Energy drinks come under scrutiny because of health risks

Randy Hershey of Roaring Spring was working two jobs in 2003 when he needed an energy boost between managing an ice rink at night and driving to a construction job the next morning. During the hour-and-a-half drive to the construction job, he downed five cans of the drink Rockstar Energy.

By the time he got to work and was operating a roller truck to compact dirt, he was so unsteady his foreman asked him to stop operating the machine.

Hershey was experiencing pain in his chest and his heart was pounding. He felt like he couldn’t sit still and could not concentrate, he said. He went to his car to lay down and his foreman came to check on him periodically.

He was able to drive home about two hours later.

“I felt like my heart was going to beat out of my chest,” he said. “It definitely was a bad experience. I believe they’re not real good for you.”

While Hershey, now 34, never went to the hospital seeking help for consuming energy drinks, others across the nation have.

According to a survey from the U.S. Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, from 2007 to 2011, the government estimates the number of emergency room visits involving energy drinks has gone from 10,000 to 20,000. The 20,000 estimate is a small portion of the visits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention track.

Energy drink consumption is a “rising public health problem,” that can cause insomnia, nervousness, headache, fast heartbeat and seizures that are severe enough to require emergency care, the report said.

Reports last fall of 18 deaths possibly tied to the drinks raised concerns.

The survey was based on responses it receives annually from 230 hospitals annually, a representative sample of about 5 percent of emergency departments nationwide. The agency then uses the responses to estimate the number of energy drink-related emergency department visits across the nation.

More than half of the survey’s patients who wound up in the emergency room told doctors they had ingested only energy drinks. In 2011, about 42 percent of the cases involved energy drinks mixed with alcohol or drugs, such as the stimulants Adderall or Ritalin.

The energy drink industry says its drinks are safe and there is no proof linking its products to the adverse reactions. Beverage manufacturers said the survey statistics were misleading and taken out of context. The American Beverage Association said in a statement the report did not share the patient’s overall health, or what symptoms prompted them to seek treatment.

“There is no basis by which to understand the overall caffeine intake of any of these individuals – from all sources,” it said.

Altoona Regional Health System Chairman of Emergency Medicine Dr. Matthew Bouchard said, “We have not seen a large volume of patients in our [emergency department] with obvious side effects from energy drinks. People do come in frequently with complaints of heart palpitations and many of these patients drink more caffeine than normal, but we are not seeing a direct correlation between energy drinks specifically and symptoms.”

“My opinion is that, as with anything else, energy drinks consumed in excess can be dangerous,” he continued.

“The amount of caffeine in each individual serving of an energy drink is in some cases actually lower than what is found in the coffee served at many national coffee retailers. The problem comes with excess consumption, which may be more likely to occur with the younger demographic that is targeted by energy drink marketing. Excess caffeine can cause abnormal and potentially dangerous heart rhythms and elevations in blood pressure.”

Altoona Regional Health System Clinical Dietitian Lindsay Eckenrode said, “What many people don’t realize is that these drinks contain two to three servings, resulting in excessive intake of not only caffeine, but calories as well.

“These drinks contain stimulants that can raise your blood pressure. If someone has an underlying condition such as heart disease or high blood pressure, are pregnant or breastfeeding, they may want to speak to their doctor regarding their risks of energy drink consumption.”

Caffeine is one of the main ingredients found in energy drinks, she said.

“Caffeine is a well-known diuretic, meaning that it causes people to lose water and therefore become dehydrated,” she said. “For this reason energy drinks should not be consumed before, during or after physical activity.”

Kathrine Muller, Blair County Drug and Alcohol Programs Inc. prevention educator, said she grew concerned as she was learning about energy drinks and the danger they pose, especially for children.

“A person that I know had a daughter who was a high school soccer player and became so severely dehydrated from using energy drinks that she passed out, hit her head on a table, got a gash and didn’t bleed due to the fact there was no fluid in her system. She ended up in the ER,” she said. “We have seen an increase in use and parents don’t realize how strong an impact the heavy dose of caffeine has on kids.”

Exercise increases heart rate and blood pressure, so adding an energy drink containing stimulants could “put unnecessary strain on your heart,” Eckenrode said.

She added keep children hydrated with water before, during and after exercise.

Better and healthier ways to boost one’s energy is through “choosing energizing nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, etc. as well as getting enough sleep and being regularly physically active,” she said.

Eckenrode said the amount of caffeine in energy drinks offers more than what a child should consume, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends limiting caffeine consumption to 100 milligrams per day.

“Most energy drinks easily exceed 100 milligrams per serving, especially for those who drink the entire can and exceed one serving size,” she said. “Overall energy drinks are not appropriate for children as they increase their heart rate.”

Eckenrode said another concern is the high amount of sugar found in most energy drinks.

“High sugar content means high calories, and that can lead to weight gain,” she said. “It’s easy to drink more calories than one realizes. This is of great concern especially with our rising childhood obesity rates.

“Dental erosions from energy drinks are also of concern in children and adolescents.”

If choosing between energy drinks, picking the one without sugar is best, Eckenrode said.

Mixing alcohol and energy drinks is “another obvious problem,” Bouchard said.

“The caffeine and other stimulants found in energy drinks may counteract the sedating effects, but not the impairment of judgment that alcohol causes,” he said. “This creates a situation where people may drink more alcohol and caffeine, than they would otherwise.

“However, the main problem with the alcohol/caffeine combination is not the caffeine but the alcohol. Emergency departments across the country see far more medical and traumatic complaints due to alcohol than caffeine.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030. The Associated Press contributed to this story.