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Health experts assess risks of long−term energy drink consumption

Published: Monday, December 3, 2012

Updated: Monday, December 3, 2012 07:12



Though students may increase consumption of energy drinks to stay awake throughout finals this semester, health experts are wary of the toll they may take.

With finals approaching, more and more students may be turning to energy drinks, which contain significantly higher dosages of caffeine compared to coffee or tea, as study aids. But in the wake of increased media attention on the potential dangers of energy drink consumption, Director of Health Education Ian Wong and Health Educator and Prevention Specialist Beth Farrow expressed concerns about excessive caffeine intake on campus.

“In the short term, it can work, but in the long term you’re going to crash somewhere,” Wong said. “In low doses, it does what you want it to. When you have it in high dosages, that’s where you get a problem.”

According to Wong, the reasons behind student use of various energy drinks contribute to his caution regarding consumption.

“Is it because they’re trying not to sleep because they’re trying to study? Is it because they don’t like the withdrawal symptoms when they start coming down?” Wong asked. “I look at it like any addictive behavior, like anything else you’re taking. Can you put it down, walk away from it and not think twice about coming back to it? When you need another one and you can’t go a day without it, there’s a problem.”

Some Tufts students see benefits to energy drinks for the purpose of staying awake to study.

“If you’re pulling an all−nighter with a friend and he gives you a Monster drink, you drink it,” freshman Priya Ban said.

Beyond the advantages, though, some students have recognized that there exists on campus a culture of energy drink consumption. Freshman Arthur Fields commented on the rows of energy drinks he sees when walking into the bookstore.

In light of recent widely circulated reports of deaths connected to energy drink consumption, some students remained unconcerned about potential dangers.

“I don’t worry as much about [the deaths] because of the tolerance,” Fields said, though it is unclear whether a lack of caffeine tolerance was connected in any way to the reported deaths. “For me, in order to get to that point, I’d have to have a lot of energy drinks. The amount I would have to drink is ridiculous.”

According to Wong and Farrow, the link between energy drink consumption and death is tenuous and unproven at best.

“We see it in rare occasions,” Farrow said. “Someone would present it as related to something else, first, in a clinical setting, like sleep disturbances or a rapid heartbeat. We’re looking at an extreme situation and there haven’t been that many cases that have been correlated with energy drink consumption.”

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a federal agency, reported last year that more than 13,000 emergency room visits in 2009 were related to energy drinks. A New York Times article published last month revealed that over the past four years, federal officials have received reports of 13 deaths involving 5−Hour Energy, a caffeinated shot. Furthermore, 5−Hour Energy has been mentioned in 90 filings with the Food and Drug Administration, 30 or more of which involved serious injuries like heart attacks and convulsions.

Living Essentials, the distributor of 5−Hour Energy, told The New York Times last month that the product is “safe when used as directed.”

According to Farrow, however, it can be difficult to know how to use the energy drinks “as directed” when some companies withhold information about the amount of caffeine in each bottle.

“Energy drinks have other substances that are not regulated, which are like caffeine in the body ... We have all these unregulated substances in it that are stimulants,” Farrow said. “The can might tell you what the caffeine content is, but then it lists all the other ingredients that are not saying you’re actually drinking three cups of coffee in one can. That’s the tricky part about energy drinks.”

An eight−ounce cup of coffee can contain anywhere from 95 to 200 milligrams of caffeine. A 24−ounce can of Monster contains 80 milligrams of caffeine per eight ounces, or 240 milligrams for the whole drink.

For freshman Pooja Sivaraman, energy drinks are an alternative to coffee or tea.

“Energy drinks work better,” Sivaraman said. “If I have more than one, I can’t fall asleep ... but without it, I would actually be asleep. It helps me focus more.”

Farrow, though, was wary of students substituting hours of sleep with caffeinated drinks.

“Energy drinks are not a replacement for sleep,” Farrow said. “Everybody is consciously aware of that, but it’s putting that into practice that is difficult.”

Students cited an unmanageable amount of work and activities on campus as influential factors in their decision to consume energy drinks.

“There literally wasn’t enough time in the day and energy drinks added time to my day,” Fields said. “I understand it’s unhealthy, but I would argue that the amount of work we get is unhealthy, so maybe it takes unhealthy habits to be able to satisfy that.”

Some students, however, feel that their academic performance suffers when consuming energy drinks.

“I don’t think energy drinks should be used for studying,” senior Sabienne Brutus said. “When I took [one], I was just dancing and having laughing attacks because I was so hyper, and my paper was poorly written.”

According to Farrow, an underlying rationale seems to contribute to the culture surrounding consumption of energy drinks.

“Tufts students believe that if you’re not pushing it to the limit you’re not being a good Tufts student. If you didn’t pull an all−nighter, you’re not working like you should be ... We have that culture shift where you say, ‘I can’t go to sleep,’” Farrow said.

Students noted that marketing pressures and the availability of energy drinks gear them toward consumption regardless.

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