Whether due to early schedules or busy days, it seems many of us need caffeine to get through our days.
Caffeine consumption has exploded, with high amounts added to energy drinks, pre-workout supplements, weight-loss pills, bottled brews and energy bars and sports gels.
According to a report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, energy drink consumption in the United States has increased substantially over the past decade among adolescents, young adults and middle-aged adults.
Though caffeine generally is safe, experts have been sounding an alarm over potential dangers associated with ingesting too much, which can lead to more than the jitters.
A 2020 study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings using data from the federal Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Adverse Event Reporting System found caffeine-containing products including supplements and energy drinks have a greater association with severe adverse events, including death, than non–caffeine- products. The study authors say it’s important to determine the amounts of caffeine involved.
“Excessive caffeine consumption may acutely cause caffeine intoxication, resulting in conditions including nervousness, headaches, nausea, cardiac arrhythmias, seizures and even possible death,” says Dr. John P. Higgins, a sports cardiologist at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston.
Results from an investigation in the Journal of the American Heart Association found energy drink consumption can raise blood pressure and cause heart abnormalities. The findings were based on data from an analysis of 34 healthy volunteers between 18 and 40 years old randomly assigned to drink a placebo or 32 ounces of a caffeinated energy drink that contained 304 to 320 milligrams of caffeine.
Similar results in the journal JAMA found blood pressure levels went up by 6% and the stress hormone norepinephrine rose twice as much after people drank a 16-ounce energy drink as when they drank a placebo beverage.
Frequent energy drink use has been linked to mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety.
“Alarmingly, energy beverage consumption has also been associated with high-risk behavior, including fighting, drug use, alcohol abuse and sexual risk taking,” Higgins says.
A study published by the journal Perspectives in Public Health found that energy drink users were more likely to make poor dietary choices, such as eating fewer fruits and vegetables, skipping breakfast and consuming more pop and frozen meals.
Many caffeinated products aren’t just caffeine. Higgins says the high amounts of sugar in many drinks can, over time, raise the risk of obesity, insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.
Many high-octane elixirs have add-ins like guarana, taurine, B vitamins and ginkgo biloba.
“It is likely that there are effects due to the interaction of these substances that research has yet to show,” Higgins says. “Guarana contains high levels of caffeine, thus adding even more caffeine.”
Higgins says most adults should limit their intake to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day and and adolescents just 100 milligrams.
It can be easy to go beyond this mark and, in turn, raise the chances for adverse outcomes like high blood pressure if you include one or more caffeinated products in your daily routine.
Though the FDA requires that energy drink labels indicate whether a product contains caffeine, the agency doesn’t impose a caffeine limit or require reporting of the level of caffeine.
Some energy drink companies are taking part in voluntary labeling initiatives.
If you’re not a regular coffee or energy drink user, you’re what researchers call “caffeine naïve” and you could be even more susceptible to side-effects of consuming highly caffeinated products.
There is nothing wrong with a daily coffee habit or occasionally popping the top of an energy drink, but look for other ways to rev your engines, such as eating a whole-food diet, exercising regularly and getting plenty of sleep.
Environmental Nutrition is an independent newsletter written by nutrition experts.