What do energy drinks do to the body and why are they so bad for us?

They’re sweet, they’re sugary and they’re designed to give you that all-important pick-me-up when you’re running on empty, but new Government rules could see the sale of caffeine-laden energy drinks to young people banned in England .

Red Bull, Relentless and Monster Energy are just a few of the brands that could soon require ID before purchase if the new law comes into effect.

Theresa May has commented that the hard line on energy drinks is linked to the government’s focus on tackling childhood obesity. According to new research, two-thirds of children aged 10 to 17 and a quarter of six to nine-year-olds consume energy drinks, some of which contain 13 teaspoons of sugar and the caffeine equivalent to four espresso shots.

Artificially sweetened drinks are considered a major contributor to health conditions like diabetes, obesity and tooth decay, but what is it about the combination of caffeine and sugar that makes energy drinks so bad for the body? We asked health experts to explain…

What actually happens to the body when you consume an energy drink?

According to nutritionist Caroline Blackmore, the intense sweetness of energy drinks causes blood sugar levels to spike, triggering the pancreas to produce insulin.

“At first, you’ll have a ‘high’ from the sugar for about an hour, but afterwards you’ll feel a sudden drop in energy after absorption, leaving you feeling even more tired and fatigued.”

Blackmore explains that this is a vicious and expensive circle, as once the sugar has worn off, you begin to crave the next unhealthy pick-me-up. “This point is usually where people reach out for more sugary-laden food or drink to make themselves feel better, repeating the cycle,” she says.

“From the first sip it can take anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes for the caffeine to start to be absorbed, and you’ll find that your blood pressure and heart rate will increase.

“Even though the sugar has been fully absorbed after about an hour of drinking it, the caffeine will continue to have an effect. Caffeine can remain in your blood stream for 12 hours after you’ve drunk it, depending on what you’ve eaten, your weight and your personal body composition.”

So even if you limit your intake to one energy drink first thing in the morning, it’s possible it could still be keeping you awake at 11pm at night.

What are the risks of drinking energy drinks regularly over a long period of time? 

Harley Street nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert says: “As well as offering zero nutritional value, one of the big health risks around energy drinks, noted by the NHS, is that they can cause caffeine overdoses, which can lead to a number of symptoms, including: Palpitations, high blood pressure, nausea and vomiting, convulsions and, in some cases, even death.

“You’re also increasing your risk of Type 2 diabetes, late miscarriages, low birth weight and stillbirths in pregnant women, and neurological and cardiovascular system effects in children and adolescents.”

“Energy drinks can also cause attention-seeking behaviour, lead to poor dental health and, of course, obesity.”

Lambert explains that energy drinks contain a variety of other ingredients, such as guarana, and that the effect of long-term regular consumption of the combination of the substances found in energy drinks is still pretty vague.

“Several people have developed heart problems after consuming energy drinks, possibly due to drinking too much caffeine or mixing energy drinks with alcohol,” says Will Hawkins, a nutritionist from Push Doctor.

“Resistance to insulin (a chemical needed to regulate blood sugar levels) can also be a major issue with overusing energy drinks, if they contain large amounts of sugar.”

The caffeine indulgence many receive from energy drinks is particularly concerning to Geeta Sidhu-Robb, a nutritionist and founder of Nosh Detox. “In certain cases, it can snowball into other issues such as anxiety, headaches, migraines and insomnia,” she says.

“As a result of its addictive tendencies, people can also become overly-dependent on drinking them which can spiral out of control, similar to the effects of drugs and nicotine.”

What happens when you drink multiple energy drinks in one go?

“When you consume large quantities, you can face the prospect of caffeine toxicity, which will not only see your heart rate rapidly increase, but will see a significant spike in blood pressure, dizziness, tremors, and risk of strokes – which can, of course, prove fatal,” says Sidhu-Robb.

Why is it particularly bad if you mix energy drinks with alcohol?

The popularity of mixing energy drinks with alcohol is pretty worrying, says Sidhu-Robb, especially with young people who are looking for a quick buzz. “The alcohol slows down your heart rate, whilst the energy drink speeds it up, creating an imbalance which causes your heart to go into overdrive. This increases the risk of cardiac arrest.

“What’s more, the combination also means users do not feel the impact of usual intoxication – which can lead to the increase in criminal offences such as drink driving.”

So how can teens get an energy boost without resorting to energy drinks?

According to Sidhu-Robb, many teens do not realise there are much healthier alternatives to energy drinks to get a boost.

“These include protein shakes, green tea and healthy smoothies, which in moderation, can provide you with more effective and positive energy without the negative side effects.”

- Press Association

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