Doctors warn about health risks of high-caffeine energy drinks

While cramming for a recent macroeconomics test, Kaleb Corcoran popped open a can of Monster Energy and ingested a familiar jolt of caffeine to help him stay awake.

It’s a habit the Columbus State University freshman began in high school after noticing advertisements for the stimulant-laced energy drink. “I kind of got hooked on them,” said Corcoran, 18, who studies computer science. “It helps increase my activities, but that can be detrimental as well. I have trouble sleeping at night now.”

The broadening appeal of energy drinks like Monster, Red Bull and Rockstar among youth has doctors worried about the potential health risks of overcaffeinating. Reports this week that five people may have died after drinking Monster has raised new questions about whether the Food and Drug Administration should amend its policies regarding the popular beverages. Monster hasn’t been directly implicated in the deaths, but experts say energy drinks pack an alarming amount of caffeine that parents should take seriously.

“People don’t really realize how damaging caffeine can be,” said Dr. April Hartman, a pediatrician at Columbus Regional Pediatrics. “We kind of take it for granted because it’s in so many things that we drink. Kids like feeling that little boost of energy, but it does encourage addictive behavior.”

Energy drinks can contain up to 500 mg of caffeine — the equivalent of about 14 cans of cola. A clinical report published in 2011 in the journal Pediatrics concluded that “stimulant containing energy drinks have no place in the diets of children or adolescents.”

“Avoidance of caffeine in young people poses a great societal challenge because of the widespread availability of caffeine-containing substances and a lack of awareness of potential risks,” the report added. The report sought to distinguish energy drinks from sports drinks, flavored beverages like Gatorade that often contain minerals, carbohydrates and electrolytes. Energy drinks usually contain stimulants like caffeine, guarana and ginseng.

The report added that “confusion about energy by young people can lead to unintentional ingestion of energy drinks when their goal is simply to rehydrate” with sports drinks. It also warned that caffeine can cause dependence and addiction and affect “developing neurological and cardiovascular systems.”

“We recommend that kids need to be rehydrated mainly with water and occasionally with sports drinks, if they’re really active and sweating a lot,” said Dr. Kathryn Cheek, a Columbus pediatrician. “We do not see any real need for these energy drinks. I don’t think that they really benefit the kids that much, and water is just a much better choice.”

Too much caffeine can cause nervousness, jitteriness, hyper-alertness and rapid heart rate, Cheek said. It also has been known to trigger anxiety problems. Energy drinks often are loaded with sugar and unnecessary calories, Cheek added, contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic. Consumption is widespread among adolescents.

In one study, 42 percent of adolescents said they’d had at least one energy drink in the previous two weeks. “I know we’ve definitely seen more of it in the last year or two among teachers as well as students,” said Jenny Kite, the guidance counselor at Central High School in Phenix City. Kite said school rules recently became more lax, allowing students to have energy drinks in the classroom “just like a regular soda or water.” She said she hadn’t heard of any complications caused by energy drinks. “More adults act like they have to have it just like they have to have their coffee,” she said. “But I haven’t heard any of the kids share that.”

The drinks are also a common sight at Hardaway High School in Columbus. Jeniah Johnson, a senior at the school, said she can’t walk down the hallway without seeing one. “There’s always at least one,” she said, noting students will buy them at nearby convenience stores. Corcoran, the CSU student, said he’s drastically scaled back his intake of energy drinks, going from about one every two days to one every couple of weeks. He said news of the deaths and detrimental health effects contributed to his decision.

“My family was urging me to stop because I’ve been having these sleeping problems and they said that probably had a lot to do with it,” Corcoran said. “I keep consuming them. It’s dangerous, I know, but it’s addicting.”