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Column originally published Mar 22, 2011

Energy Drinks Are Not Healthy For Teenagers

Question: I am concerned about our teenage son. He has gotten into the habit of drinking at least two cans of energy drink a day. He drinks his first one on the way to school, and then another one in the evening. He says that they give him a boost of energy when he is tired. After he drinks it in the evening, he will stay up until the wee hours of the morning, usually on the computer chatting with his friends. He says that he is not tired and he cannot sleep. In the morning, I have a hard time waking him up to go to school. As a result, he is often late. He has a terrible sleep habit. On weekends, he can sleep well into the afternoon, and then he wonʼt go to bed at night. I am worried about these energy drinks and I would like to know more about them.


You have good reason to be concerned about these energy drinks. Many physicians in North America and around the world are worried about young people consuming excessive amount of energy drinks and their harmful effects. There have been reports of irregular heart beat, high blood pressure, convulsions, stroke, and even death associated with these energy drinks. They are not as harmless as they appear to be.

Most energy drinks contain caffeine, taurine, vitamins, herbal supplements, and sugar or sweeteners. They are often marketed to young people with the promise that they can improve their energy and concentration, as well as their athletic performance and stamina.

There are lots of beverages that we drink everyday that contain caffeine. An 8-oz cup of regular coffee, for example, contains about 100 mg of caffeine, while a similar size cup of tea may contain about half that amount, depending on how long the tea is being brewed. Most people will drink their coffee slowly because it is hot, over a period of minutes, can be half-an-hour or longer.

Most energy drinks contain 300-400 mg of caffeine in a small can. Many also contain an ingredient called guarana, a South American plant that contains large amount of caffeine and other stimulants. As a result, the total stimulant in a can of energy drink can be much higher than the caffeine content listed. More importantly, energy drinks are meant to be guzzled down quickly. As a result, a larger amount of caffeine and other stimulants are delivered into their body rapidly and give them the buzz that young people like.

It is true that caffeine and other stimulants in energy drinks work by stimulating the brain, making a person more alert, the same way as you pick up your morning cup of coffee. Drinking coffee in moderation is probably safe; it has been consumed all over the world for centuries. However, those who drink several cups of coffee a day will admit that they are probably addicted to the coffee, and they will have a headache if they stop drinking it. There is some degree of dependency, likely to the caffeine.

Regular use of energy drinks will lead to the same kind of dependency. If your son is very tired in the morning, the energy drink can certainly wake him up, give him the energy to pay attention in class. Taking another can of energy drink in the evening would give him a boost of energy when his body is telling him that he needs to rest. However, like many young people, he wants to stay up and chat with his friends on the computer, or play videogames over the internet. These may all sound harmless, but they are not.

For him not to listen to his bodyʼs need, but instead get the artificial boost of energy from stimulants, as well as spending time on the computer late in the evening, will affect his sleep. It has been shown that using the computer late in the evening can make it harder for a person to fall asleep. Taking the energy drink will be even worse. As a result, he doesnʼt get the sleep that his body needs. Research has shown that teenagers need around 8 hours of sleep, not less. But very few teenagers actually get that amount of sleep every night.

Instead of going to sleep, he keeps himself up with caffeine and other stimulants. As expected, he has a hard time waking up in the morning to go to school, and will be too tired to pay attention. The stimulants in the energy drink can help him to a degree, but it is not a healthy way, and it is never as good as a good night sleep. In the long run, his body will suffer, and he will become more dependent on these energy drinks to keep himself awake. Exhaustion is one of the reasons why people get into car accidents, in addition to speeding, drunk driving, as well as carelessness.

The challenge is how to encourage him to stop using energy drinks. He is using them to keep himself awake when his body is telling him that he needs to rest. It may take some effort on your part to convince him to cut down on the use of them. The first step probably is to stop drinking it in the evening when he is tired so that he can go to sleep at decent hours. Regular exercise can also be helpful to make him physically tired. When he gets better sleep, he may not need the energy drink in the morning to get himself awake. You may want to suggest that he takes a cup of coffee instead. It will have much less caffeine in it.