Have you turned to energy drinks to cope with the fatigue brought by lifestyle changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic? In this post, we look at how energy drinks work, the side effects and discuss a few pointers to help you decide if you should be taking energy drinks.

Regular intake of energy drinks can be associated with a wide range of health problems, such as sleep disturbances, irritability, weight gain and even increased blood pressure. There is further evidence to suggest that these drinks can lead to even more concerning issues such as substance abuse, mental health problems, a higher diabetes risk, tooth decay and kidney damage.

How energy drinks boost energy

Energy drinks are marketed to improve concentration and reduce tiredness. They typically contain high amounts of added sugar, in the form of glucose or corn syrup, as well as other stimulants to help ‘boost energy’ including caffeine, taurine, guarana and ginseng. ‘Zero’ or ‘Diet’ versions of energy drinks are available, using sweeteners to reduce the energy content, but they also typically contain high levels of caffeine.

Side effects of drinking energy drinks

The high levels of caffeine in energy drinks lead to overstimulation of the nervous system and contribute to symptoms such as insomnia, restlessness, anxiety, irritability and even dehydration. A typical can of energy drink may contain up to 300 mg of caffeine and 27g of sugar. This high sugar content can lead to weight gain and possibly insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Even more problematic is the mixing of these energy drinks with alcohol as the energy drink can blunt the feeling of intoxication, possibly resulting in heavier drinking and alcohol-related injuries.

For most people, however, the occasional intake of energy drinks should not be an issue. Take care to read the product label as the amount of caffeine can vary considerably – a guideline is to limit yourself to no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day from all sources. If you are feeling consistently fatigued, and rely on energy drinks daily, consider alternative ways to boost your energy, such as getting adequate sleep, eating healthily and getting involved in regular physical activity. If these strategies don’t seem to help, consult your doctor as sometimes fatigue is a sign of an underlying medical condition.

Who shouldn’t drink energy drinks?

There are a few groups of people for whom energy drinks are generally not recommended. Children, including teenagers, pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding should avoid consumption of these beverages. The amount of caffeine in an energy drink is usually more than what is recommended for children and adolescents.

For athletes, energy drinks are not recommended if you are looking for an energy boost. Their high sugar content makes them more difficult to absorb, and they often upset the stomach. In contrast, sports drinks are made up of specific amounts of sugar and sodium which are easier for your body to absorb, thereby ensuring optimal performance. However, most people who enjoy being active are usually not exercising long enough or at a level intense enough to need sports drinks and plain water is always the best choice.

You may also want to read this post where we discuss if supplements are good for your health.

By Juliet Fearnhead
Locum Dietitian for Leanne Kiezer, Pick n Pay Dietitian