Energy Drinks vs. Stimulant Drinks

Contributed by Dr. Steven T. Devor – Director of Performance Physiology for MIT and OhioHealth, and Associate Professor of Exercise Physiology, Department of Human Sciences, and Department of Physiology and Cell Biology, The Ohio State University

I believe most of us have a sense that there are real and vast differences between the carbohydrate and electrolyte beverages we are familiar with (e.g., Gatorade, Powerade, GuBrew) and the so-called “energy” drinks  (Monster, Rockstar, Red Bull, 5 Hour Energy) that are becoming increasingly prevalent and popular.  What I want to emphasize is just how significant, and potentially serious, the differences can be. All of the names used for “energy” drinks can be confusing, but do not be fooled by advertising and slick marketing claims.  Additionally, the many ingredients in these “energy” drinks can be deceiving.  If you or your children are drinking beverages that claim to be an “energy drink,” it is highly likely a large and unhealthy dose of stimulants is being consumed.  These beverages should more properly be termed stimulant drinks.

Recall that the glucose found in carbohydrate and electrolyte beverages is the primary source of fuel for regenerating ATP, which is the essential energy source your skeletal muscles require to contract and permit all physical movement.  Carbohydrates are a direct source of glucose, but the body can also make ATP by burning fats (frequently) and protein (rarely).

In contrast, the many stimulants found in the “energy drinks” bind to neurons and activate them.  But I want to be clear, stimulants simply are not able to take the place of glucose or the ATP it produces.  Stimulants can increase the rate and amount of glucose you burn, which is what makes people feel energized.  Make no mistake though; once the glucose for energy is gone, it is gone.  Individuals consuming “energy drinks” may feel they have more energy but it is primarily because all of their glucose is being utilized quickly.

If you or your children consume “energy drinks”, when was the last time you carefully examined an ingredient label for one of these products?  Take a few moments to examine the label above.  If you bought this product, would you actually know what you were drinking? Would your children?

As you look at the label be aware of the following facts:

  • Tyrosine and phenylalanine, are ingredients commonly added to “energy drinks”, and can interact with a number of commonly physician prescribed drugs, including drugs used to treat ADHD.
  • Methylsynephrine, is a stimulant that is on the List of Prohibited Substances of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
  • Kola Nut and Guarana are both sources of caffeine.
  • Citrus aurantium (a.k.a. bitter orange) contains synephrine, another stimulant.  Synephrine is not prohibited or banned, but added together with all of the other ingredients in this particular product, could potentially result in health problems.
  • Yohimbe interacts with anti-depressants.
  • Ma Huang is the plant source for ephedra.  Ephedra is a very strong stimulant that was taken off the market years ago by the FDA as it resulted in several serious adverse health effects and even some deaths.  However, ephedra is still finding its way into dietary supplements if only in very small doses.

In June, 2011 a paper published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, stated “stimulant-containing energy drinks have no place in the diets of children or adolescents”. 

In summary, it is clear “energy drink” products are often used to replace carbohydrate and electrolyte beverages.  They are simply not the same type of drink.  We know that for exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes, it is safest and best to consume carbohydrate and electrolyte beverages.  If you are physically active for less than 60 minutes hydration is best achieved by simply consuming adequate amounts of water.

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