Alcoholic energy drinks: A dangerous mix

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- It started with Jolt Cola in the 1980s and skyrocketed in fame in 1997 with Red Bull. The popularity of energy drinks in America has certainly altered popular culture. Forbes magazine reported that 500 new energy drink products were introduced worldwide in 2006 and energy drink industry sales generate revenue in excess of $5 billion. According to the Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watch group, 31 percent of 12-17-year-olds and 34 percent of 18-24-year-olds report regular consumption of energy drinks vs. 22 percent 25-34-year-olds. 

We have all seen the advertisements for energy drinks that tout the ability to stimulate the mind and body plus give a boost of energy whenever you need it. Red Bull, which promises to "give you wings," Amp, Monster, Venom, Rip It, Cocaine, Adrenaline Rush, Full Throttle, 180 and Rock Star are just a few of the popular brands on the market today. And if you are under the age of 30, you have certainly heard of and/or tasted one of these drinks. But that is only half of the energy story. 

Tilt, Rock Star 21, Joose, Sparks, 3 Sum, Torque, Charge and 24 Seven. Ever heard of any of these energy drinks? If so, did you also know all of these contain alcohol, often at greater percent per volume than beer? And this information is readily available from the respective drink's Web sites. This new line of alcoholic beverages is extremely similar in look, feel and price to popular non-alcoholic energy drinks. 

Over the past few years mixing alcohol and energy drinks has become a concerning trend that holds the potential for dangerous outcomes. What do we really know about what happens to the body when you combine alcohol and energy drinks? Energy drinks are designed to give the consumer a mental and physical boost of energy by the combination of stimulants and "energy boosters" they provide. 

Typically they contain high doses of caffeine as well as herbal extracts like guarana, ginseng and ginkgo biloba, B vitamins, and amino acids like taurine, in addition to various sugars. Specifically, guarana is a plant that produces a bean that holds three times the amount of caffeine as a coffee bean. Energy drinks typically contain 80 to 141 mg of caffeine per 8 ounces, the equivalent of five ounces of coffee or two 12-ounce cans of caffeinated soft drink such as Mountain Dew, Coca Cola or Dr. Pepper. For a healthy adult, 200 to 300 milligrams of caffeine a day is considered a moderate amount, according to the American Dietetic Association. 

According to the National Institute of Health, an energy drink and alcohol combination carries a number of dangers: 

- High levels of caffeine and stimulants mixed with alcohol produce chronic headaches, impair judgment, create shortness of breath, dizziness, disorientation and can boost heart rate and blood pressure to dangerous levels. 

- Since energy drinks are stimulants and alcohol is a depressant, the combination of effects may be dangerous because they are sending mixed messages to your nervous system. The stimulant effects can mask how intoxicated you are and prevent you from realizing how much alcohol you have consumed. Fatigue is one of the ways the body normally tells someone that they've had enough to drink. 

- The stimulant effect can give the person the impression he or she isn't impaired. No matter how alert you feel, your blood alcohol content or BAC is the same as it would be without the energy drink. Once the stimulant effect wears off, the depressant effects of the alcohol will remain. In addition, there currently is no demonstrable research evidence that these combo drinks do anything to reduce the negative effects of motor coordination and visual reaction times. 

- Both energy drinks and alcohol are very dehydrating (the caffeine in energy drinks is a diuretic). Dehydration can hinder your body's ability to metabolize alcohol and will increase the toxicity, and therefore the hangover, the next day. 

Personal responsibility is important. Know what you're drinking. Energy drinks are not necessarily bad for you, but their consumption or that of the alcoholic version does pose risks. Alcoholic energy drinks look a lot like the non-alcoholic version. Be aware some of the claims producers make like "improved performance and concentration" can be misleading. A drunk person plus sugar and caffeine equals an alert drunk person. "I didn't know it had alcohol in it" is not a sufficient defense.
As always, if you do choose to drink, do so in a responsible, safe, sensible and healthy manner. Never drink and drive!! Contact the Offutt Alcohol Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Program or ADAPT office for more information at 294-7411.