Energy Drinks and Hospitalizations Checklist: How to Ask The Right Questions

It’s happened again: someone was admitted to the hospital after consuming an energy drink. Reporters covering the story warn readers about the dangers of energy drinks…something is missing. In this post, I’ll review real headlines about energy drink to demonstrate how the omission of a few minor details hurts consumers, as well as the scientists who study energy drinks.

If you read a news story about someone being hospitalized because of a vegetable, you’d have some questions.

On the surface, the mere idea sounds ridiculous.

“Hospitalized…because of a VEGETABLE? People eat veggies all the time without dying, why would someone go to the hospital?”

In fact, leafy green vegetables were the number one source of foodborne illnesses from 1998-2008. Moreover, this hypothetical news story is a perfect example of how asking the right questions can save lives.

When someone is hospitalized because of a vegetable, scientists and doctors are able to piece together the clues and figure out whether or not to issue a recall, if so, what food and even what brand and lot numbers. The end result is information which saves people from eating something that could hurt them. If only we could do the same thing for energy drinks.
(Hint: we are not)

When it comes to energy drink-related hospitalizations, we are not asking the right questions. There are several examples of real energy drink news stories where small but critical details were omitted. Not only does this hurt consumers, but it also hurts scientists who desperately need this data to study the health effects of energy drinks.

The good news is these missing critical details can be summed up in just five questions.
Yes, just FIVE QUESTIONS!
Let me walk you through these five questions and why they matter so much, using real news stories about energy drink-related hospitalizations.

Have we met? I’m Danielle, the “GreenEyedGuide”.
I started studying biochemistry in college the same year Monster Energy hit US markets. Ever since, I’ve put my education to use studying the science behind caffeine and energy drinks. I’ve always been disappointed with the black-and-white “Energy Drinks Will Kill You” messaging because the science is a lot more complex…after all, how can coffee be so good and other forms of caffeine be so bad? My goal is and always has been to answer questions about these controversial energy drinks using the latest research so people can decide what’s right for them based on facts, not fear.

Q1. What’s the patient’s age and weight?

I know, I know…Asking someone’s age is personal enough, but to include someone’s body weight in the news? That’s absurd AND rude. And yet, it’s important.

REAL NEWS EXAMPLE

In the news covering the tragic death of a teen in South Carolina, almost every outlet mentioned the teen had a Mountain Dew, a McDonald’s latte, and an unspecified energy drink.

NONE of the coverage I read pointed out the McDonald’s latte alone contained more caffeine than teens are supposed to consume in one day. That’s a problem.

WHY IT MATTERS

News stories about energy drink-related illnesses almost always have the age of the person involved. However, how much caffeine a person can have is based on age and, to some degree, their weight. If a caffeinated drink made them ill, it’s important to understand whether they had more caffeine than the max for someone their age and/or size.

  • People < 18 years old are not advised to consume caffeine but (since caffeine is in soda and chocolate) it’s safe to have up to 2.5 mg caffeine per kg body weight in one day [source]
  • For adults, single doses up to 200 mg and a daily max of 400 mg caffeine (about 3 mg/kg body weight per day) is recognized safe [source]
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women can have up to 200 mg caffeine per day [source]

For scientists trying to figure out whether energy drinks are more dangerous than coffee, the weight of the patient is critical to whether or not it was the amount of caffeine or another factor which led to the injury or death.

For parents reading this news story, there’s a false impression that caffeine from coffee is perfectly safe for teens when the science disagrees. Too much caffeine is still too much caffeine, whether it’s coffee, an energy drink, or caffeine pills like No Doz.


Q2. How much alcohol was consumed in the past 24 hours?

REAL NEWS EXAMPLE

There is a statistic which keeps coming up in every energy drink story which says:

“Between 2007-2011, emergency room visits involving energy drinks doubled…”

The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) report on Energy Drinks

However, if a journalist does include this statistic, it seems it’s their duty to also mention:

“…and 42% of these hospital visits attributed to energy drinks also involved alcohol or other drugs.”

Also from The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) report on Energy Drinks

WHY IT MATTERS

Remember Four Loko? This drink, dubbed “black out in a can”, had so much caffeine and alcohol mixed together and sent so many college students to the ER it remains the only notable time (IMHO) the FDA took action to shut down production of an energy drink. Four Loko’s heyday was right in that 2007-2011 window the DAWN report examined.

NOT mentioning the dangers of an alcohol-caffeine combo in a story about the “dangers of energy drinks” hurts consumers by failing to warn them about something legitimately harmful.

For scientists trying to figure out whether energy drinks are worse for your heart than coffee, it’s critical to know whether or not alcohol played any role in the hospitalization, especially because research suggests alcohol can trigger arrhythmia [source].


Q3. How much caffeine?

REAL NEWS EXAMPLE

This JUST happened – THIS story is the reason I’m writing this post now. The man was hospitalized for an unspecified energy drink and wants tighter regulations – NOT on caffeine content per can but on energy drink sales to minors. Meaning if he got his way, he’d still be able to do the exact same thing that put him in the hospital.

It sounds silly, I know – see for yourself:

WHY IT MATTERS

We already reviewed how much caffeine a person can safely drink based on their age and weight. So how much caffeine did the patient drink before they were hospitalized?

There might be situations where the name of the energy drink linked to the hospitalization can’t be shared for legal reasons, but FOR THE LOVE OF HARRY POTTER – the general amount of caffeine consumed should be included in the report!

Not including the amount of caffeine consumed in the news report hurts consumers by giving them the impression they should fear Red Bull and Monster Energy. However, the caffeine content of Red Bull and Monster isn’t nearly as worrisome as that of some energy drinks people have never heard of.

Not including the amount of caffeine hurts scientists because all the data we have suggests a coffee or energy drink with less than 300 mg caffeine should be fine for the healthy adult. If real life is showing us otherwise, we need to know the amount of caffeine consumed for every hospitalization.

“Although there is no clearly defined threshold for caffeine harm, a regular caffeine intake of up to 300 mg / day appears to be safe and may even be protective against heart rhythm disorders

Caffeine and Arrhythmias

Q4. What are the patient’s caffeine habits?

REAL NEWS EXAMPLE

Note – he had FIVE energy drinks per day. FIVE!

There’s a famous saying in toxicology, “The dosage makes the difference.” In other words, ONE energy drink might be fine but FIVE, not so much. FIVE energy drinks EVERY DAY for WEEKS is definitely not so great.

The frustrating part of news stories like the one above is when a product, not the flagrant over-consumption of a product, is blamed for an illness. Specifically, in the news story above it was the excess of VITAMIN B3 which destroyed the man’s liver. Since B-vitamins are added to many different drinks and supplements, THAT should have been the focus of the headlines, not the energy drink.

WHY IT MATTERS

Again, the worst part about these types of stories is the missed opportunity to help consumers and scientists.

For the consumer, it’s important to know whether someone who’s never had caffeine before tried an energy drink for the first time and ended up in the hospital. That could be a sign the caffeine lovers don’t have to worry.

However, if it was a routine coffee drinker who had a bad reaction to a different caffeinated beverage, that’s a sign to the scientist something could be very wrong with a particular drink.


Q5. What other ingredients are in the energy drink?

REAL NEWS EXAMPLES

Are energy drinks more dangerous than coffee with the same amount of caffeine? Some people think so, and they point to ingredient interactions. This argument is made repeatedly, and it’s based on a small research study done by the American Heart Association. However, this study’s results are a moot point because it used more caffeine than the amount science says is okay for arrhythmia (300 mg limit versus 320 mg used in the study).

WHY IT MATTERS

The data we have suggests there are no interactions between energy drink ingredients. Taurine seems to help the heart. So does carnitine. And the amounts of other ingredients in the stereotypical energy drink are too small to cause any side-effects or interactions with caffeine.

” As for taurine and L-carnitine, the medical literature shows an overall positive health effect especially for the cardiovascular system, hence, making it unlikely that they can cause harm to that same system. “

Effects of Energy Drinks on the Cardiovascular System

If there are some ingredients which make an energy drink more dangerous than a coffee (with the same amount of caffeine), we’re going to need a massive catalog of all the other ingredients involved. This is why the other ingredients MUST be mentioned with an energy drink related illness.

Not only does this information help the consumer avoid products with dangerous additives like ephedra and Yohimbe, but it will also help scientists narrow down the thousands of possbile interactions to the most likely culprits.

Related – “VPX Redline Putting People in the Hospital” – Caffeine Informer

The Bottom Line

If we’re (ever) going to prove the theory that ingredient interactions make energy drinks more dangerous than coffee, we’re going to need a lot more data. The five questions above should be considered mandatory information for both the consumer and the scientist. These tiny details help consumers make better choices about their own caffeine habits. Furthermore, this data is critical for the future of our understanding of how energy drinks truly affect our health.


Love this info? Want to learn more?

I’ve researched the science and safety behind energy drinks and their ingredients since 2003. This book is the culmination of my research:

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