Since the debut of Red Bull in 1997, the highly popular and super caffeinated energy drink, the global beverage business has forever changed. Clearly targeted to the young adult market, energy drinks have taken a generation of caffeine addicts by storm and have carved out a very profitable niche that is still going very strong. Though there have some negative publicity over the years about the health effects, the various and growing beverages have used clever marketing to grow into a multi-billion dollar niche industry and quash or sweep any bad news under the rug.
Certainly, most of the common energy drinks are packed with caffeine, highly refined sugar, and carbohydrates that inject or induce a heighted sense of alertness -- more on how and why in a moment.
Others are filled with a number of herbal ingredients which, when used together, may raise eyebrows even with herbal specialists. No doubt, some of the side effects would include rapid heart rates and the jitters, but some might actually change brain chemistry. For the last 15 years, research has been slow to come out on the affects of energy drinks on the body and brain until relatively recently. And those results of several studies can jolt anyone’s mind awake, or at least should.
Are we paying attention?
Time magazine recently reported that energy drinks, which are packed with carbs to fuel cells, actually doesn’t fuel our cells at all, but rather goes right to the brain to affects its actual chemistry and change our level of motivation altogether. (Read the Time Magazine story here: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1891350,00.html)
Energy drinks, according to health and exercise experts, directly affect our brain’s chemical reaction, including dopamine levels.
Research at several major universities, including the University of Birmingham and Manchester Metropolitan University have reported in the Journal of Physiology that power caffeine energy drinks activate reward and pleasure regions in the brain, a needed high that can translate to better physical performance — which is one that doesn’t happen with other artificially sugared beverages.
In their study, volunteers who received doses of energy drinks were able to complete a physical-training session 2% faster than those who got regularly “artificially sweetened” drinks. They had also improved their mean power output as well.
Weird science of energy drinks
Yet, there are side effects that can change your brain chemistry. You might want to call it weird science. The esteemed Dr. Conrad Woolsey, who has written and lectured extensively on energy drinks and its affects, believes that it actually changes brain chemistry. Dr. Woolsey, who is an assistant professor of applied health and educational psychology at Oklahoma State University, adds that it affects people under 25 years of age more drastically, because the brain isn’t fully developed up until that point.
This is particularly unsettling, since the beverages are marketed to young adults 18-25 years of age. However, if you haven’t lived in a cave the last decade, we have all seen children younger than 18 carrying or drinking one of these beverages, right?
Dr. Woolsey’s research points to some serious consequences: since the human brain isn’t fully developed by the age of 25, it is often more susceptible to damage and influence on the brain’s neurotransmitters, which are essential chemicals that send information through synapses between one nerve cell to the next.
Traditionally, stimuli that happen in and out of the brain, effect when and which neurotransmitters are released. A pleasurable feeling for example of taking a bite of chocolate would be released, often in the form of dopamine, endorphin, or serotonin.
A healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables appears to help the body's neurotransmitters function at optimal levels.
According to Dr. Woolsey, energy drinks may often work like an addictive drug through the release of dopamine and serotonin. In essence, providing a high and then followed by a crash. The ultimate result would be potentially severe and non-reversal damage to neurotransmitter receptor sites, which then could increase more drug cravings which would need to be sought after to satisfy the brain. In the end it could cause the development of anxiety and depression related disorders.
Certainly some of the natural ingredients in many energy drinks like taurine and inosital are often prescribed to fight off depression or anxiety. These along with caffeine and sugar can simultaneously push both the anxiety and pleasure buttons in the brain, which may be addictive but damaging as the brain can become very desensitized to normal pleasurable experiences.
Want more energy? Eat more fruits, vegetables and amino acids
A vast amount of research is available online on natural foods, and eating for optimal health of the body and mind. It appears that the secret to natural energy (alertness) and a feeling of well being occurs when a person eats plenty of fruits and vegetables, and gets all of the essential vitmamins and minerals from one's diet (rather than a supplement, as most vitamins and minerals are better absorbed from food). In addition, a brief understanding of amino acids (those we get from protein), and how they play a part in promoting alertness, well-being (serotonin release) and better sleep can lead one to implement a few changes to their eating habits. What a person will get is better overall health, better natural energy levels, and savings on their wallet (no more $3 or more a day spent on energy drinks).
It may also save a person from future visits to the hospital, as we just still don't know the extent of long term effects of energy drinks on the mind and body. It's probably not good, if the energy being sought is a band-aid to overall poor eating choices.