Updated: Oct 11, 2022
Energy drinks might not literally give you wings, but they can certainly lift you up.
Unfortunately, that energy boost can lift a few other things too…
Your heart rate.
Your blood pressure.
In fact, during the height of the energy drink craze, the amount of emergency room visits involving those pick-me-ups doubled from 10,068 visits in 2007 to 20,783 in 2011.
Since then, people unaware of the risks are still being hospitalized. Just in 2021, a 21-year-old student suffered heart failure after drinking excessive amounts.
Yet demand keeps growing. U.S. sales totaled $19.63 billion in 2020. And experts see the industry ballooning to $28.25 billion by 2027 as busy consumers continue to hunt down non-carbonated, lower-calorie energy boosts.
Companies are leaning in. New brands have hit the market in recent years claiming to be more health conscious. Other long-time staples have pivoted, churning out low-sugar options and more.
With the surge of these “healthy” energy drinks, it’s important to understand just what’s in your can and what it’s doing to your body, particularly your stress response.
What’s in Your Energy Drink?
Energy drinks, not to be confused with sports drinks, are made with one purpose: to give you energy.
Knowing that, there are two key ingredients linked to their health risks: high caffeine and high sugar. After all, while there are a variety of energy drinks on the market, most contain some combination of caffeine and sugar, along with other substances thought to increase performance, like B vitamins, taurine, guarana and ginseng.
Caffeine: Practically every energy drink contains caffeine to increase concentration and motivation. The levels vary, but can range from 50 to 505 milligrams per can. An average 8-oz coffee, for comparison, holds about 100 milligrams of caffeine.
The FDA considers anything under 400 milligrams per day safe. Above that and you could see heart palpitations, higher blood pressure, an increased heart rate and other disturbances to your heart rhythm.
That’s, in part, because caffeine affects a number of hormones. For example, drinking more caffeine throughout the day can boost cortisol levels (the stress hormone), which can increase blood pressure. It can also increase adrenaline and dopamine (the happy hormone), while inhibiting adenosine — an organic compound that facilitates sleep and lowers blood pressure, among other functions. Caffeine can also alter estrogen in women and raise testosterone in men.
In 2015, a Mayo Clinic study showed just a single energy drink raised the drinker’s blood pressure and stress hormone response. In fact, in 2019, researchers found drinking only 32 ounces disturbed the heart’s electrical activity.
And effects can last longer than you think. It can take up to 10 hours for caffeine to work its way out of your bloodstream.
It’s also important to note the possible stimulating effects of other ingredients in energy drinks, such as guarana, whose seeds carry about four times the amount of caffeine in coffee beans. Some energy drinks also offer yerba mate, which holds about 80 milligrams of caffeine per cup.
Sugar: The ill-effects of too much sugar are well-known. A high-sugar diet means you're more at risk of diabetes, heart disease and weight gain. But did you know that sugar also affects hormones like cortisol?
For example, one study found that foods high in sugar, refined grains and saturated fats can increase your cortisol compared to a whole food diet.
Just 75 grams of sugar can also weaken white blood cells for about five hours and contribute to dental issues. (In fact, most energy drinks have a pH level in the acidic range and contain citric acid, which can degrade your enamel.)
Energy drinks are certainly high in sugar. In fact, they boast about 27 to 31 grams per eight ounces. According to the American Heart Association, women shouldn’t have more than 25 grams and men shouldn’t have more than 36 grams a day. So a 24-ounce energy drink would have triple the amount of your daily recommended sugar intake.
4 Tips to Find Healthier Energy Drinks
This mix of high caffeine and sugar content can make excessive energy drink consumption harmful to your stress response, cardiovascular health and more. Plus, these beverages are particularly dangerous for adolescents and pack a long list of additives that require further study.
However, if you’re still looking to grab energy in a can, here are some tips for finding healthier options:
Low Sugar, But Watch Artificial Sweeteners: If you’re going to grab an energy drink, try to select a low-sugar option – below 8 grams per drink. But be careful of cans labeled “sugar free.” Artificial sweeteners like aspartame and acesulfame K can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. The long-term effects are still little known.
Low Caffeine: Also opt for cans with lower caffeine content – below 200 milligrams, which is equivalent to about two cups of coffee. That’s particularly important if you’re consuming more caffeine throughout the day.
Don’t Mix With Alcohol: When combined with alcohol, energy drinks can make you feel less intoxicated even though you’re still impaired. This can cause you to drink more. In fact, drinkers aged 15 to 23 who do this are four times more likely to binge drink. Binge drinking influences hormones such as cortisol. In one study, researchers saw a 3% increase in cortisol per unit of alcohol consumed. It’s also associated with high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and liver disease. And caffeine’s effect on intoxication may increase when mixed with artificial sweeteners (ones without sucrose, which slows the emptying of alcohol from your stomach).
Read Up: Finally, be aware of the lack of oversight surrounding energy drinks: The FDA doesn’t carefully regulate them. While it requires a caffeine cap for sodas, energy drink manufacturers can classify products as supplements to avoid beverage regulations. Even if a company classifies its product as a beverage, it doesn’t mean it will meet guidelines. The American Beverage Association guides companies to list accurate caffeine information, restrict marketing to children and report issues to the FDA. But compliance is reportedly low.
Other Methods for Boosting Your Energy
Energy drinks are fine for those without underlying health conditions if consumed in moderation, but we wouldn’t call them the healthiest option.
If you’re feeling low on energy, we recommend hydrating first. Often, you may just need a glass of water to give you a boost. Also try to maintain a nutritious diet, sleep enough (about seven to eight hours) and exercise regularly to help keep you alert while managing your stress levels.
Even a 15-minute walk outside can help you focus again.
Before you go, we have one more question for you: How can we get better? Here at Pardigm.com, our goal is to gather the best information to help you understand the science of stress. If you think we missed anything in our research, please let us know.