By Shelley Divnich Haggert
“Gets you going.” “Wakes you up.” What teenager struggling to get moving in the morning and stay on top of his game wouldn’t find some appeal in those kinds of promises? If an energy boost can be had from a can, why not indulge? Sold with provocative names that imply adrenaline and vitality, and in convenient “shots” that fit in a pocket, energy drinks are meant to provide mental and physical stimulation for a short time. But these beverages pack more than a punch — they’re also carrying health risks for teens.
Caffeine and carbohydrates (sugars) are ingredients found in these energy drinks. Many also contain ginseng, a substance that some believe decreases stress and increases alertness. And they contain taurine — an amino acid. So what’s the big deal? Combined, these ingredients create a cocktail more potent than any standard cola. “Ginseng increases the effectiveness of caffeine,” says Dr. Claire LeBlanc, chair of the Healthy Active Living and Sports Medicine Committee for the Canadian Paediatric Society. “And these drinks
also contain guarana, a caffeine-like substance.”
This energy kick can cause strong side effects including insomnia, increased heart rate, anxiety, irritability and headache. And when the drink wears off (regular use of caffeine can make you physically dependent), it can cause some kids to crash — leaving them edgy and tired. Some brands do feature warning labels, but teens may not heed them. “They’re attractive to young people,” says Natalie Brown a registered dietitian in South Surrey, B.C. “And they’re sold cold — kids can drink them quickly and feel the effects immediately.”
But teenagers are hard to convince. Eric Noble, 17, of Windsor, Ont., has been indulging in energy drinks for a few years. “I’ve never had the crash,” he says, though he’s seen it in others. Noble seeks the jolt on days when he’s tired. “It tastes better than coffee,” he says. And a couple of times he’s wondered if he’s had too
much. “Once I ran around the gym, like, 30 times, just because I felt so hyper.” Noble has started to cut back on the drinks. “I was spending a lot,” he says (the average price is about $3 a can).
For some teens, energy drinks are also a cheap, legal high. “I know a lot of kids drinking a lot more than I am,” says Noble. “And they’ll mix them with alcohol at parties.” Added to alcohol, the drinks become even more dangerous. Health Canada warns these cocktails, which some teens think boost their energy and quench their thirst, can actually lead to dehydration, which can hinder the body’s ability to metabolize and eliminate alcohol leading to nausea, vomiting and abnormal heart rhythms. The stimulant effect of the caffeine can also give teens the impression they are less intoxicated than they really are, leading to more drinking and possibly alcohol-related illnesses such as alcohol poisoning.
Teens and adults should take in no more than 400 mg (depending on size and weight) of caffeine a day, the equivalent of about three 8-oz cups of brewed coffee. Some energy drinks can contain about as much as one 8-oz cup of coffee, but their labels do not have to (and usually don’t) list the additional caffeine contained in herbs like guarana, which can double the amount.
Kids are better off skipping the caffeine altogether. “Stimulants can be very dangerous to the growing and developing body,” says Brown. “We know that caffeine, in excess, can inhibit growth.” More sleep, eating breakfast, exercise and drinking lots of water will make a big difference. “Adults can lead by example,” says Dr. LeBlanc. A parent with a healthy diet who’s not relying on caffeine is a great example that energy doesn’t need to come in a can.
Freelance writer Shelley Divnich Haggert finds that raising teenagers keeps her awake just fine.