Bankole Johnson a Brain Scientist wasn’t the only person to go on record rejecting modern energy drinks this week, after a study at Rutgers University uncovered a number of frightening side effects that children and growing adolescent teenagers may face after drinking the highly caffeinated and sugar-heavy beverages.
According to a new report from the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System (or NPIES)—a part of the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark—energy drinks like Red Bull, Monster, and Rockstar contain a quantity of caffeine that is legitimately unsafe for children or teenagers with less substantial body masses. Bruce Ruck, the director of drug information and professional education for NPIES, stated that energy drinks were an “adult beverage” that could cause “tremors, anxiety, agitation, heart palpitations, nausea or vomiting” or even rapid heart rate accelerations or seizures if consumed too quickly or frequently by children.
Bankole Johnson, the incoming chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of Maryland and the founder of Life Foods LLC—a company which is currently developing a health beverage that would boost brain function—has long been against the high levels of caffeine that beverage companies put into energy drinks, but believes that this new study is the final straw. These beverages have been repeatedly scientifically proven to be associated with serious health risks, and while sales for energy drinks are growing, Bankole believes getting them off the market and replacing them with something healthier and more beneficial for the human body is something that consumers should be lobbying for.
While the NPIES study from Rutgers specifically highlights the adverse affects that energy drinks can have on young children or growing teenagers—in the Rutgers press release, Bruce Ruck even encouraged adults to treat energy drinks like medication and store them out of reach of children—Bankole Johnson argued that adults should steer clear of the beverages as well. While adults generally have self-control and foresight that children and adolescents do not, and thus avoid consuming energy drinks as often, Johnson worries that adults who do drink highly caffeinated beverages regularly are still doing themselves no favors. Energy drinks, Bankole explained, can cause or exacerbate a wide range of health problems, from high blood pressure to heart disease.
However, while children and adults may be the most at-risk demographics when it comes to energy drink consumption, either because of insufficient body mass or due to health problems that present themselves or get worse with age, He doesn’t think either demographic is the primary energy drink consumer base. That title, he says, is shared between high-school-aged teenagers and young adults in college.
Bankole Johnson certainly has a point: recent studies have found that roughly half of teenagers and students in their early twenties consume energy drinks on a regular basis. For high school students, caffeinated beverages are often used to provide a jolt of energy for getting through a long school day or a particularly exhausting workout at sports practice. For college-aged kids, energy drinks are routinely mixed with alcohol and used as a “party aide.” Both situations, he says, are remarkably dangerous.
As Bankole notes, Red Bull and Monster are nothing like Gatorade or Powerade. While older “sports” drinks actually do facilitate superior physical longevity by boosting electrolytes and replenishing natural bodily nutrients, the energy drinks of today are more like super-charged sodas, providing energy in the form of a highly-caffeinated sugar buzz. This energy comes at a cost, which can be anything from dehydration—energy drinks, with their massive quantities of sugar, can actually impede hydration efforts—to heart palpitations and feelings of dizziness. Too much caffeine and sugar, if combined with heart-pounding exercise and hot temperatures, can be enough to kill any high-school-aged athlete—enough of a reason for exercisers to stay away from energy drinks prior to, during, or following any form of physical activity.
Mixing energy drinks with alcohol can produce an equally dangerous effect. Caffeine is a stimulant, or an “upper,” while alcohol is a depressant, or a “downer.” These chemical classifications alone posit energy drinks and alcohol as substances that should never be mixed, but college students often bypass the risk in the name of a superior alcohol buzz. A few years ago, a popular alcohol/energy drink combo called Four Loko collected quite a following among college students before being banned in many states. Despite the ban, partiers continue to consume energy drink cocktails because the sugar levels mask the taste of alcohol and because caffeine can offer increased alertness, allowing someone to drink more and party longer. When the caffeine crash happens though, it can combine with the alcohol crash in a way that is catastrophic and often lethal.
Why do people continue to purchase and drink energy drinks if all of this negative evidence is on the table against them? That’s hard to say, but Bankole Johnson hopes that research like the latest report out of Rutgers will slowly turn the tide against energy drinks and get them off the market.
Bankole Johnson is a psychiatrist and a brain scientist who has worked in both academic and entrepreneurial environments. He is the incoming Chairman of the psychaitry department and is the founder of both a specialized medicine manufacturer called Adial Pharmaceuticals and a health beverage company called Life Foods LLC.