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Energy Drinks: Unregulated and Out of Control?

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Nov. 10: Alcoholic energy drinks are seen in a cooler at a convenience store in Seattle.AP

Monster. Rock Star. Red Bull. Full Throttle. Go to any convenience store, and these are the names of several energy drinks that you’ll find staring back at you through the cooler’s glass doors. They are also the same drinks that have become wildly popular among young adults. But the concern is that these drinks are also gaining popularity with teens and young kids, which is a trend that has both health officials and parents concerned – and for good reason.

A recent study from the University of Texas Medical School at Houston showed that a typical energy drink has as much caffeine as one cup of coffee and contains a quarter-cup of sugar. Now, a regular cup of coffee and four tablespoons of sugar may not sound too shocking to some people, but when mixed with other ingredients such as alcohol, the combination can be dangerous, if not lethal.

Excessive caffeine consumption in children can cause elevated heart rates, hypertension, anxiety, headaches and interrupted sleep patterns. But what has the medical community most concerned, are the unregulated herbal stimulants and natural blends often not mentioned on the labels. I’m talking about ingredients like taurine, guarana, creatine and B-vitamins.

To be fair, most of these herbs and vitamins have been studied and are used in both traditional and integrative medicine, but their effects when combined with high concentrations of caffeine are still widely unknown. And because many energy drinks are marketed as dietary supplements, the limit that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires on the caffeine content of soft drinks – 71 milligrams per 12-ounce can – does not apply to them, so they often contain amounts that can be dangerous for children and adults with certain medical conditions.

Here’s a closer look at some of these herbs and vitamins:

Taurine: A natural amino acid produced by the body that supports neurological development and helps regulate heart beat and muscle contractions. It’s found naturally in meat, fish and breast milk, but it can also be found in supplement form. Some studies suggest it can enhance athletic performance, but little is known about the long-term effects of taurine supplementation.

Ginseng: A root thought to have several medicinal properties, including reducing stress, boosting energy levels and libido, improving memory and concentration.

B-vitamins: Include thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), cyanocobalamin (B12), folic acid and biotin. These vitamins help to convert sugar to energy and improve muscle tone.

Guarana: The fruit of a small shrub native to Brazil, guarana seeds contain twice the amount of caffeine found in coffee beans.

Carnitine: An amino acid that helps the body convert fat into energy. It’s produced by the body in the liver and kidneys and stored in the skeletal muscles, heart, brain and sperm.

Citicoline: A brain chemical that occurs naturally in the body. Citicoline supplements are thought to increase phosphatidylcholine, which is important for brain function. It may also help decrease tissue damage when the brain is injured.

Creatine: An organic acid that helps supply energy for muscle contractions.

Inositol: A member of the vitamin B complex (but not a vitamin itself) that helps relay messages within cells.

Ginkgo biloba: Has been extensively studied and used in traditional medicine to treat circulatory disorders and enhance memory.

How caffeine works?

Caffeine works by blocking the effects of adenosine, a brain chemical involved in sleep. When adenosine is blocked, the pituitary gland releases adrenaline, which increases heart rate and dilates the pupils. It also causes the liver to release extra sugar into the bloodstream for energy and increases the levels of dopamine in the brain causing a sense of euphoria and a feeling of increased energy.

In the past couple of years, newer versions of caffeinated energy drinks have come onto the market. Companies that make drinks like 5-Hour Energy boast a low-calorie, low-sugar “shot” of energy with no crash at the end. The 2-ounce drink contains the same amount of caffeine as a small coffee, and a combination of natural ingredients like B vitamins and a special “energy blend” containing tyrosine, phenylalanine, taurine, malic acid, glucuronolactone and caffeine.

Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible for this kind of concoction to boost energy and give consumers the results they’re looking for, but people must remember it’s also possible for these drinks to cause major interactions with certain medications, or to have a negative impact on their liver or kidneys – not enough is known at this point in time.

High concentrations of certain B-vitamins can cause tingling, nerve spasms and temporary problems with muscle control and coordination.

These days, it’s also becoming more common for college and even high school students to consume energy drinks with alcohol, like vodka, to make a high-energy cocktail. In recent weeks, there have been several reports of college students being hospitalized after drinking caffeinated alcoholic beverages, like the popular Four Loko, which is now banned in four states. On Tuesday, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), announced the FDA is expected to find that caffeine is an unsafe food additive to alcoholic drinks, making it illegal to market them.

Since alcohol is a depressant, it has a tranquilizing effect on the body, which can make the user unaware of how much they are drinking. The stimulant effect of caffeine masks the depressant effects of alcohol, and since both alcohol and caffeine dehydrate you, when combined they can cause your body's fluids to drop to dangerous levels.

Caffeine mixed with alcohol will immediately take effect on the cardio system. Caffeine has a very sudden effect when increasing the heart rate and circulating the alcohol as it enters the body. But at the same time, the alcohol is dilating the blood vessels, decreasing the amount of blood that is being pumped into the brain.

As the concentrations of alcohol increase with each additional drink, these effects become more significant. When the caffeine effects begin to minimize, the person will start to feel the effects of intoxication, putting them at risk for loss of consciousness and muscle control. This can be very dangerous as our body tries to rid itself of the alcohol toxin by vomiting, causing aspiration and sometimes death.

So I say: Bravo! It’s about time that in the quest to make a quick buck, we are finally paying attention to the potentially deadly effects of these so-called “energy drinks.” Many people believe that the mixing of approved substances like caffeine and alcohol and, in some cases, herbal supplements, is totally without consequence — but that clearly isn't true.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's Senior Managing Editor for Health News. Prior to this position, Alvarez was a FNC medical contributor.
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