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Why energy drinks aren't your average cup of joe

Tambako the Jaguar

Caffeine gets many people through the day. An increasingly popular form of caffeine comes in energy drinks, but when consumed in large doses, it can pack quite a punch – sometimes a dangerous one. How do you know if you have consumed too much caffeine? When is it time to stop?

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Kathleen Miller discusses the dangers of energy drinks and their effects on the body. Miller is a senior research scientist and assistant professor in sociology at the University at Buffalo.

“An energy drink is a stimulant beverage,” Miller says.

Although the ingredients vary from drink to drink, the most constant, and prevalent, ingredient in the any of these drinks is caffeine.

“It also includes sugar and several other ingredients – amino acids, massive doses of B vitamins and other plants and herbal extracts of various kinds,” Miller says.

The distinction between energy drinks and other caffeinated drinks is important, Miller says.

“Energy drinks have about three times as much caffeine as most soft drinks do,” Miller says.

The energy drinks contain just as much caffeine as coffee but they’re different because energy drinks are consumed at a faster pace more often by young adults.

Energy drinks appeal more to younger people  because of the caffeine buzz and because they’re marketed as risky, Miller says.

According to Miller, the reason people enjoy caffeine is because it feels good and help people concentrate..

“Caffeine is an adenosine blocker and it increases dopamine levels in the brain,” Miller says. “Dopamine levels means it makes you happier and blocking adenosine receptors means it stops you from getting drowsy.”

Low to moderate doses of caffeine are considered harmless. High doses, however, cause irritability, jitters and anxiety.   

Consuming five hundred milligrams of caffeine can cause caffeine intoxication, which causes headaches, heart palpitations and nausea.

A toxic dose is a gram of caffeine, which has more serious consequences.

“There’s a syndrome called acute clinical toxicity which can be associated with seizures, manic episodes, panic attacks, hallucinations even stroke,” Miller says.

According to Miller, 400 milligrams of caffeine spread out over the course of the day is safe.

For caffeine-sensitive people, like pregnant women and children, Miller recommends lowering caffeine intake. She says that they are likely to feel symptoms of caffeine intoxication more quickly.

Kids should not have caffeine at all if possible; certainly no more than 100 milligrams a day,” Miller says. “That’s the equivalent of one Red Bull.” 

According to Miller, the belief that consuming three Red Bulls in one sitting is not a big deal comes from the marketing.

“That kind of packaging and the marketing that’s associated with it, you know telling people ‘this is so good you’re going to want to slam the whole can’ results in significantly higher doses of caffeine all at once in the bloodstream,” Miller says.