By Dr. Mike Roussell
July 15, 2014
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Q: Is there ever a good reason to down an energy drink?

A: Yes, there is a time and a place for energy drinks. The primary benefit of drinking an energy drink is increased, sustained focus, and whether you're hitting the gym or sitting in the office, being able to keep your concentration for extended periods of time can be very helpful.

But first it's important to realize that the effects you experience from energy drinks are primarily driven by caffeine, which is a well-studied and safe performance-enhancer. In this way, energy drinks allow non-coffee drinkers the ability to reap the cognitive and performance-enhancing effects that coffee drinkers tap into with their daily cup of joe.

A 2014 Israeli study found that when truck drivers had an energy drink before hitting the road, they drove more accurately for a sustained period of time, requiring less steering wheel corrections. These results were further enhanced when the truck drivers took a 10-minute break at the 100-minute mark of their 150-minute drive. So even though you have an energy drink to bump up your focus, you still can benefit from taking a short break to disconnect and relax.

Let's take a closer look at the common ingredients found in energy drinks that are said boost energy and stamina:

B-vitamins: These are a ubiquitous ingredient in all energy drinks, which are cited to "help with energy metabolism." This can be very misleading, as B vitamins are used in the biochemical reactions in your body that produce energy for your cells, but there is no evidence to support that additional B vitamins (beyond your body's essential needs) will enhance this process and actually give you more energy.

Taurine: Taurine is a nonessential amino acid that you can get via your diet through meat. It has potential benefits regarding your cardiovascular health, but is included in energy drinks, as some research shows that it helps balance neurotransmitter levels in your brain. Some researchers think that taurine supplementation may be able to blunt some of the effects of cognitive decline seen with age, but this has to be proven.

Sugars and carbohydrates: Some energy drinks have added sugar and some are sugar-free. Unless you are drinking it prior to working out, opt for the sugar- and calorie-free version to avoid empty calories. However, having an energy drink containing sugar prior to exercise may help you training at higher intensities throughout your workout.

Caffeine: This is where the magic comes from. The "energy" you feel after downing an energy drink comes from both the caffeine and the placebo effect of consuming something called an "energy drink." Caffeine has a long history of safe and effective use, whether it is boosting athletic performance or enhancing your concentration on an assignment at work. Keep in mind that these drinks make consuming caffeine in large amounts very easy, which can have adverse effects like jitters and sleeplessness-so proceed with caution.

There are two more major concerns to keep in mind, though. First, be very cautious when mixing energy drinks with alcohol. Research shows that nearly 48 percent of people will mix alcohol with energy drinks (Red Bull and vodka, for example). Since alcohol is a sedative while energy drinks are stimulants, the stimulatory effects of energy drinks can counteract the sedation naturally experienced with alcohol and lead to a state coined "wide awake drunkenness." This may prevent people from realizing how intoxicated they really are, resulting in more drinking and an increase of risky behavior.

A 2014 paper published in Current Opinions in Psychiatry looking at the risks of energy drinks found that combining energy drinks with alcohol poses the greatest potential risk. Additionally, a recent review published in Addiction found that while wide awake drunkenness is an actual thing, whether or not it leads to and at what level would lead to increased risk-taking behavior has yet to be determined. However, you should be aware of the effects that combining alcohol and energy drinks has on your body so that you can be extra vigilant against unknowing excessive drinking or increased risk-taking behavior.

Secondly, avoid overuse. A 2014 paper published in the American Journal of Cardiology states that the dangers associated with overuse of energy drinks are not limited to or driven by energy drinks themselves but the stimulants found in these drinks (e.g. caffeine). You could experience these same symptoms as an excessive coffee drinker as well. The caffeine content of energy drinks varies from the equivalent of a single shot of espresso up to just under five shots of espresso. Always look to see how much caffeine is in the beverage you are drinking (not just per serving but per container) and know your own personal tolerance. Keep in mind that adverse effects of caffeine such as the jitters generally start once you get past 400mg per day.