these drinks and their impact on your health?

Caffeine and Your Heart

One of the common sources of energy for these drinks is caffeine. Northwestern Medicine Cardiologist Kunal N. Karmali, MD, explains, “Caffeine is a stimulant that works through various pathways to rev up your body. It does this primarily by boosting the activity of your central nervous system, specifically your sympathetic nerve activity. That’s where much of the cardiovascular effects on heart rate, heart rhythm and blood pressure come in.”

“The danger of energy drinks is they have a lot more caffeine than coffee and in much more concentrated amounts, sometimes double or triple the amount of coffee,” says Dr. Karmali.

The baseline recommendation for caffeine consumption for healthy adults is 400 milligrams (mg), which equates to four to five cups of coffee a day. Since energy drinks can be marketed as a dietary supplement or a beverage, they are loosely regulated. The total amount of caffeine can vary widely by product, and is not required to be listed. One study shows that the average amount can range from 6 mg to 242 mg per serving, with multiple servings per container.

According to research, people who consume more than 400 mg of caffeine in a day may experience significant adverse effects, particularly to the heart:

  • Caffeine can cause a brief increase in your heart rate and blood pressure, or lead to an irregular heartbeat (an arrhythmia). High blood pressure is a causative risk factor for cardiovascular disease. It leads to the hardening of your arteries, which can increase your risk for heart attack or stroke.
  • Caffeine is a diuretic, causing individuals to urinate more frequently. This can lead to dehydration, which can cause heart palpitations, or extra heartbeats.

“We can theorize that if caffeine increases high blood pressure and rhythm abnormalities, we can foresee the potential health effects from energy drinks,” says Dr. Karmali, who specializes in prevention of heart problems.

It’s All About the Additives

And while you might take your cup of coffee with a dash of cream or sugar, energy drinks can have additional additives that add further uncertainty about their health effects. Additives can include taurine, glucuronolactone, guarana and B vitamins — often called an “energy blend.”

Between 2007 and 2011, the number of energy drink-related visits to emergency departments doubled.

What’s more: It is common to add alcohol to energy drinks, or to consume them with other substances. Approximately 25 percent of college students consume alcohol with energy drinks, and the CDC reports that these individuals are more likely to binge-drink than students who don’t mix them.

The Bottom Line

“There are more studies showing the health risks of consuming energy drinks. Knowing that this is harmful to your body, there are safer and healthier ways to get the boost you may be looking for,” says Dr. Karmali, who drinks coffee. “I have a young daughter to keep up with. Drinking coffee is sometimes a necessity for me to get through the day, and I think it’s the case for many of my patients. But at the same time, I think it’s important to focus on other ways to get a boost through the day like regular physical activity and more sleep at night.”

In other words: Use caffeine in moderation, but avoid energy drinks.

“We have a wealth of experience with coffee, but until energy drinks are regulated and studied well enough, I counsel patients to avoid them regardless of their health,” says Dr. Karmali.“With energy drinks, you’re seeing adverse effects even with less than 400 milligrams of caffeine, the recommended daily limit. The effects seem out of proportion to the amount of caffeine in them.”

Learn about healthier ways to get a pick-me-up, like getting adequate sleep, exercise and, yes, even a cup of coffee.