Energy drinks have evolved in diverse directions from the original sports drinks that were made to help an athlete recover from physical exertion. These beverages claim to work by altering blood sugar levels with the purpose of increasing endurance, energy and performance. Despite the claims, scientific evidence refutes these assertions. Instead, energy drinks may interfere with normal body mechanisms to signal that you are tired. They may also carry more serious health consequences.
Managing Sugar Levels
The human body has an effective means for managing blood sugar primarily through the action of two hormones, insulin and glucagon. When blood sugar levels rise after eating or through other stimuli, the pancreas releases insulin to restore blood glucose to normal levels. During activity, the pancreas releases glucagon that, in turn, stimulates the metabolism of stored sugars to increase blood sugar to meet the body's need for energy. This mechanism is called a negative feedback system because a negative value triggers an event.
Energy Drink Ingredients
Energy drinks contain ingredients that may alter blood sugar levels. Some beverages contain added sugars that can manipulate sugar levels and bypass the normal feedback system. Others may contain caffeine or other stimulants. These substances, in effect, fool the body into thinking it is in a fight-or-flight type of situation. In response to this, the body releases epinephrine or adrenaline. Blood sugar levels may rise to ensure adequate energy availability. In a sensitive individual, this effect can lead to hyperglycemia or abnormally high blood sugar, a potentially life-threatening condition.
The "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010" estimates that sweetened beverages including energy drinks make up to 35 percent of the daily consumption of added sugars in the typical American diet. Added sugars offer little to no nutritional value while increasing blood sugar levels. It also carries more serious health risk to blood sugar management. A 2004 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that consumption of sweetened beverages increased the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes in women. A 2010 study by the Harvard School of Public Health identified a similar risk among men.
Alcohol and Blood Sugar
Some energy drinks may contain alcohol, whereas others are used to prepare alcoholic beverages. The combination of sugar, alcohol and oftentimes caffeine can prove harmful, especially in insulin-resistant individuals. Dangerous drops in blood sugar can occur when energy drinks with alcohol are consumed by these individuals. Like hyperglycemia, hypoglycemia can cause a range of symptoms from confusion to nervousness to seizures. The manipulation of blood sugar levels by these drinks clearly is medically unsound for all individuals.
- "Principles of Anatomy and Physiology"; G. Tortora, et al.; 2005
- LEDA at Harvard Law School; Reconsidering Caffeine; David Mrazik; April 27, 2004
- American Diabetes Association: Hyperglycemia (High Blood Glucose)
- USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 - Foods and Food Components to Reduce
- "Journal of the American Medical Association"; Sugar-Sweetened Beverages, Weight Gain, and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in Young and Middle-Aged Women; M. Schulze, et al.; August 2004
- "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition"; Sugar-Sweetened and Artificially Sweetened Beverage Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in Men; L. de Koning, et al.; June 2011
- American Diabetes Association: Hypoglycemia (Low Blood Glucose)