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Energy drinks

Energy drinks may lead to serious health consequences

While many people drink energy drinks to help them get through a long day or to keep them alert and focused, drinking too many at once may exacerbate underlying health issues or even result in a visit to the emergency department.

According to a recent report by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,  the number of people visiting the emergency department after drinking energy drinks more than doubled from roughly 10,000 to almost 21,000 between 2007 and 2011.

In 2011, 58 percent of these visits involved energy drinks alone, while 42 percent also included drug or alcohol use. Most of these cases involved teens or young adults, although there was a definite spike in the number of people aged 40 and older visiting the emergency department after consuming energy drinks.

Reported symptoms ranged from insomnia, nervousness, headaches and fast heartbeats to seizures. Sean Sue, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, said in the past three months, he has treated two patients suffering from heart palpitations after consuming multiple energy drinks. In addition, Dr. Sue said a young female patient visited the emergency department late last year who said she was drinking four energy drinks a day. She went into cardiac arrest while in the ER, Dr. Sue said, but was immediately treated by the Piedmont Atlanta emergency department team and survived.

Dr. Sue said every case he has treated in which the patient was experiencing health issues due to energy drinks involved people in their twenties. “Some of these drinks contain a great deal of sugar, although now there are some that have less sugar or are low carb, but people don’t realize that some of these drinks have more stimulants than just caffeine,” Dr. Sue said.

But Dr. Sue said energy drinks, especially consumed in moderation, are not necessarily evil. Most hospital visits after consuming energy drinks are caused by energy drinks alone, but by underlying health issues that are simply enhanced by too many stimulants, he said. “People who are young and otherwise healthy who drink energy drinks in moderation - meaning no more than one drink a day - won’t experience long-term health issues due to energy drinks,” Dr. Sue said. “But patients who are hypertensive or have heart irregularities, when they take stimulants, they get more palpitations. So energy drinks may not cause the problem, but rather add to a health condition you may not be aware you have.”

Dr. Sue said that even he drank one energy drink a day for more than four years, but cut them off completely once he became hypertensive. “I totally cut out caffeine due to elevated blood pressure,” Dr. Sue said. “But even the different types of energy drinks can have different effects. I could drink a Monster energy drink, no problem, but when I took a 5-Hour Energy Shot, I felt flushed and my heart began racing. There’s just so much concentrated stimulants put into your body at one time. It’s similar to taking a shot of liquor versus sipping on a mixed drink over an hour.”

And when it comes to mixing alcohol and energy drinks, such as drinking Red Bull mixed with vodka, Dr. Sue said to stay away. “When you mix an energy drink with alcohol, you’re getting a stimulant and a depressant,” Dr. Sue explained. “So it falsely gives you the sense that you’re less drunk. If you have three drinks without any stimulants, you might feel inebriated. But when you add an energy drink to those drinks, since it’s a stimulant, it counteracts the effects of the alcohol so you aren’t aware that you are as inebriated as you actually are.”

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