This week we learned that a 50-year old man with hepatitis C went into acute liver failure after drinking 4-5 energy drinks a day for a period of a three weeks. The culprit appeared to be the Niacin content in each energy drink (200%RDA) that accumulated over the days and became toxic to the liver. Although this is the first time we’ve heard of this severe a hepatic side effect, energy drinks are not foreign to being hazardous to one’s health.
So what’s in an energy drink?
Depending on the brand, ingredients can include the following:
Sugars such as sucrose, glucose or high fructose corn syrup
Guarana extract- an energy supplement also high in caffeine
Taurine – an amino acid that has health benefits but could strain the kidney
Vitamins B 2, 3, 6 and 12 (and Vitamin A and C in some brands)
and multiple other ingredients and additives (Ginkgo Biloba, Ginseng, etc. depending on the brand)
Why are energy drinks dangerous?
Energy drinks have been known to cause a variety of issues: anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, caffeine withdrawal, a rise in blood sugar…. to name a few.
However the focus of energy drink risks has been on the heart. One study from the Mayo Clinic found blood pressure and adrenaline to rise after drinking an energy drink. In 2011 a case report looked at two teenage boys who went into atrial fibrillation, a deadly heart rhythm. In 2015, doctors blamed energy drinks for a 25 year old man’s heart attack.
We’ve learned that caffeine, though innocent-appearing in coffee and tea, can be deadly not only as a result of quantity but the administration of it. A cup of coffee may have the same amount of caffeine as an energy drink (assuming the Guarana extract isn’t adding more to the total caffeine dose). But a hot cup of coffee is sipped slowly, whereas an energy drink served cold or at room temperature is usually chugged. The huge bolus of caffeine may be too quick-too-much for the body to digest and distribute slowly.
The high sugar content of energy drinks could put one at risk of diabetes. And with the recent case of acute liver failure, we are reminded that ingredients of energy drinks could at high doses cause hepatitis (inflammation of the liver).
Additionally, this week we learned that mixing alcohol with energy drinks, a popular party ritual, caused brain changes in mice similar to those caused by cocaine.
I can’t convince everyone to reach for a piece of broccoli rather than an energy drink when in need of a boost, but at the very least we should deter use by children and teens, and educate those with vulnerable hearts, blood pressure, diabetes, kidney and liver issues that an energy drink may not be the wisest beverage choice.
Daliah Wachs, MD, FAAFP is a nationally syndicated radio personality on GCN Network and Board Certified Family Physician