Dear Sasquatch: Do Energy Drinks Work?
Sometimes, when I have to stay up late . . . studying, I drink energy drinks, and they seem to keep me awake. I’ve tried a bunch of them. Some work better than others. Even the 5-Hour Energy, which I thought would be bunk, actually works, especially the Extra one.
So . . . is this all in my head or do these drinks really work?
It depends on what you mean by “work,” but most of these products do act as stimulants for a pretty straightforward reason: They usually contain caffeine. The Extra 5-Hour Energy works better because it contains more caffeine than the original version, as you can see on their website (if you can get past the ® obstacle course).
Claims for other common ingredients, such as various B vitamins, taurine, ginseng, glucuronolactone, tyrosine, are usually unsupported by evidence or by a misreading of the evidence. For example, some studies that evaluate taurine effects use products that also contain caffeine. Studies showing the effects of B vitamins are often studies done on people with deficiencies in B vitamins. B12 deficiency can lead to symptoms of fatigue and weakness, so supplemental B12 in people with a deficiency could relieve these symptoms, but this isn’t the same as saying B vitamins actually give a person energy (which is itself a somewhat meaningless phrase), particularly a person without a deficiency.
Also, because our bodies regulate such things as B vitamins and chemicals such as taurine, an amino acid we naturally produce, extra amounts aren’t going to do much. To achieve homeostasis (balance), the body will produce less of a chemical or excrete excess amounts if we ingest that substance beyond what our body needs, so the level of active chemical in our body tends to remain the same. Picture your body as a glass of water. Adding more water to an already full glass does not actually give you more water. The idea that more of a good thing is better for you doesn’t really apply (whether or not the chemicals we’re discussing are a good thing in the first place).
In fact, the idea that something “natural” or “healthy” for you can’t do any harm at any dose is dangerous. Many substances can be toxic at high doses, including some vitamins.
So how do the companies get away with making these claims? Take a look at the labels. Here’s one from Monster Energy drink:
And here’s one from Radioactive Energy Drinks:
See the difference? Energy drinks are not sold as food, with Nutrition Facts. They are sold as supplements, and they are therefore unregulated by the FDA.
The upshot is that unless you really like the taste, these drinks are a waste of money. You can easily get caffeine more cheaply, although be careful about that as well. Studies in teens are not as extensive as those in adults, and too much caffeine in anyone can have some nasty side effects (no, stunting your growth isn’t one of them), not to mention that the caffeine gets less and less effective the more regularly you ingest it, yet the withdrawal symptoms can be pretty ugly.
So next time you plan to stay up late . . . studying, consider this time-tested, Sasquatch-approved alertness enhancer—an afternoon nap.
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