The Compost Bin: Energy Drinks

By Laura Melonie RD

During exams, there is a tendency to justify drinking more cups of coffee and/or consuming energy drinks. The rationale: it is impossible to add hours to the day, so why not try to increase cognitive energy output? Energy drinks market broad claims on improving performance, increasing concentration, alertness, and reaction rates, all while keeping people engaged and awake.  But do they really make a difference?

Red Bull hit the sales rack in 1997 and opened the market for energy drinks.  Research investigating the effects of energy drinks continues, but many questions remain unanswered. What is established is the FDA’s daily recommended limit for caffeine at 300mg. (an 8-oz. cup of coffee contains about 140mg, 8-oz. cup of black tea contains 50mg, and the average advertised energy drink ranges between 60-280mg.)

While caffeine and sugar have been linked to increasing physical performance, there is limited literature showing improvements on cognition from energy drink consumption.  There has been some evidence showing small amounts of caffeine improved cognitive task speed, accuracy, and increase alertness among young adults1.  Furthermore, when people are exposed to multiple stressors, as graduate students often are, cognitive performance easily degrades.

Caffeine is usually consumed beyond the beneficial ‘low-dose’ amount, essentially negating the sought-out benefits.  In fact, consuming loads of sugar and/or caffeine has some serious adverse effects on the body – increased heart rate, nausea, restlessness, anxiety, and tremors.  Bottom line is, whether caffeine, sugar, taurine, or some sweet substitute loaded with ginseng, the consumer should know what they are consuming, the recommended limits, and their body’s reactions to the additives.

To toss or not to toss energy drinks and coffee beverages into the compost bin during exam season is an individual decision. To increase caffeine consumption solely based on need for intellectual performance is a dead-end.  If wiring the body to remain awake is the goal, energy drinks may be an appropriate answer, unless one desires a full-night’s sleep. People must differentiate between functioning and functioning well.

For those typing away to complete a paper, an energy drink is probably less useful than getting a full-night’s rest and trying it again in the morning when the brain has fully recharged.  Academic performance is ultimately influenced by staying healthy, preparing thoroughly, and maintaining confidence.  The energy drinks are just subjective accessories.


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