Is there a link between energy drinks and brain injury in teens?

BY: RICHARD HASKELL

We’ve all seen the ads and heard the hype – such and such an energy drink will make you fly and perform other miracles. Why sleep when you can have boundless energy to do everything you enjoy without ever feeling tired?

picture of different energy drinks
PHOTO: ZONNEWS.COM

For unsuspecting – and frequently young – consumers, such claims are just too hard to resist. Energy drinks promise much, but those brightly-coloured tins contain a mix of chemicals that can potentially have dire consequences for the user. Furthermore, they can be an indirect cause of brain injury.

Beverages used to promote energy and well-being have been around for centuries. Inhabitants of pre-Columbian America drank a dark brew of toasted holly leaves and bark. According to researchers, the drink had a high caffeine content, so it would seem that even early North Americans needed that extra boost before heading off to a hunt or into battle.

Coca-Cola, first launched in 1886, could be considered the first modern-day energy drink as it contained both caffeine and another certain substance – cocaine. The drink’s name was derived from the coca plant from which cocaine is cultivated and the kola nut, the source of caffeine. John Styth Pemberton, a pharmacist and founder of the drink, initially used five ounces of coca leaf per gallon of syrup, but the amount was later greatly reduced. Cocaine was removed altogether in 1903, though in 1988 the New York Times reported Coca-Cola was still using non-cocaine containing extracts from coca leaves in its concoction.

Experiments with energy drinks were conducted as early as the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the beverages began to see a huge increase in popularity. From 2008 until 2012 the energy drink market grew 60 per cent, totalling $12.5 billion in U.S. sales by 2012.

Coca-Cola ad from 1910
COCA-COLA AD FROM 1910; PHOTO: FLICKR

Teenagers are among the most devoted consumers of energy drinks, a demographic that would be naturally drawn to a beverage, which promises increased energy. Nevertheless, despite all the hype, energy drinks are more than they appear to be. According to a recent study conducted at the University of Toronto, consumption of these highly caffeinated beverages may lead to more erratic physical behaviour that in turn may lead to a greater risk of physical trauma.

Professor Gabriela Ilie, co-author of the study, explained why youth are an increased risk of acquiring a brain injury.

“The teenage years are very vulnerable years. Our brains are still developing into our 20s and 30s,” Ilie told Yahoo Health. “And a serious knock to the noggin can have consequences that extend well beyond being benched for a few games:  poor academic performance, substance abuse, suicide, and violent behavior have all been linked to traumatic brain injury.”

Danger: energy drink harzard sign
PHOTO: MYTRAINERMIKE.WORDPRESS.ORG

The study involved 10,000 young people aged 11 to 20 who took part in a survey focusing on use of alcohol and energy drink consumption along with the frequency of brain injury. Results indicated that those who had consumed at least one of the energy-boosting drinks during the previous year were twice as likely to have suffered a brain injury compared to non-drinkers. Worse, those who were regular users – five or more drinks a week – were nearly seven times as likely to have experienced trauma to the brain. Not surprisingly, an even greater trend was observed among teens who reported mixing energy drinks with alcohol.

“With some energy drinks packing as much caffeine as two shots of espresso, along with other stimulants like taurine and guarana, feeling jittery is almost inevitable,” Ilie told Yahoo Health. “That can predispose you to more accidents, because now you’re so hyper, you can’t focus and pay attention to what you’re doing.”

According to Dr. Michael Cusimano, the other co-author of the study and a neurosurgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, the high level of caffeine found in energy drinks can alter the chemical state of the body, which can slow down the recovery process for ABI sufferers. This is particularly concerning for teens whose brains are still developing. Studies have shown that young people living with the effects of brain injury might be more inclined to consume energy drinks as a way of coping with the injury, not realizing the harm the ingredients may be doing.

man carrying energy drinks and alcohol
PHOTO: MEDICALDAILY.COM

Certain energy drinks also make the claim that consumption can also help with muscle strength and endurance, claims that bear very little scientific evidence. According to Ilie, these drinks have become like Gatorade to teens despite the plea from the American Medical Association to ban marketing of them to young people.

Even more alarming is the trend of mixing energy drinks with alcohol.

“You’re intoxicated but wide awake, so you might be more prone to doing crazy things that if you weren’t intoxicated you would never consider doing,” Ilie told Yahoo Health.

Ilie suggests that parents monitor their kids’ consumption more closely and try to determine the need for such beverages; is it to artificially increase athletic ability before a big game, or to stay awake after an all-night study or texting session? Teens also have a responsibility to investigate the health consequences energy drinks may lead to. They have to ask: “What am I putting into my body, and is it worth it? Just because the beverages are legal and easily attainable doesn’t make them beneficial in the long run.

Clearly, more investigation needs to be done. Up to now, researchers have found only an indirect association between energy drinks and brain injuries. As yet, there is no substantial proof that the consumption of energy drinks will automatically lead to brain trauma. It has more to do with the changes in a person’s physical state that the drinks produce. It may well be that those who consume energy drinks are more inclined to take risks and more disposed to physical injury. In the end, adequate sleep and a healthy diet are much healthier and safer ways of maintaining energy levels.

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