Energy drinks are a relatively new type of mass-marketed beverage high in caffeine or other legally produced, plant-based stimulants. Current evidence shows that this type of beverage, popular among both teenagers and young adults, can have especially harmful effects when consumed in combination with alcohol. In a study published in May 2014 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, a team of Australian researchers examined the reasons young adults combine energy drinks with alcohol consumption.
Generally speaking, energy drinks get their name because they’re typically marketed as pick-me-ups, performance enhancers or concentration boosters. Well-known brands of these drinks available in the U.S. include Monster, Red Bull and Rock Star. As a rule, these products contain a much higher amount of caffeine than common, caffeinated soft drinks such as Coca-Cola or Mountain Dew. In some cases, the caffeine content in energy drinks comes from a South American plant called guarana instead of from the kola nut or other more familiar sources. In addition, some energy drinks contain plant-based stimulants unrelated to caffeine. When consumed on their own, energy drinks have effects that typically include heart rate elevation, blood pressure elevation, dehydration and a decline in the urge to sleep. In some cases, consumers of these beverages can develop changes in heart rhythm known as heart palpitations. In combination with exercise, consumption of energy drinks can lead to advanced levels of dehydration.
Energy Drink/Alcohol Combo
Roughly one-third of U.S. teenagers and young adults below the age of 25 consume energy drinks, according to recent figures compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Substantial numbers of these consumers combine energy drink intake with alcohol use. Unfortunately, the physical and mental effects of energy drink use can hide some of the physical and mental effects of alcohol intake and convince any given individual that he or she is not as intoxicated as reality indicates. This masking effect boosts the chances that an alcohol/energy drink consumer will rapidly reach legal drunkenness (a practice known as binge drinking) by roughly 200 percent. In addition, people who combine alcohol and energy drinks experience a roughly 100 percent increase in their odds of being a victim of sexual assault, perpetrating a sexual assault and/or getting into a car with an intoxicated driver.
Reasons for Combined Use
In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from Deakin University, the University of Melbourne and two other Australian institutions used an anonymous, Internet-based survey of 594 young adults enrolled in college to explore the underlying reasons young adults combine energy drinks and alcohol. On average, these students were 22 years old. The researchers asked them to pick their motivations from a list of 14 potential factors.
After reviewing the responses of the study participants, the researchers concluded that four specific factors typically account for the combined consumption of energy drinks and alcohol in young adults. These factors are a desire to increase endurance and/or energy levels, a “hedonistic” desire to feel the combined effects of the two types of beverages, a desire to fit in with a group of peers and a desire to reduce the impact of alcohol intoxication. The researchers also concluded that young adults with a primarily hedonistic motivation have clearly heightened odds of increasing their intake of alcohol and energy drinks during any given drinking session, eventually developing an addiction to alcohol, perpetrating acts of aggression toward others and experiencing some other form of alcohol-related harm. In addition, they concluded that young adults who use energy drinks in order to feel less intoxicated while consuming alcohol also have clearly increased odds of experiencing alcohol-related harm.
The study’s authors did not expect to find that such significant numbers of young adults combine energy drinks and alcohol in order to feel less intoxicated while drinking. They believe that this motivation may stem, in part, from common myths about the sobering effects of caffeine consumption, as well as from certain marketing claims made by energy drink manufacturers. The authors recommend that public health officials seeking to curb drinking-related harm in young adults focus some of their efforts on individuals with hedonistic or intoxication deterrence motivations for combining energy drinks and alcohol.