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How Energy Drink Makers are Causing Overdoses and Deaths

Susanna Sisson's picture
Dangers of Energy Drinks

On April 26, 2017, a 16-year-old South Carolina high school student died after drinking Mountain Dew, a McDonald’s latte and an energy drink all within two hours. His death was ruled a caffeine-induced arrhythmia. Tragedies like the death of David Allen Cripe are becoming all too common in all age groups, and the cause may be marketing, packaging, and labeling by the makers which are misleading and can lead to overdoses of caffeine and subsequent deaths.


This issue hits home with me. Five years ago a friend was driving from Georgia to California with his family. He was drinking energy drinks to stay awake. They made it to Arizona before he had a heart attack and died.

Another friend who drank energy drinks suffered heart and kidney damage. He too, died and doctors said the cause was energy drinks.

About six years ago I met a young woman doing windshield repair. She had a Rockstar energy drink in her hand and I cautioned her about the dangers. Her friend said she drank several a day and had just found out she was pregnant. She thanked me and dropped it in the trash. The next week she called and told me she had been admitted to the hospital with chest pain and her physician said she had permanent damage to her heart from drinking energy drinks and would be a high risk pregnancy. She lost the baby a few months later and was told she shouldn’t get pregnant again because it was too risky.

Kelly Osbourne, daughter of rock legend Ozzie Osbourne suffered a grand mal seizure after drinking energy drinks. Her mother, Sharon Osbourne, host of The Talk, came forward saying that energy drinks were the cause. The seizure was caught on tape during a filming of Fashion Police and helped doctors make a diagnosis.

Dangers of Energy Drinks and Caffeine:

Caffeine is an addictive stimulant that affects all systems of the body, particularly the neurological and cardiovascular systems. Caffeine works by blocking the molecules that signal fatigue to our brains and it triggers the release of dopamine which enhances feelings of euphoria.

Pediatricians warn parents against giving kids products that contain caffeine but do most listen and take their advice? What needs to be stressed and understood is that even in small amount; studies show caffeine can be dangerous for children, One study found that the impact on cardiovascular health can be worse in teenage male children than in female.

1. Increased blood pressure and heart rate: Studies show that even in small amounts, caffeine increases blood pressure and heart rate, especially in children. One study done by the military on deployed servicemen found that energy drinks had “profound changes” on blood pressure that could be life threatening.

2. Arrhythmias: changes in heart rhythm are one of the most highly reported adverse effects of energy drinks and have led to multiple deaths from sudden cardiac arrest and lawsuits.

3. Sleep disturbances: Too much caffeine especially later in the day can affect sleep which can lead to hormone imbalances such as Human Growth Hormone (HGH)

4. Anxiety and Depression: Energy drinks have been associated with an increase in anxiety, panic attacks and depression which can lead to suicide.

5. Seizures: Changes in blood pressure from high amounts of caffeine can lead to seizures.

6. Kidney disorders: Energy drinks are strong acids that can damage teeth and cause potential problems with bones but they can also alter pH or acid base balance which can affect the kidneys, muscles, and brain.

7. Acid Base disturbances: Energy drinks are acidic (some as low as 1.5) and can have a very detrimental effect on pH which can lead to respiratory and cardiac failure and even brain damage. Energy drinks are highly corrosive.

8. Dehydration: Caffeine is a diuretic so drinking energy drinks can lead to varying degrees of dehydration.

9. Vomiting: Adverse effects such as vomiting have been reported from people using energy drinks probably due to certain ingredients or acid level.

10. Adrenal fatigue: High amount of caffeine can affect the adrenal gland eventually leading to adrenal fatigue.

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11. Potential carcinogens: Some energy drinks are made with artificial sweeteners and other ingredients associated with cancer.

12. Death: people metabolize caffeine at different levels and some are just slow metabolizers so it can affect not only heart rhythm but liver and other organs. Caffeine in moderation can improve alertness but it is considered a drug and can be harmful to someone with heart or other existing and perhaps undiagnosed health issues. Are the dangers really worth waking up a little faster than normal?

Energy drink addiction can be a huge problem and withdrawal can have the same symptoms as someone withdrawing from methamphetamine, including anxiety, depression, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, headache, grogginess, insomnia, flu-like symptoms, sweating, irritability, mood swings, poor concentration, shakiness, muscle rigidity, and lethargy.

How Marketing of Energy Drinks May Increase Overdoses

Energy drinks are a multi-billion dollar industry. These products are marketed as performance enhancers and for weight loss with alluring names like Rockstar, Full Throttle and Cocaine, and their websites are often more about sporting events and corporate sponsors than about product or safety. These images encourage the “go faster” image and philosophy of consumption, especially by teens and college students who may use them to study or cram for tests or to enhance athletic performance. However, there are studies that show Red Bull energy drinks do not enhance athletic performance in runners or strength in body builders.

Caffeine alone isn’t necessarily the problem – it’s the way energy drinks are marketed and consumed as well as the lack of regulation on the maximum allowable amount of caffeine. A small 12-ounce Starbucks Coffee contains 260 mg. The difference is that most people consume coffee at a leisurely pace which allows metabolism to occur slowly. Some energy drinks such as 5-Hour Energy are marketed and consumed as “shots,” which deliver caffeine faster - all at once - and this dump of caffeine into the body can lead to disturbances in heart rhythm and rate as well as increasing blood pressure which can lead to seizure or stroke. In the US each year, at least 2,500 caffeine overdoses are recorded at hospitals for those 19 and under.

Multiple Serving Cans

Commercial energy drinks usually contain between 80 mg and an alarming 505 mg of caffeine per serving. However, some energy drinks such as Monster aren’t single servings. A large can of Monster contains two servings while a Mega Monster contains three which means you multiply the amount of caffeine in one serving by three to get a total. Most people don’t realize and don’t read labels regarding serving size or look at the nutrition information and assume incorrectly the amount stated is the actual content of an ingredient. Makers should be forced to include a warning on cans that are multiple servings.

Sidestepping the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Energy drink makers basically don’t have any formal regulation on caffeine ceilings despite the growing number of deaths. Energy drinks were originally classed as “dietary supplements” but with the bad press and “suggested guidelines” – not laws - that came about after several deaths, most manufacturers changed the classification of their products from “dietary supplements” to “beverages” to sidestep any responsibility or liability. Makers of energy drinks can actually make self-declarations of “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) to try and avoid repercussions and lawsuits. Remember, big companies have big money for big lobbyists and there is a lot of graft within the FDA.

Mixing Energy Drinks with Alcohol

After energy drinks hit the market they soon found their way into the alcoholic beverage industry. Specialty drinks using energy drinks were thought to counteract the effects of alcohol but as any bartender knows, adding caffeine to alcohol just makes for a “wide awake drunk”. In fact this deadly combination may give drinkers the false sense they are able to drive when actually legally drunk and may increase participation in other high risk behaviors such as unprotected sex, fighting, illicit drug use, and failure to use seat belts.

Should Energy Drinks be Forced to Label Warnings?

According to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration, 2007a), over-the-counter (OTC) stimulant drug products are required to provide warnings and directions on labels regardless of the amount of stimulant. So, why it that energy drinks are not required? Again the answer is BIG BUSINESS. This is a warning required of a manufacturer of an OTC medication (NoDoz) that contains 100mg caffeine:

“The recommended dose of this product contains about as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. Limit the use of caffeine-containing medications, foods, or beverages while taking this product because too much caffeine may cause nervousness, irritability, sleeplessness, and, occasionally, rapid heart beat.”

“For occasional use only. Not intended for use as a substitute for sleep. If fatigue or drowsiness persists or continues to recur, consult a (select one of the following: “physician” or “doctor”).

“Do not give to children under 12 years of age.”

“Directions: Adults and children 12 years of age and over: Oral dosage is 100 to 200 milligrams not more often than every 3 to 4 hours.”

It is a strikingly ironic that, in the U.S. an OTC stimulant medication containing 100 mg of caffeine per tablet which is 20% the amount found in some energy drinks must include all the above warnings, yet an energy drink containing five times that amount of caffeine can be marketed as a “beverage” with no warnings.