The Truth Behind Energy Drinks: Pros and Cons

Do you rely on energy drinks like Reign, Bang, or Monster to push through your afternoon energy slump? Discover the pros and cons behind this habit.

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by
Caroline Thomason
— Signos
Dietician + Diabetes Educator (CDCES)
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 23, 2024
March 22, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

The demand for a quick energy fix has led to our universal acceptance and popularity of energy drinks. Loved for their immediate effect on our level of alertness, physical performance, and a surge of energy, these beverages have become a staple for many seeking an immediate pick-me-up. However, it’s important to understand the potential side effects and consequences of energy drinks. By understanding the pros and cons surrounding these beverages, you can make informed choices regarding their consumption and prioritize their health by making the best choice for you personally.

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What Are Energy Drinks?

Drinks like Monster, Red Bull, and 5-Hour Energy shots all provide a burst of energy from caffeine in large doses. The total amount of caffeine can vary from 80 mg to 200 mg or more in a serving, and having more than one serving without knowing your limits may pose some health risks or side effects. 

Having an occasional energy drink likely poses no significant issues and can be incorporated into a balanced diet from time to time. However, if you notice a pattern of daily reliance or use them in specific situations, like before a workout, it may be beneficial to reflect on why you depend on these bottled boosts.

Certain energy drink brands might even incorporate nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and amino acids into their formulas. Although these supplementary ingredients don't fully offset the potential negative impacts of regular energy drink consumption, they offer a slight nutritional boost, helping mitigate some of the drawbacks or side effects. L-theanine, for example, is often added to slow down the absorption of caffeine, providing a more stable stream of energy without the jitters or crashing later.

Natural vs. Synthetic Caffeine

When shopping for energy drinks, it’s important to know that there are two main caffeine sources: natural and synthetic. While both forms can provide the desired stimulating effects, natural sources like coffee and green tea often contain additional compounds, such as antioxidants, that may mitigate some adverse effects of caffeine consumption. 

Conversely, synthetic caffeine, commonly found in energy drinks and supplements, lacks these natural buffers and may pose a higher risk of side effects such as jitteriness, anxiety, and increased heart rate, particularly when consumed in excessive amounts. There have recently been recalls from synthetic caffeine for adverse reactions. It is likely safer to choose caffeine sourced from natural sources like coffee beans, tea, and chocolate for now. 

When Are Energy Drinks Healthy?

a cup of pineapple juice

Energy drinks may potentially be suitable for individuals who are in good health, have no underlying medical conditions, and consume them in moderation. Here are some scenarios where energy drinks might be considered relatively healthy.1

  • Athletic Events: Energy drinks can provide a quick energy boost before intense workouts or competitions, enhancing performance and endurance.
  • Shift Work: Those who work long or irregular hours may benefit from the temporary alertness provided by energy drinks to combat fatigue and maintain productivity.
  • Demanding Schedules: During heightened academic or professional demands, energy drinks may offer a short-term solution to enhance focus and concentration.
  • Night Activities: Whether driving long distances or participating in all-night events, energy drinks can help individuals stay awake and alert when necessary. If you regularly rely on energy drinks to pull an all-nighter, this can quickly become an unhealthy habit. 

However, moderation is key. Additionally, individuals should be aware of their personal caffeine sensitivity, any underlying health conditions, and potential interactions with medications before consuming energy drinks. You should consult with a healthcare professional, especially if you have preexisting health concerns.

What Are the Risks of Energy Drinks?

Caffeine in energy drinks offers a quick jolt of energy and a heightened sense of alertness, making them go-to choices for those needing a productivity boost or a pre-workout kick. However, the potent caffeine content can quickly turn from a perk to a problem, leading to jitteriness, disrupted sleep patterns, and even dependence. Overindulgence can be troubling for those with health conditions affected by caffeine, with potential risks including increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and gastrointestinal distress. Moderation is key, as navigating the pros and cons of caffeine in energy drinks requires a careful balance between searching for a buzz without the backlash.

Here are some reasons why energy drinks would be considered unhealthy.2

  • Sugar: The recommended daily intake for added sugar is 24 g for women and 36 g for men. Many energy drinks not only meet but often exceed these limits. Opting for sugar-free alternatives can help control your added sugar intake effectively.
  • Caffeine: With a recommended daily limit of 400 mg, equivalent to about four cups of coffee, it's easy to surpass this threshold with energy drinks. Consuming more than one energy drink in a short span could lead to exceeding this limit.
  • Dependence: Relying on energy drinks to sustain energy levels can lead to dependence, making it challenging to respond to moderate caffeine sources like coffee. This reliance may escalate, necessitating higher doses of energy drinks to achieve the desired alertness.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Related: </strong><a href="period-brain-fog">Period Brain Fog: Your Menstrual Cycles and Mental Health</a>.</p>

Who Should Not Drink Energy Drinks?

Energy drinks account for a significant portion of emergency room trips per year.3 Related symptoms range from insomnia to irregular heart rate to panic attacks. Here are subsets of the population that are typically deterred from regularly using energy drinks.4

  • Children and Teenagers: Most energy drinks are inappropriate for children or teens due to the caffeine content. Teenagers are recommended to limit their caffeine consumption to about a cup of coffee daily, or 100 mg. 
  • Pregnant and Nursing Women: Caffeine in pregnancy has been connected to a host of negative health outcomes for a newborn baby, and the recommended limit is 200 mg per day. However, many energy drinks contain this amount in addition to other ingredients that may be harmful in pregnancy or breastfeeding. 
  • Physical Symptoms: Excessive consumption of energy drinks can induce symptoms such as anxiety, elevated heart rate, and jitteriness, indicating an overdose of caffeine. Recognizing and addressing these symptoms promptly is crucial for maintaining overall well-being. For folks with anxiety, gastrointestinal stress, or cardiovascular disease, energy drinks might be contraindicated entirely. Talk to your doctor if you have a medical health history before introducing energy drinks.
  • Mixing With Alcohol: Mixing energy drinks with alcohol is a common practice among young adults and college students, posing significant health risks. The caffeine in energy drinks can mask the effects of alcohol, leading to increased alcohol consumption, higher rates of drinking and driving, and more alcohol-related injuries. Studies have shown a heightened risk of heart palpitations when combining energy drinks with alcohol.5 Despite regulatory efforts from the FDA, many continue to mix these beverages, emphasizing the need to avoid this combination due to its dangers.

Occasionally, indulging in an energy drink for a quick boost is acceptable, but it's essential to exercise caution to prevent overconsumption. For a healthy choice, drink less than 400 mg of caffeine daily, and look for brands that contain minimal added sugars.

Other Ways to Boost Energy Levels

a guy sleeping while hugging a pillow

Typically, most health professionals are not big advocates for energy drinks. Instead, registered dietitians and healthcare providers encourage individuals to better understand why they feel the need for these beverages and concentrate on lifestyle adjustments that could address those underlying factors.

  • Sleep: If you're feeling drained in the afternoon, perhaps you are not getting adequate or quality sleep. No quantity of energy drinks can substitute for a good night's rest. Both quality of sleep and quantity of sleep are important for maintaining good energy throughout the day and may help prevent over-reliance on energy drinks.
  • Nutrition: People who rely on energy drinks tend to skip meals for convenience, opting for a quick fix instead. Prioritizing proper nutrition in the form of regular meals and snacks throughout the day can sustain your energy levels, potentially reducing your need for more caffeine. 
  • Exploring Alternatives: Coffee, tea, or even a bit of chocolate can provide a natural energy boost with added health benefits. Incorporating these options in moderation can be a healthier substitute for energy drinks. Remember that your recommended caffeine intake from all sources is 400 mg per day, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).6

Learn More About Healthy Nutrition With Signos’ Expert Advice

Managing stable energy levels begins with healthy blood sugar levels, which help provide stable brain power and physical energy levels and might impact mental health. The bottom line: Gaining insight into the glycemic index of foods could lead you to take greater control of your energy levels. Understanding the blood sugar-energy connection can improve your health and wellness. 

The expert guidance provided by Signos can significantly benefit your health, whether your goal is better energy or simply feeling better. Explore more about nutrition and adopt healthier habits by delving into Signos' blog, or discover if Signos' program is right for you through a brief quiz.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="low-sugar-drinks">11 Refreshing Low-Sugar Drinks That Won't Spike Blood Sugar</a>.</p>

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References

  1. Alsunni AA. Energy Drink Consumption: Beneficial and Adverse Health Effects. Int J Health Sci (Qassim). 2015 Oct;9(4):468-74.
  2. Alsunni AA. Energy Drink Consumption: Beneficial and Adverse Health Effects. Int J Health Sci (Qassim). 2015 Oct;9(4):468-74.
  3. Mattson ME. Update on Emergency Department Visits Involving Energy Drinks: A Continuing Public Health Concern. 2013 Jan 10. In: The CBHSQ Report. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2013–. PMID: 27606410.
  4. Alsunni AA. Energy Drink Consumption: Beneficial and Adverse Health Effects. Int J Health Sci (Qassim). 2015 Oct;9(4):468-74.
  5. Peacock A, Bruno R, Martin FH. The subjective physiological, psychological, and behavioral risk-taking consequences of alcohol and energy drink co-ingestion. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2012 Nov;36(11):2008-15.
  6. Spilling the beans: How Much Caffeine is Too Much? FDA. Accessed 3/15/24.

About the author

Caroline Thomason is a dietitian, diabetes educator, and health writer based in Washington, DC.

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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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