How many times have you fallen for a clever marketing campaign? The first time I took an energy drink was after I watched its advert that promised to give me ‘wings’. I became an avid consumer and recommended it to family and friends as long as they complained about fatigue or sluggishness. Finally, I saw the light and reduced the level of consumption which doctors recommend. Just like many things in life, energy drinks are not harmful if taken in moderation. The challenge most people face, according to Dr Aaron Natamba, a general practitioner, is that most of these energy drinks are highly addictive because of the caffeine in them.
“Most energy drinks contain caffeine in doses of up to 400mg which is equivalent to about five cups of coffee consumed at ago. So after consuming a bottle of your favourite energy drink, it sends signals that stimulate the central nervous system giving the body a sense of alertness. As soon as it wears off, you go back to the very state you were trying to escape from. It also raises your heart rate, blood pressure and leaves you dehydrated,” Dr Natamba says, adding that sometimes too much caffeine can cause other health problems such as dizziness, irritability, nausea, dehydration, and headaches.
Effects on sugar levels
According to Dr Natamba, the human body has an effective means for managing blood sugar primarily through the action of two hormones, insulin and glucagon. When blood sugar levels rise after eating or through other stimuli, the pancreas releases insulin to restore blood glucose to normal levels.
“During activity, the pancreas releases glucagon that in turn stimulates the metabolism of stored sugars to increase blood sugar to meet the body’s need for energy. This mechanism is called a negative feedback system because a negative value triggers an event,” he says.
According to Jackie Mary Nanyonjo, a nutritionist from Nsambya Hospital, the biggest problem with energy drinks is their ingredients and the volumes they use.
“Most energy drinks contain high levels of vitamin B3 (niacin) and B6. These vitamins are usually essential in helping the body convert food into energy. The body usually produces enough to sustain it and there is no need for supplements. But they exist in energy drinks and if consumed in excess, they can cause gastrointestinal complications, liver toxicity, blurred vision and nerve damage among others,” Nanyonjo notes. Other ingredients Nanyonjo cautions consumers to watch out for include:
Taurine is an amino acid that helps regulate heartbeat, muscle contractions, and energy levels. Usually, the body makes enough taurine so there is no need to supplement. Too much taurine can cause dangerously lower blood pressure.
As evidenced, consumed on their own, these herbs are safe and healthy but they become dangerous when combined with the other ingredients in the drinks, especially caffeine and sugar. This dangerous combination often results in high blood pressure, heart palpitations, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, swelling, dehydration and kidney failure.
The dangers of too much sugar have been publicised. High levels of sugar cause weight gain, tooth decay, swelling, and type 2 diabetes, among other serious complications. Some energy drinks have sweeteners which have been linked to metabolic syndrome, diabetes and obesity.
Energy drinks and diabetes
Dr Agatha Nambuya, an endocrinologist, cautions people with underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes to limit or desist from consuming energy drinks. “These drinks contain ingredients such as artificial sweeteners or caffeine which manipulate blood sugar levels thereby altering the entire system. The body system is tricked into producing high levels of epinephrine and adrenaline to support the high energy needed thus increasing blood sugar levels. This can lead to hyperglycemia or abnormally high blood sugar that can be fatal,” Dr Nambuya notes. The high sugar content in many energy drinks can cause excess weight gain if you drink them regularly. Putting on weight can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
It is hard to isolate which particular set of ingredients is more harmful than others. So, Dr Nambuya advises that before consuming the drinks, the consumer carefully reads the ingredients carefully to isolate those they are allergic to. “You have probably noticed that people react differently to the same amount of energy drinks. Understanding what is added to particular energy drinks enables you to make an informed decision and make the right choices for your body,” she adds.
Alcohol and energy drinks
Mixing energy drinks with alcohol has become a common habit among bar goers. According to Ivan Okwir, a bartender, most patrons prefer to mix their whiskey with an energy drink because it gives them an extra ‘high’. “Others take an energy drink when they are getting drunk to regain their alertness,” Okwir adds.
This is the root of the dangers of mixing alcohol with energy drinks,” Dr Natamba notes.
“Ordinarily, your body would get tired after consuming a certain amount of alcohol and you have no option but to sleep. However, with the boost from the energy drinks, your body is operating on autopilot. But worse still, you have an impaired mental capacity which makes it easy to underestimate how intoxicated you are or what you are able to do,” she says. She adds that the combination has this effect because alcohol and energy drinks work in different ways.
Alcohol is a depressant which means it slows down the brain’s functions and can act as a sedative while the caffeine in energy drinks is a stimulant. If you mix the two, you will feel the stimulant effects of the caffeine more strongly, masking the interference caused by alcohol to reaction time, memory and other processes in the brain.
Gilbert Bakke confesses to have dabbled in the practice. “One evening I was drinking with my friends and they started doing shots of whiskey laced with an energy drinks. We drank from about 10pm to midday of the following day. I do not remember most of the things we did but I know we were asked to leave because the bar attendants wanted to go and rest. I went home but failed to sleep until 10pm. When I woke up, my body was shaking, I was weak that I ended up in hospital on a drip owing to severe dehydration,” Bakke shares.
Drink water: Staying hydrated helps keep your body running. Drink a glass of water when you wake up, with meals, and before, during, and after workouts.
Eat protein and carbohydrates: Carbohydrates provide your muscles with energy, while proteins help build them. Try chocolate milk, fruits, a boiled egg, or a peanut butter and banana smoothie.
Take vitamins: Naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium, help your body produce energy. Vitamin or mineral deficiency may cause fatigue. If you feel like you always need an energy boost, talk to your doctor about having a nutritional assessment or adding a vitamin supplement to your diet. You can also add more vitamin and mineral-rich foods to your diet, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts.