We lead busier, more stressful lives than ever.
People often reach for energy drinks to help them survive the day.
The caffeine in energy drinks helps you to not feel tired, but it doesn’t give you energy.
The many other ingredients all have different purposes, but are often under-dosed.
Too many energy drinks can result in serious long-term health problems.
You may be tired because of poor sleep, stress, or not eating enough calories.
Address these factors first and you likely won’t feel the need for energy drinks.
Unless you’re fighting a lion - then go ahead and drink them.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
It’s the early afternoon, and you’re yawning uncontrollably at your desk, taking longer and longer blinks that could probably count as micro-naps. You didn’t sleep great the night before, and even though you had 2 or 3 cups of coffee, you feel yourself fading fast. Unfortunately, you still have 3 hours of work to do, so you go to the cafeteria or gas station to grab an energy drink. (Negative bonus points if you choose your energy drink based on which one has the most caffeine.)
It’s an all-too-common refrain for millions of Americans these days. We live busier and busier lives, working 40, 50, maybe 60 hours or more each week and we’re on our phones or computers all day. Sometimes we’re on them deep into the night as well.
It stands to reason, then, that our stress levels are quite a bit higher as a society than they used to be and our quality of sleep has gotten much worse. Back in the good old days, when we were plowing the fields and milking the cows, stress levels were quite a bit lower and sleep quality was much better. Add this to the fact that we’re not all eating particularly well (sideways glance at empty taco bell bag in the corner...), and it’s no wonder we feel the need for energy drinks almost daily.
The truth is, though, without them we’d probably lose about a quarter of the work force in the U.S. We can’t all stop what we’re doing for a two-hour nap in the middle of the afternoon (but oh-my-god how awesome would that be?!), so we solve the problem the only way we know how: with something fast, cheap, and easy. (THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID ☺)
So what do Energy Drinks even do for us?
Time for a quick science lesson:
When you move around, your body breaks apart Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) to provide energy to your muscles and cells. This leads to a build-up of adenosine in the brain, which causes us to feel tired. This is known as “innate sleep pressure” or as we all know it - dragging ass.
The main ingredient in almost every single energy drink is what? Caffeine, obviously. It’s the most widely used drug in the world. Caffeine binds to the receptors for adenosine, blocking them off. Basically, caffeine acts like a bouncer at “Club Adenosine,” making sure the party in your brain keeps going uninterrupted. Because your brain can’t sense that build-up of adenosine that normally makes you feel tired – you end up NOT feeling tired.
And that’s a pretty important point: CAFFEINE DOES NOT GIVE YOU ENERGY!
Caffeine simply prevents you from feeling tired. If you squint your eyes a little, you could make the case that caffeine helps release some energy from stores in your liver and muscle. Temporarily, you will have slightly more fuel available for your cells and you won’t feel tired. However, that’s not the same as eating and digesting real food, which DOES give you energy… the good, sustained kind.
Now, there are a whole host of other ingredients in energy drinks that aren’t caffeine. Things like Guarana, Ginseng, B-Vitamins, Taurine, and some even have Green Tea Extract. Each of these ingredients has a slightly different effect in the body, but they all have the same reason for being in the formulas: to keep you awake, alert, and jazzed on life. That’s right, friends. Look it up. Taurine, well-known as an amino sulfonic acid, also moonlights as a jazz flute player (no word on whether it has gigs at Club Adenosine.)
- Gaurana, for example, is just another source of caffeine. It comes from a seed and also provides theophylline and theobromine – compounds that have stimulatory effects on the heart and blood vessels.
- Ginseng, meanwhile, is believed to increase energy, have some anti-fatiguing properties, relieve stress, and promote memory. It also stimulates the hypothalamus and pituitary glands to produce ACTH.
- The B-Vitamins in energy drinks are well-intentioned: they help your body convert glucose into energy. The problem is that supplemental B-vitamins aren’t especially well-absorbed in the body, on top of the fact that most people get enough of these in their diets already (even the crappy diet.)
- Taurine, that smooth-jazz singing sulfonic acid, is considered an amino acid and has a number of important roles in the body. So, supplementing with it actually isn’t a bad idea. Unfortunately, the body is also pretty good at regulating its own supplies of taurine and deficiencies are uncommon. For supplementing, doses of 500mg-2000mg are generally advised. And no, taurine does not come from bull testicles.
- Glucuronolactone is another compound found in some energy drinks. It is believed to help prevent glycogen depletion by preventing other substances from depleting glycogen supplies in the muscles. It occurs naturally in your connective tissues, and acts as a de-toxicant to remove harmful substances from the body.
- Creatine, another substance commonly found in energy drinks (especially pre-workout energy drinks), can help your body quickly replenish ATP stores during high intensity physical activity. It is also purported to have cognitive-enhancing benefits and is considered neuro-protective.
- L-Carnitine is included in some pre-workout energy drinks and is touted as a fat-burner. L-carnitine is a substance which is required to shuttle long-chain fatty acids inside of mitochondria where they can be broken down for energy. It’s basically a chaperone for fat. Unfortunately, supplementing with it doesn’t seem to help you burn more fat than not supplementing with it.
Regardless of the specific formula, energy drinks all create a similar cascade of events in your body: The caffeine and other stimulants will activate the hypothalamus and pituitary glands to release adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH). This stimulates your adrenal glands to produce several hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. In addition, the caffeine causes the release of neurotransmitters like epinephrine and acetylcholine. The combination of all of these substances causes an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure, and dilation of your blood vessels. Also known as that “jazzed on life feeling.”
All of those are excellent things... if you’re about to work out or fight a lion with your bare hands (while being well-rested, well-hydrated, and having an attitude similar to “The Dude.”)
All of those are NOT excellent things if you’re about to continue sitting in a chair for several more hours (after not sleeping well and being stressed about work, money, and FaceApp.)
Real Talk: Real Solutions for the REALEST Problem
Look, caffeine is a HELL of a drug. It helps break down fat for energy, it helps you perform better in high-intensity workouts, and it makes waking up a little less awful. Some would go so far as to call it “liquid motivation.” And I wouldn’t argue with them. It can absolutely serve its (awesome) purpose. The problem is when you’re using caffeine and the other stimulants in energy drinks to squeeze out a few more drops of cortisol from your already over-worked adrenal glands. It's also not great if you’re drinking an energy drink at 3pm and hoping to fall asleep before midnight. It could be that your late afternoon caffeine shot is the very reason why you’re not sleeping well in the first place.
“Energy drinks don’t solve the actual problem we face: poor sleep, low energy, high stress.”
When you’re chronically stressed, getting fewer than 8 quality hours of sleep per night, and eating a diet that would make Colonel Sanders blush – your adrenal glands are going to be constantly overworked. This can lead to an awful set of symptoms that is often called “adrenal fatigue.”
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:
- Body aches
- Unexplained weight loss
- Low blood pressure
- Loss of body hair
- Skin discoloration (hyperpigmentation)
Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? Well, you’re right. It is awesome. Everyone wants to be an achy, dizzy, hairless, spotted version of themselves. It’s like a Gollum filter for your life. And the best part is that it only takes about 6-24 months to recover from. (Sidebar: Some docs don’t believe this condition exists. I believe it does. Your belief is up to you, my preciousssss…)
Since energy drinks don’t solve the actual problem we face (poor sleep, low energy, high stress), what are we supposed to do?
First off, we need to consider WHY we might be so tired. There are lots of reasons, but some of the main ones are:
- Not Enough Sleep
- Poor Quality Sleep
- Low Energy Intake (aka not eating enough)
It should be obvious by now that sleep is the number one reason we feel tired. Without a consistent, quality 8 hours per night, we’re starting the day with a gas tank that’s only partially filled. So it’s no wonder that, by 3pm, it’s about empty. Start by scheduling yourself 8.5 hours in bed for a week (including weekends) and see what happens. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day so you can set a consistent circadian rhythm.
If you’re dehydrated, you can begin to feel lethargic. Your blood volume won’t be as high which means your brain won’t be getting as much oxygen. Plus, dehydration as little as 2-3% can cause headaches, grumpiness, and loss of mental focus. You should carry a refillable water bottle everywhere you can, and drink around 100oz or more of pure water each day. (Yes, coffee and tea count, even though they are diuretics, if you’re used to drinking them.) Green tea is my favorite alternative, because it has a little caffeine (about 25-35mg per cup), as well as L-theanine, which can help to calm and relax the mind. Not to mention the myriad of other benefits like increased fat-burning and its ability to kill Anthrax!
If you’re not dehydrated and/or sleep-deprived, you might just be hungry! When the body senses that energy intake is low for the day, it will begin to make you feel more tired and lethargic, which makes sense if you think about it. If you’re a lion in the wild and you haven’t eaten all day, you’re not going to be super motivated to hop around Pride Rock with Zazu and sing “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.”
Just having a snack can re-energize you and make you feel more alert, awake, and focused. Good snacks include fruits and nuts like blackberries and almonds, or strawberries and cashews. You can also have some greek yogurt with granola, or some beef jerky. Of course, there are always fresh vegetables as healthy options, too.
If you’re dealing with the symptoms of anxiety or depression, that requires some care that’s outside of my scope of practice. A lot of general stress-management techniques and a few changes to your diet may be able to help. Studies have shown that depression is closely related to gut bacteria and that by increasing the amount of soluble and insoluble fiber you eat, you may be able to improve your gut bacteria balance and improve your symptoms. Additionally, spending 20-30 minutes outside in nature each day has been shown to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety as well. The hippies had it right – nature and food are medicine!
So what’s the final word on energy drinks? As always, it depends...
If you’re one of the lucky few that sleep well, eat well, and don’t have a huge amount of chronic stress, then choose your energy drink based on what you’re hoping to get out of it. (See ingredients list above to figure this out.)
And if you’re one of the 80% of Americans that don’t sleep enough or manage their stress appropriately, maybe start with those first and look to eat a more balanced and complete diet. And no, that doesn’t mean one of everything on the dollar menu.
If you need help figuring out how to get your sleep, stress, and nutrition back in balance, feel free to shoot me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org - I’d love to hear from you!
And remember: Use your (*highly caffeinated*) powers for good!