Can you get addicted to energy drinks?

energy drinks and addition

In 2017 a 25-year-old man from England died after he had been drinking 15 cans of energy drinks a day for a few months. After the end of his marriage, he had been using the drinks in a bid to deal with his anxiety and depression.

But it was not helping and scaffolder Justin Bartholomew had tried to end his life twice. When he went missing not long after his second attempt, police searched some woods close to Brighton on England’s south coast. Tragically, they found his body.

Justin’s father Keiron blamed his son’s death on an addiction to energy drinks. He said: “He was drinking 15 cans a day when he worked with me. We all know what energy drinks can do to you. 

“He was high as a kite. He suffered depression, they enhanced that. Energy drinks are dangerous, they’re a legal drug. This will be the first case of many in courts around this country where people take their lives as a result of energy drink consumption. They should be banned.”

He felt that caffeine at such a high quantity should not be allowed and that the high sugar content was the main ingredient making people want more and more of the drink. This is a tragedy that emphasizes many people’s concerns about energy drinks.

Energy drinks are beverages designed to improve alertness, concentration – and of course boost energy levels for a few hours. While they will do this, there are both physical and mental health concerns, mostly related to the massive amounts of sugar and caffeine they contain.

But are there real dangers posed by them – and can people get addicted to energy drinks?

What’s the history of energy drinks?

Many cultures have sought to boost their energy levels through drinks. But the history of energy drinks as we know them today really starts with Coca-Cola.

It was launched by a pharmacist in the US in 1886 containing kola nuts (a source of caffeine) and coca leaves. Both are known stimulants.

Just over a decade later Pepsi-Cola was introduced. Its pharmacist creator intended a drink that would aid digestion but boost energy as well.

Then in Europe, a glucose and water solution named Lucozade was created in the 1920s by a pharmacist in Newcastle, England. It was advertised as a drink for people who were suffering from an illness to “replenish lost energy”.

But it was in the 1980s that energy drinks as we know them really started. In 1985, Jolt Cola was launched in America with an initial promotional slogan of: “All the sugar and twice the caffeine.” Lucozade started marketing itself as a drink to give energy and enhance sports performance.

In 1987 Red Bull Energy Drink containing caffeine, sugars, taurine and B vitamins was launched in Austria. It swiftly became extremely popular worldwide. To date more than 82 billion cans of Red Bull have been consumed around the world.

Since then – perhaps encouraged by the all-night  “rave” EDM and clubbing culture that started in the late 1980s and really boomed throughout the 1990s – the number of energy drinks on the market and consumption of them has rocketed. Now, many large supermarket groups have even started producing their own brand of energy drink.

Then, starting about 20 years ago, energy drinks started to be increasingly sold in larger cans. The “energy shot” drink swiftly followed, first launched in 2004. In 2007, effervescent tablets and powders were created to be added to water to make an energy drink.

What’s in an energy drink?

Most energy drinks are made using a mixture of carbonated water, caffeine, B vitamins, and sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Other regular ingredients include taurine, guarana, ginseng, creatine, ginkgo biloba, yerba mate, açaí, carnitine, inositol, glucuronolactone, maltodextrin.

The major psychoactive energy drink ingredient is caffeine. Energy drinks on average have three to five times more caffeine content than cola drinks.

Perhaps for this reason and although stimulants, colas – as well as coffee and tea – are not considered to be energy drinks. Sports drinks are not the same as energy drinks either because sports drinks are created more for rehydration.

Who is drinking energy drinks?

Fundamental traits

Looking at the huge international demand for them it is clear that every age group and people of all ethnicities and backgrounds are consuming energy drinks. However, they seem most popular with manual workers as well as younger people.

Perhaps it is clear that in fact the manufacturers of energy drinks are aiming them at teenagers and younger people. Their names reflect this and include such as Street King, Rockstar, Rip It, Relentless, Monster, Hype Energy, Cocaine, Rowdy Energy, Urge Intense, Beaver Buzz, and Bang.

In fact, self-report surveys reveal that energy drinks are consumed by 30 to 50 percent of teenagers and young adults. About a third of young people aged from 12 to 17 years old regularly consume energy drinks.

According to a report published by the NCCIH (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health), men between the ages of 18 and 34 years drink the most energy drinks.

In 2021, America had the highest per capita volume consumption of energy drinks in the world – with an average of 29 liters per person, which was more than double that of the next nation: the United Kingdom  with 13 liters per person. Next was Japan with 11 liters, then came Spain at 10 liters.

What are the health risks of energy drinks?

The major health risk from consuming energy drinks comes from excessive consumption of caffeine and sugar. Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant.

This influences the brain to make people feel more alert. It does this by blocking the neuron messaging system that tells us we are tired.

According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the average healthy adult can safely consume a total of 400 mg of caffeine a day. This is around four cups of coffee or two standard 250 ml energy drink cans.

Excess sugar is bad for our physical health in terms of it causing us to put on weight and it also causes our artery walls to get inflamed and become increasingly stiff that’s not good for our heart.

But it also has a negative effect on our self-control and cognitive skills. Sugar has effects in the reward center of the brain that make us crave more and more of it.

People who are particularly at risk for complications from energy drinks are young people; pregnant women; competitive athletes; people who have had seizures; people with diabetes; those who are caffeine-sensitive; people with mood disorders; and anyone with cardiovascular problems.

Health risks connected with energy drinks include:

  • Dehydration
  • Palpitation
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Sleep disorders
  • Shakes 
  • Headaches
  • Muscle twitches
  • Arrhythmia
  • Caffeine intoxication
  • Irritability and restlessness
  • Calcium deficiency
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Developing type 2 diabetes
  • Kidney disorders
  • Caffeine overdose (potentially life-threatening)
  • Dental problems including discolouration and tooth decay
  • High blood pressure
  • Excessive urination
  • Gastrointestinal problems 
  • Talking too fast and too much
  • Possible drug interaction risks – with such as medications prescribed for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and some painkillers that contain caffeine

Energy drinks can also lead to excessive alcohol consumption. This is because to an extent the stimulant effects of caffeine hide the influence of alcohol.

So mixing energy drinks with alcohol can increase the risk of alcohol-related injury as well as risky behaviour. This is a growing problem – with, for example, approximately 25 percent of college students admitting they regularly drink alcohol with energy drinks.

Emergency Department visits connected to energy drink use doubled from around 7,000 visits in 2007 to more than 14,000 visits in 2011. Nearly half of these in 2011 were from energy drink use combined with alcohol or another drug.

Other negative health consequences related to energy drinks – according to a study published in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association – include occasional reports of diarrhea or constipation thought to be caused by taurine.

Taurine is an amino acid that’s a building block of human proteins. It is found in the heart, brain, spinal cord, muscle cells, retinas, skeletal muscle tissue, and white blood cells

Are energy drinks addictive?

Mental health issues

Energy drinks can be extremely addictive. This is because if someone does not like the way they feel, anything that is capable of changing the way they feel has got the power to get them addicted to it.

Addiction can be defined as doing something that’s detrimental to you and/or those around you – yet not being able to stop and stay stopped from doing it. As excessive energy drink consumption can be extremely detrimental, anyone who drinks too much of it and too often could be described as an energy drink addict.

Two key ingredients in energy drinks that will change the way people feel are sugar and caffeine. Some of the other ingredients may have an effect, but these are the main two ingredients behind the craving for energy drinks.

Both sugar and caffeine will give a boost, a sort of high. They will release feel-good chemicals in the brain.

As people come down from this and return to a more normal state they may seek the high again. This is particularly if they do not like how they feel in their “normal” state.

As well, their body will get more tolerant of caffeine and sugar. So they will need more of it for the same effect. It all becomes a vicious cycle.

Because of this, energy drink use is often connected to other addictions as well. This is to such as cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, and behavioral addictions including gambling, gaming, shopping, relationships and/or sex.

As published in the peer-reviewed medical journal the Journal of Addiction Medicine, there are some experts who think energy drinks may actually lead to substance abuse. Although it could also be that people who abuse substances are much more likely to also consume energy drinks.

From a psychological perspective, some people will also get addicted. This is because they will convince themselves that they cannot do as much or efficiently unless they have an energy drink.

Another factor is that when someone who has consumed a lot of energy drinks stops drinking them, they may experience withdrawal symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, irritability and feeling depressed. So they crave another energy drink because they do not know of any other way to change this except to have another one.

Thankfully any addiction can be beaten. But this nearly always needs the guidance of someone with expertise in addiction.

Our friendly experienced team of experts has helped people with all types of emotional disturbances and mental health problems for decades now. Call us today to discuss how we can help you or someone you love.

Lisa Davies - Program Director of Vaughan Recovery and Kirby Estate

About Lisa Davies

Lisa is the Program Director at Centres for Health and Healing. She lived for most of her life in the Durham region, before moving to Peel five years ago.

Lisa is a Master Hypnotist and is certified in Hypnotherapy (2008), Self-Hypnosis and in 5-phase Advanced Therapeutic Healing. As a Member of National Guild of Hypnotists, she is also specialized in hypnosis training in pediatrics, pain management, neuro-linguistic and stage programming.

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