The truth about energy drinks

Energy drinks have long been marketed as the cool kid in the 7 Eleven refrigerator. They are skulled by teens at the bus stop, relied upon by tradies labouring in the hot sun, and even used by some as a pre-workout before the gym. But although energy drinks can give you a buzz, they contain ingredients which you need to watch out for. So if you’re a fan of a buzz in a can, here’s the lowdown on the drinks that perk you up.

What’s the difference between energy drinks and soft drinks?

Energy drinks and soft drinks can elevate your mood short-term but can also impact your health long-term. Even though both kinds of beverages contain high levels of sugar – with most also containing artificial colours and flavours – energy drinks are not child-friendly due to the concoction of added stimulants like caffeine, taurine, guarana and gingseng. These stimulants also interact with the sugar and additional ingredients, which are what send your body into overdrive, often tipping your adrenal system into fight or flight mode.

Associate professor of psychology at Northern Kentucky University, Cecile Marczinski, has written extensively about the impact of energy drinks on health in her paper published in the journal Advances in Nutrition. Talking to Time Magazine, Marczinski narrowed in on the severe effects of mixing energy drinks with alcohol: “When people mix energy drinks with alcohol, people drink more than they would if they had just consumed alcohol, which is associated with a cascade of problems.”

The reason for this is that the sudden overload of stimulants inside an energy drink can mask the effects of alcohol, meaning you are likely to feel more alert and in-control than you really are.

What impact do energy drinks have on your body?

In an interview with Fox News, Maria Pagano, M.S. R.D., C.S.C.S spoke about the physiological impact of energy drinks on the body. These include:

  • Adrenaline released by the pituitary gland, causes the liver to release glucose (energy) into the bloodstream
  • This adrenaline also causes your heart to beat faster and can lead to heart palpitations
  • Dehydration
  • Feelings of anxiety or irritability from too many stimulants
  • Insomnia

Still need that hit? Here’s how to help avoid the crash

If you’re feeling like a cup of coffee just won’t cut it and you’d rather an energy drink, try these tips to help soften the impact on your body

  • Sip your energy drink slowly and try to consume it over an hour or two
  • Drink plenty of water between sips
  • Avoid drinking in the afternoon or at night to help beat insomnia
  • Have with food to help your body breakdown the stimulants
  • Avoid consuming before or after exercise due to dehydration caused by sweating and loss of electrolytes. Combine this with the already dehydrating effects of an energy drink and you could be left with one big headache!

What’s really inside a can of energy drink?

Caffeine: Caffeine is naturally produced in plants and is found in leaves, teas and cocoa beans. It acts as a stimulant to the brain and the central nervous system increasing alertness. It can be artificially produced and added to products like soft drinks and energy drinks.

Taurine: Taurine is an amino acid and is found in natural products like meat and fish. In small amounts taurine can have a positive effect on our health, with some studies saying it can improve athletic performance. This could be why so many energy drinks contain taurine.

Guarana: Guarana is a plant originating from the Amazon and is a stimulant used to increase athletic performance, enhance cognitive function and treat conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome. It is also used for its unique taste in food manufacturing so can be added to beverages and confectionary.

Gingseng: Unlike the other ingredients lurking in a can of energy drink, gingseng has plenty of health benefits! It is a natural plant product and a popular herbal remedy. It’s health benefits are said to include anti-inflammatory properties, cancer prevention, improved cognitive function and treatment and prevention of the flu.

Healthy alternatives to energy drinks

If you’re in the habit of relying on energy drinks to get you through the day, there are plenty of healthier alternatives you can consider instead. Check out some ideas below for a healthy energy drink replacement

  • Sleep! If you’re reaching for the energy drinks as a way to compensate a lack of shut eye, you could be suffering from other sleep-deprivation consequences such as irritability, mood swings, cognitive decline and anxiety. Make sure you’re prioritising sleep so you’re getting as much as your body needs.
  • Berocca: Berocca is a great substitute if you really need an instant pick me up. It’s got some great nutrients including Zinc, Vitamin C, Calcium and Magnesium. Berocca acts as an energising multivitamin without the negative effects of an energy drink. According to the Berocca website, Berocca does not compare to energy drinks “to the best of our knowledge, this is the first FMRI experiment that demonstrates that a multivitamin supplementation with and without guarana impacts both neural activity and cognition”.
  • Coffee: Coffee does have some health benefits including prevention of diabetes and lowering the risk of liver disease. A cup of coffee a day is always a healthier choice than a can of energy drink.
  • Look at your diet: What nutrients is your diet lacking? A need for energy drinks could be due to a poor diet. Making sure you’re eating regular, healthy meals that include a source of protein will help stabilise your natural energy levels. Good sources of protein to include in your diet are:
    • Eggs
    • Lean meat – chicken, beef, lamb, turkey
    • Fish
    • Seeds and Nuts – sunflower seeds, linseeds, almonds, cashews, pecans, brazil nuts
    • Cheese
    • Protein supplement – try a scoop of protein powder in milk with half a banana

In addition to protein, include a low GI source of carbohydrate. Low GI foods will help keep you feeling fuller for longer. These include:

    • Chickpeas and legumes
    • Sweet potato
    • Rolled oats
    • Wholegrain sugar-free cereals
    • Wholegrain bread
    • Vegetables
  • Fruit: it may not be as exciting as a can of V, but a piece of fruit should have enough sugar to give you an instant boost. An apple, handful of grapes or a banana can offer you the energy you need if you gradually replace the energy drinks by getting into the habit of choosing fruit over fizz.
  • Have a nap: OK, so this is easier said than done sometimes and won’t apply to certain situations (for example, in the middle of a meeting) but if you can, try and squeeze in a quick nap before draining a can of energy drink. Just a 20 minute nap can instantly improve alertness, cognitive performance and energy levels – just try not to sleep for much longer or you may end up feeling groggy.

We all know there are plenty of times when we could use an instant buzz. Perhaps you’re at Uni and stuck in a lecture that you’d rather be sleeping through, or you’re about to go into a meeting that you know is going to sap your energy. Regardless of the situation, if you’re looking for wings, you don’t need to reach for that well-known brand of energy drink. Instead, pick up a coffee, a piece of fruit or sneak in a 20 minute nap.

Kicking the fizz will help your body restore its natural energy balance, so opting for healthier alternatives means you’ll be buzzing naturally in no time.

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