The flipside of gaining wings: Can energy drinks help you study better?

Go to the profile of Lakshini Mendis, PhD
Jan 08, 2018
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Red Bull. Monster. V. Rockstar. Lucozade.

Energy drinks don’t really need an introduction. They can be an attractive option when you are juggling classes, homework, extra-curricular activities, jobs, and friends and family.

Currently, the global energy drink market is $55 billion USD, which is projected to reach $84.8 billion by 2025. According to the National Institutes of Health, energy drinks are the most popular dietary supplement consumed by American teens and young adults, with almost one-third of teens aged 12–17 years drinking them regularly. Males between the ages of 18 and 34 years consume the most energy drinks.

 So, do energy drinks actually work?

The main component of most energy drinks is caffeine. The Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code restricts the maximum amount of caffeine in an energy drink to 32 mg per 100 mL. In the United States, however, energy drinks are classed as dietary supplements, and are thus, not required to meet the Food and Drug Association limit of 20 mg of caffeine per 100 mL. A shot of 5-hour Energy, for example, can contain up to 350 mg of caffeine per 100 mL of energy drink, which is approximately equivalent to the caffeine content of 5 cups of coffee.

In addition to caffeine, most energy drinks also contain guarana. Guarana is a native South American plant, which contains a caffeine compound called guaranine. Each gram of guarana can contain 40-80 mg of caffeine (with a potentially longer half-life), thus, elevating the stated level of caffeine in energy drinks.

Although not all studies showed positive effects on psychomotor function, the good news it that there is evidence that, in small amounts, energy drinks decrease reaction time, increase subjective alertness, and improve memory and concentration in young adults. In partially sleep-deprived healthy volunteers, one energy shot was enough to maintain these effects for up to 6 hours.

However, even moderate levels of caffeine (approximately 75 mg), which you can get from a cup of coffee, is enough to give you a cognitive boost. There is actually a lack of evidence to conclude that energy drinks are more effective than traditional caffeinated drinks at increasing energy levels or improving cognitive function.

Further, unless you are choosing the sugar-free option, energy drinks also contain lots of sugar. Just one standard Red Bull can has 37 g of sugar, which is 12 grams over the recommended amount of 25 grams of sugar per day. Sugar can provide a quick energy boost, but that feeling quickly disappears and can leave you craving more.

Energy drinks also often include taurine, which is one of the common amino acids found in the body. It assists with neurological development and regulates mineral salt concentrations in the blood. Taurine is found naturally in meat, seafood, and milk, and thus, easily obtained from a balanced diet.

Like other energy drink additives (i.e., ginseng, B vitamins, glucuronolactone, yohimbe, carnitine, and bitter orange), however, its amount in energy drinks are often far below that expected to deliver either therapeutic benefits or adverse events.

So, do you really need energy drinks?

A recent review indicated that there is a lack of evidence that ingredients other than caffeine contribute to creating the “buzz,” which is promised to energy drink consumers. Plus, another study showed that just thinking that you are drinking Red Bull is enough to boost performance in a numerical cognitive test (Stroop test), regardless of if you actually drink Red Bull.

Plus, if not consumed safely, energy drinks can cause trouble: the Australian Center for Food Safety Adverse Event Reporting System (CAERS) has received over 140 complaints about adverse side effects from 5 Hour Energy, Monster, and Rockstar over the last 10 years.

If you are having multiple drinks within a short space of time, the caffeine content can lead to serious heart problems, affecting heart rhythm, blood flow, and pressure.

Further, the cardiovascular and nervous systems of teens and young adults are still developing; large amounts of caffeine can harm the development of these systems. Excessive coffee consumption can also lead to anxiety, sleep problems, and digestive problems. Not to mention, the huge amounts of sugar in energy drinks is not good news if you have diabetes or are pre-diabetic, and can lead to other health complications.

So, what are some practical ways to kick an energy drink habit?

If you are guzzling down a few energy drink cans or bottles a day to stay alert, it’s probably time to start examining why you are feeling tired. That way you can address the cause of your fatigue, instead of just addressing its symptoms.

Here are a few possible reasons:

Dehydration: This great Ted-ED video outlines how dehydration can affect your body. Apart from making sure you are drinking enough water through the day, you can also incorporate foods like strawberries, cucumber, and broccoli, which are over 90% water into your diet.

Unbalanced nutrition: If you are feeling sluggish, chances are that you are not getting all the nutrients your body needs. It’s a good idea to have largely plan-based meals that are easy to digest. This article recommends basing your meals around vegetables, including complex carbohydrates like brown rice or quinoa, and adding healthy fat and protein sources like legumes, tofu, nuts, or fish.

One study demonstrated that college students who did not have breakfast on a regular basis was more likely to consume energy drinks. So kick your energy drink habit by having fruit-based breakfast smoothies, which are easy to make, even with the busiest of schedules. Make sure you also have a stash of nuts, trail-mix, nut-based energy balls or bars, and fruit, to snack on through the day and power you through.

Lack of exercise: A regular exercise regime also gets your body used to expending more energy. This actually frees up more energy to be used all the time, which enhances your mental and physical capacity. Stress of looming deadlines: Having great time-management skills can be great for making sure you stay on top of deadlines and manage stress. For more tips and tools, see previous npj Science of Learning articles on organisation, time planning , and good study habits.

Go to the profile of Lakshini Mendis, PhD

Lakshini Mendis, PhD

Freelance Science Writer and Editor, Self-employed

A trained neuroscientist, Lakshini currently works as a freelance science writer and editor. She loves sharing the latest neuroscience research with the community because she thinks that science should be accessible by everyone! You can find her latest science communication project here: https://www.sci-sites.com/

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