The Relationship Between Energy Drinks and Risk of Stroke

Energy drinks have become more popular in recent years. Made up of a mix of sugars, caffeine, stimulants, and nutrients, energy drinks promise a boost in physical strength, endurance, alertness, and concentration. There are a wide variety of products, each with different additives and varying quantities of ingredients.

Energy drinks display
Stephane Grangier / Getty Images

People have different motivations for drinking energy drinks. Athletes, students, and anyone else in search of a boost in body and brain function may turn to these popular beverages. Despite their popularity, the jury is still out on how safe these drinks and their components are for consumption.

When it comes to your brain health, energy drinks have been considered a possible cause of mild problems such as dizziness and jitteriness as well as more serious medical issues such as seizures and strokes.

Not All Energy Drinks Are the Same

The medical community has investigated the effects of energy drinks in order to determine what quantities, if any, are safe for consumption. In particular, researchers want to know whether the risk lies with the individual ingredients or the combination of ingredients. But the sheer number of brands available complicates the research effort. Some brands could be more harmful than others.

In general, most of the popular energy drinks contain at least a few of the same ingredients: caffeine, glucose, vitamins, minerals, and herbs. The quantities and concentrations vary, and some drinks may also be fortified with additional chemicals beyond those that are most common.

Ingredients in Energy Drinks

The most common ingredients include caffeine, glucose, carbohydrates, taurine, glucuronolactone, B vitamins, and gingko biloba:

  • Caffeine is a stimulant that works by counteracting the effects of our natural sleep-inducing chemicals. Caffeine also increases blood pressure and heart rate. These effects of caffeine are generally considered safe, but it is well known that large doses of caffeine can produce side effects and even serious medical reactions.
  • Glucose is sugar. Energy drinks usually contain high concentrations of glucose and other carbohydrates. Overall, your body needs glucose for energy, but excess glucose can cause problems such as jitteriness, high blood sugar (which is typically associated with diabetes), and weight gain.
  • Taurine is an amino acid that is needed for many physiologic functions. It is also considered an antioxidant. Not enough is known about whether or how taurine could contribute to energy or whether high doses of this nutrient could be harmful.
  • Glucuronolactone is another chemical additive that is very popular in power drinks. This nutrient is needed by the body, and, interestingly, the effects of megadoses are not considered harmful, nor have they been proven beneficial.
  • Ephedrine is a stimulant that is normally used for respiratory problems, allergies, and as a decongestant. However, it is also used in weight loss supplements because it may suppress appetite and increase metabolism, potentially "burning" calories faster. Ephedrine is a component of some energy drinks and may stimulate the body’s excitatory "fight or flight" response, increasing heart rate, raising blood pressure, and even increasing blood sugar.
  • Carnitine is an amino acid that is used in experimental trials in the treatment of muscle disease. For this reason, it is added to some energy drinks to improve muscle growth. As with several of the popular components of energy drinks, there is little data regarding its effectiveness, but there is no convincing evidence of harm from the supplement, either.
  • Creatine is a supplement used to augment strength and is therefore added to energy drinks to amplify the effects of physical exercise with the end goal of increasing muscle mass. It has been shown to increase muscle mass in males who use it while bodybuilding, with uncertain results for women. So far, creatine is considered safe for men, but there are concerns about the safety for pregnant women.
  • Gingko biloba is generally associated with prevention of dementia. It is believed that the blood thinning properties of ginkgo biloba may prevent cerebrovascular disease that can contribute to vascular dementia. It is unclear whether this herb is effective at improving short-term memory or concentration. Overall, it is considered a safe additive, unless you have a blood clotting disease or are taking blood thinners.

One regular-sized energy drink does not usually contain toxic doses of these ingredients. But, desperately tired students, exhausted parents or competitive athletes in search of extra vitality may abuse these beverages, drinking more than one at a time.

And, due to the attractive packaging, young children or people who are not in good health may consume these products, mistaking them for regular soda or flavored pop, even if their bodies are not able to handle the powerful ingredients.

While the ingredients themselves do not necessarily make energy drinks harmful, even "good" nutrients, such as glucose, vitamins, and minerals, can be harmful in high doses.

Do Energy Drinks Make People Sick?

Over the past several years, there have been increasing reports of healthy people showing up in hospital emergency rooms across the country with symptoms that were ultimately traced to energy drinks. The most common symptoms and complaints include nervousness, jitteriness, throbbing or pulsating headaches, palpitations (rapid or pounding heartbeat), dizziness, blurred vision, inability to sleep, and fatigue.

However, while it is definitely less common, there has also been an uptick in strokes, seizures, and heart attacks that were believed to be caused or triggered by energy drinks.

Overall, the health risks of energy drinks have only come to the attention of the medical community relatively recently. So far, studies have linked the negative physical effects of energy drinks with the caffeine and glucose. At this time, the other additives have not been shown responsible for either the bothersome symptoms or the more serious side effects.

Energy Drinks and Alcohol

Some of the hospital emergencies linked with energy drinks are specifically associated with a combination of energy drinks and alcohol use.

Interestingly, mixing alcoholic beverages with energy drinks has been shown to increase the rate of alcohol consumption and the overall quantity of alcohol consumed in an experimental setting. Study participants who were given alcohol mixed with energy drinks drank at a faster pace and consumed more alcohol than study participants who were given alcohol that was not mixed with energy drinks.

Of course, this combination and the associated behavioral phenomena can produce a number of side effects of its own. Larger quantities of alcohol consumption induced by energy drinks can lead to a person drinking more than intended.

Some people may also inaccurately believe drinking energy drinks after consuming alcohol helps to improve decision-making skills or judgement. Hazardous behaviors guided by this misconception, such as drinking and driving, can contribute to the overall risk levels associated with consuming energy drinks.

The Bottom Line on Energy Drinks

Overall, the risk involved with energy drinks is relatively low when taking into account the incidence of energy drink-related health problems compared to their widespread consumption. However, people need to be aware that there is indeed a risk associated with energy drinks, particularly among very young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with heart problems or kidney problems. Drinking several energy drinks in one setting can amplify the harmful effects, even among healthy people.

A Word From Verywell

Almost everyone wishes for more energy, endurance, and insight. Shortcuts are certainly appealing. Yet, achieving ‘more’ is rarely the product of chemical shortcuts.

If you are feeling desperate for time, studying for exams, chronically feeling that you can’t keep up or trying to squeeze ‘more’ into your life, it may be time to reevaluate your situation and let yourself put aside, postpone, or slow down some of your goals rather than using chemical shortcuts to achieve unrealistic objectives.

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