Photo courtesy of Rehan Afzal

Country Day energy drink culture raises health concerns

It’s been a long, stressful school day and you still have hours of studying ahead of you. Running on five hours of sleep, you feel desperate for something to sustain you for the rest of the day. 

So, you reach for an energy drink. 

Energy drinks are beverages that contain high amounts of caffeine, added sugars, additives and legal stimulants, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Energy drinks are most commonly consumed to provide a boost of energy. They may also enhance alertness and reaction time, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a government agency that researches alternative medicine.

Whether it’s Red Bull, Monster Energy or Celsius, many students at Sacramento Country Day rely on these carbonated, caffeinated beverages to get them through a long day.

A poll sent to Country Day high school students on Nov. 9 found that 20 of 40 respondents consume energy drinks.

Junior Ash LaPlaca drinks energy drinks at least every other day.

“I have a lot of homework to do and I get home late, so I need extra energy to keep me awake in order to do all the things I have to do,” LaPlaca said.

LaPlaca primarily consumes Monster Energy and Celsius.

Celsius contains 200 milligrams of caffeine per 12 ounce can, while Monster Energy contains 160 mg per 16 ounce can. 

A standard cup of coffee contains 95 mg.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry suggests a cap of 100 mg of caffeine for those who are 12-18 years old. 

There are many potential physical symptoms that may stem from drinking over the suggested amount of caffeine, said Dr. Teimour Nasirov M.D., Stanford pediatric and adult cardiothoracic surgeon.

“Energy drinks increase the heart rate and they maintain the heart rate much higher than it needs to be, even at rest,” Nasirov said.

Increased heart rate leads to increased irritability of the heart, he said.

“Those energy drinks, especially when excessively consumed, can cause irregular heartbeats,” Nasirov said.

Once an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, is triggered, this abnormality could persist.

“Eventually, it may trigger somebody to sustain an irregular heartbeat, which is not good for a person,” Nasirov said. “So there’s potential for a long-term problem as well.”

In addition, palpitations, muscle twitching and stomach aches are among the several symptoms from consuming high levels of caffeine.

“My cardiology colleagues have seen kids come in with irregular heartbeats and palpitations,” Nasirov said. “Upon investigation, it became clear that it was secondary to excessive consumption of energy drinks.”

While competing at a fencing tournament, junior Irene Jung drank a can of Celsius.

“My heart was pumping in my ears. It was really weird,” Jung said. “I was also nervous, plus the energy drink was kicking in and my heart was hurting, kind of in a too-much-caffeine way.”

The American Beverage Association recommends energy drink companies to include a warning label on their cans that urge responsible consumption.

The Monster Energy warning label suggests a cap of three cans a day and discourages consumption for children, pregnant women and people who are sensitive to caffeine.

According to the American Heart Association, those with certain heart conditions may be sensitive to caffeine.

In September 2022, a college student diagnosed with a heart signaling disorder died after consuming Panera Bread’s Charged Lemonade. The drink contains up to 390 mg of caffeine in a large Panera Bread cup, which is 30 ounces. The incident led to a lawsuit against the restaurant due to unclear labeling of the drink as an energy drink.

The Charged Lemonade’s caffeine content can be attributed to guarana extract, a stimulant that has a high concentration of caffeine.

Stimulants are a type of drug that speed up activity of the brain and nervous system. They can increase blood pressure, heart rate and breathing, according to the CDC.

Consumption of many stimulants can lead to various physical symptoms such as dehydration, anxiety, insomnia and jitters.

LaPlaca experiences jitters after drinking energy drinks.

“Every time after I drink an energy drink, my hands shake a lot more,” they said.

During the freshman field trip to Tahoe in 2022, now-sophomore Gavin Wang experienced insomnia after drinking around 10 Monster Energy cans over the course of three days.

Monster Energy contains guarana, taurine and ginseng, three common stimulants in energy drinks.

“I got home and I was dying in my bed, trying to fall asleep, but I couldn’t,” Wang said. 

Nasirov said that because high school feels like the final stretch, high school students are especially susceptible to the negative effects of energy drinks.

“The anxiety is already there, and the energy drinks can exacerbate the anxiety,” he said. “In turn, the anxiety can have physical manifestations such as muscle spasms and severe headaches among others.”

So, when students feel inefficient and as if their brain is not functioning properly, this can cause physical symptoms, Nasirov said.

An article written by Noni MacDonald in the National Library of Medicine stated that energy drinks are often marketed toward younger individuals without displaying much information on what a safe caffeine concentration for them to consume is.

Although some energy drinks appear more appealing and healthier than others, Nasirov said that it’s all in the marketing.

“I don’t think there is any randomized scientific study that has proven or shown that one is better than the other or that one is less harmful than the other,” he said.

In addition to the side effects brought upon by caffeine and other stimulants, the high acidity and sugar level of energy drinks also come with negative dental effects, said Dr. Han Do, doctor of dental surgery at Alhambra Dental Plaza.

Many energy drinks have a pH range of 2.3-3.4, making them acidic. This is due to ingredients like citric acid, vitamins, amino acids and herbs, with citric acid being the most harmful, Do said.

“When teeth are exposed to an acidic environment, it softens the enamel and erodes it away,” he said. “When the enamel is soft, it just kind of wears away easily and then you lose your enamel.”

Enamel is the insulative outer barrier that protects teeth from any damage.

Even after a few hours have passed and the acidity has neutralized, the enamel is still soft and won’t harden until much later, he said.

In addition, once the enamel has softened, there is a higher cavity risk from the sugar in energy drinks.

A single can of Red Bull contains 28 grams of sugar while a can of Monster Energy contains 55 grams. Both contain citric acid.

“The acid will kind of erode and then soften up the tooth structure, and then the sugar will feed the bacteria, and then you’ll have a cavity,” Do said.

In order to avoid damaging the enamel, Do does not recommend brushing one’s teeth soon after consuming an energy drink, as the teeth would still be soft, leaving the enamel vulnerable. 

“So, what you would do is rinse your mouth off with some water, swish it around and then just leave it. Let your saliva slowly remineralize,” he said.

Instead of energy drinks, Do suggests black coffee as a healthier caffeine source, as it does not contain sugar.

Additionally, according to an article written by Kristen Barta on Healthline, if a cup of coffee isn’t enough for an individual, they can obtain a boost of caffeine from other healthier alternatives. 

Drinking water keeps one’s body hydrated and running, eating protein and carbohydrates helps energize and build one’s muscles, taking vitamins helps produce energy and exercising increases serotonin and endorphins, Barta said. 

Nasirov said the key is moderation. No matter which caffeinated drink an individual is consuming, it is important to be aware of the caffeine concentration.

“As a young adult, one has to realize that it’s great to be young, and one feels indestructible. But the reality is, you have to start taking care of your body. This is your temple,” Nasirov said.

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