What Makes Energy Drinks Work?

Energy drinks are a multi-billion dollar industry, with annual consumption in 2010 amounting to 4 billion cans worldwide, and the numbers are ever increasing. They claim to enhance both mental and physical endurance, and there are now a number of different energy drinks on the market since the first were introduced in the 1980s, each with a slightly different combination of ingredients. However, what makes energy drinks work (and the ingredients common to all energy drinks) is relatively simple: caffeine and sugar.
A standard 16-ounce energy drink usually contains between 140 and 170 mg of caffeine, which is the equivalent of about two cups of coffee. Caffeine has been proven to boost brain activity; the effect that caffeine has on a range of neurotransmitters may be the reason why researchers from the University of Chicago found that a 200 mg dose of caffeine made study subjects report feeling twice as alert as the group given a placebo.
However, drinking between two and three cups of coffee has been found to cause a spike in blood pressure of up to 14 points, according to Finnish researchers, so those with high blood pressure may want to steer clear of energy drinks.
Up to 60 grams of sugar in the form of glucose or sucrose are commonly found in energy drinks, which will give you a quick jolt of energy, but it’s an energy that will be short-lived. When your body is suddenly flooded with glucose your blood sugar spikes, stimulating your pancreas to release insulin, and instead of burning fat, causes and all that extra sugar to be stored in your fat cells. Not the best choice for those looking to shed some pounds. And when the rush wears off you are likely to suffer a sudden energy crash and feel tired and hungry.
In addition to caffeine and sugar, many energy drinks also contain guarana, amino acids, b-vitamins, ginseng, and other ingredients that are supposed to increase alertness. Following are what some of these do:
Guarana – A shrub from South America whose seeds contain more than twice the amount of caffeine as coffee beans, guarana stimulates the nervous system and causes a minor increase in reaction time. As it is so high in caffeine, however, it should be taken in moderation.
Taurine – The amino acid most used in energy drinks, taurine has antioxidant properties and has been shown to enhance athletic performance and support the neurological system. Taurine is produced naturally in the body, and it’s easy to get enough by following a healthy diet. However, some studies have found that the synthetic version found in energy drinks can have some serious health effects, including strokes, seizures, high blood pressure and heart disease.
B-vitamins – Although b-vitamins are necessary to convert the food we eat into energy, taking more of them will not boost your energy any further. Most people get a sufficient amount in the foods they eat every day (a bowl of fortified cereal or a small piece of meat with a baked potato for instance), and any excess vitamin B is excreted by the body. So unless you have a b-vitamin deficiency, most of what you receive from an energy drink will simply be flushed down the toilet.
Ginseng – While ginseng may not boost athletic performance, it has been proven to improve brain power. In a study of its effect on cognition, 200 mg of ginseng were given to a group of people an hour before taking a cognitive test. Those who took the supplement scored significantly better than those who did not. Although it is considered to be a safe supplement, it has been shown to cause an adverse interaction when taken with some blood thinning drugs, so be sure to check with your doctor before taking any.

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