Energy drinks have a bad rep, and not only in the fitness world… Despite it being popularly consumed for a quick pick-me-up during tough work hours and as a pre-workout, many still think they’re poisonous to your health. You’ve probably seen them at any of your local stores, near the sodas and other soft drinks, and wondered the same thing. Are they just highly marketed unhealthy sugary drinks that you should avoid forever? Although energy drinks are famous for being a controversial beverage that is both criticized and praised at the same time, we’re here to show you both sides of the spectrum in order to get a better understanding of how these beverages can affect your body. So, let’s learn more about the widely hated and loved – energy drinks!

What are energy drinks?

Energy drinks are marketed as beverages that boost your energy as well as improve your mental and physical performance thanks to their stimulant ingredients. Caffeine is one of the main ingredients used in energy drinks, it’s added to increase mental alertness and concentration by stimulating brain function. Other common ingredients are sugar, herbal extracts like ginseng and guarana (which contains caffeine itself), B vitamins, amino acid derivatives such as taurine and carnitine, and other additives.

These drinks are one of the most popular dietary supplements with consumption rates as high as 42% among athletes, and just as high among nonathletes, like young adults (often college students). They come in two different presentations: a bottle or can often between 8-32 ounces, such as Red Bull, Monster, and Rockstar, and an “energy shot” such as 5-Hour Energy. Energy shots, like the name indicates, contain a lot less liquid but it’s much more concentrated, containing up to 200 mg of caffeine in only 2 ounces of liquid approximately. For comparison, a regular-sized cup of coffee contains about 100 mg of caffeine, and an energy drink bottle or can contains between 40-250 mg of caffeine per 8 ounces depending on the brand.

People often buy these drinks to get a rush of energy in order to finish a task or to stay awake late at night, and some active people like to use them in place of a pre-workout when they’re on-the-go. But are energy drinks effective for performance? Well, let’s compare it to pre-workout to see…

Energy drinks vs pre-workout

While both contain large quantities of caffeine due to its boosting effects and other shared similarities, they also have their differences. A pre-workout supplement is specifically designed to boost and improve your physical and athletic performance before a workout or another demanding physical activity. They contain ingredients such as L-arginine and L-citrulline, which help regulate blood pressure and improve blood flow, and creatine, which plays a role in muscle growth and strength. 

Energy drinks on the other hand boost your energy and alertness but are not commonly designed for athletic purposes, offering instead an energy boost for when you feel like you need a little push. So, the main difference between energy drinks and pre-workout supplements is that, while both give you that energy boost that you’re looking for before your workout, pre-workout supplements have ingredients that actually support your physical health and performance.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t use an energy drink as a pre-workout, in fact, there are energy drinks that are specifically marketed towards athletes and active people, and a regular energy drink can do the job too! You just need to know what to look for in an energy drink to make sure it’ll benefit your training, but before we give you some tips, let’s first look at the potential benefits and side effects!

Potential benefits

Most of the energy-boosting benefits that energy drinks offer are linked to their caffeine contents. Here are some of those benefits:

  • May reduce tiredness and sleepiness

One of the most common uses of energy drinks is for staying awake. Tired and sleep-deprived people can actually benefit from energy drinks thanks to their caffeine contents because caffeine adheres to the adenosine receptors when it enters our system and reaches our brain. These receptors play a role in sleep and cognition and, by blocking them, caffeine promotes wakefulness and increases your alertness. This is especially beneficial to people that need to stay alert while tired, like when driving long distances after a bad night’s sleep. According to a study published by the Psychopharmacology Journal, drinking a can of Red Bull significantly improves driving performance by reducing driver sleepiness during prolonged highway driving. [1]

  • Can improve brain function

According to research on Red Bull consumption, along with mental alertness, caffeine intake helps improve specific psychomotor performance such as memory, concentration, and reaction time, as well as enhanced aerobic endurance and performance. [2] This improved brain function is particularly helpful when you need to concentrate on a specific task, like finishing an important assignment from work or school, and you need a little boost. And the improved aerobic endurance and performance after energy drink consumption can come in handy when working out, which takes us to the next point… 

  • Can be used as a pre-workout drink

As we previously mentioned, energy drinks can work as a pre-workout drink when you’re on the go and don’t have any pre-workout supplements at hand to give you that boost that you need. This could be after work when you need to rush to the gym, or when after a long day of doing chores you need a little push to get your at-home workout done. There have been a few relevant studies on the effect of energy drinks on athletic performance and endurance due to their caffeine contents, such as a study published by The International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism that shows that drinking Red Bull significantly increases upper body muscle endurance. [3] Another study published by the International Society of Sports Nutrition on the brand Amino Impact shows that consumption of this energy drink can significantly increase time to exhaustion during a moderate intensity endurance run on a treadmill and improve energy and fatigue. [4] In short, energy drink consumption before moderate to intense physical activity can boost your endurance and improve your overall performance. 

Potential side effects

Now that you know the benefits of energy drinks, let’s look at the potential downsides and side effects of energy drinks when over consumed:

  • Possible sugar spikes

Energy drinks are often loaded with sugars, which are usually sucrose, glucose, or high-fructose corn syrup, containing up to 54 grams (about 14 teaspoons) of sugar in just one 16-ounce can. Consuming high sugar contents like this one will cause your blood sugar levels to spike, which can be very bad for your health, especially if you have diabetes or another blood sugar related condition. And even if you are perfectly healthy, research shows that regularly consuming sugary beverages can lead to developing type 2 diabetes in addition to weight gain and even obesity, so be careful with this! [5]

  • May cause heart problems

Energy drinks have been linked to cases of adverse cardiovascular events, followed by over-consumption of these drinks, according to the American Journal of Cardiology.[6] There have been additional studies showing an increase in heart rate and arterial blood pressure after energy drink consumption due to the ergogenic effects of caffeine, which can be very dangerous to those with pre-existing heart conditions and a history of heart disease such as high blood pressure.

  • Can lead to a sudden energy crash

The caffeine contained in energy drinks is actually synthetic caffeine, and not natural. This is because synthetic caffeine gets absorbed faster by your digestive system than natural caffeine, resulting in a quicker boost of energy, which is what most people are looking for when consuming an energy drink. But a quick boost results in a quick crash as well, depleting your energy in just a matter of time. This isn’t ideal if you’re looking for a long-term boost, because you will find yourself getting exhausted sooner.

  • Possible over-stimulation

Since energy drinks contain high amounts of caffeine, there can be some altering side effects if consumed in large quantities. According to FDA directions on caffeine, some physical and mental health effects and consequences of over-consumption are insomnia, jitters, anxiousness, fast heart rate, upset stomach, nausea, headaches, and even a feeling of unhappiness. 

Other side effects of energy drinks are possible dehydration when exercising in hot environments for a prolonged time because of caffeine’s diuretic properties. They can also cause dental stains and erosion due to their high sugar levels.

What to look for

As you can see, energy drinks aren’t entirely harmful, but they can cause unpleasant side effects if they aren’t being consumed responsibly. So, as with any supplement, be responsible, do your research, and only consume the recommended amount. If you need help looking for your next energy drink, we have four things you should consider that will help you choose the best energy drink for you and your training…

  1. Amount of caffeine: Being aware of the amount of caffeine is very important when picking out which energy drink to buy, but the problem is that you probably won’t know exactly how much caffeine content there is. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate caffeine content in energy drinks like they do with sodas, and while actual caffeine content is shown on the nutrition label, there could be some extra ingredients such as guarana, which is a source of caffeine, adding up to the grand total. You must be careful with this, especially if you’re an avid coffee or tea drinker. The FDA, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), consider that a daily intake of 400 mg of caffeine is safe. By drinking two cups of coffee and an energy drink on the same day, you could easily exceed the recommended daily limit of caffeine for the average adult, so be careful with this! If you’re planning to drink an energy drink on a given day, make sure not to drink other heavily caffeinated beverages over the course of the day. Drinking more than one energy drink a day is also not recommended due to the same reasons.
  2. Free of artificial color and chemicals: As we mentioned earlier, one of the potential side effects has to do with damage to the teeth, specifically stains and erosion. That’s caused by artificial colors and the acidic nature of the chemicals found in some energy drinks. Luckily, not all drinks contain those harmful chemicals and still provide you with the energy you need. So, when choosing your next energy drink stay away from any with mention artificial colors and harmful chemicals.
  3. No added sugar: Energy drinks are also very high in sugar and artificial sweeteners, containing even more than regular sodas and other artificial soft drinks. This is one of the reasons people experience an energy crash after drinking a sugar-loaded drink. Instead of choosing one with over 50 grams of sugar per serving, look for one that is sugar-free.
  4. Added nutritional benefits: We’ve briefly mentioned common ingredients found in energy drinks, but there are a few ingredients you should look for because they provided nutritional benefits that help efficiently boost your energy and performance. The ingredients you should look for in your next energy drink are – taurine, guarna, ginseng, L-Carnitine, L-Citrulline, vitamin B6, and B3.

The bottom line is: Energy drinks may be beneficial for your workouts, but make sure to drink them in moderation. An excess of any of their ingredients may lead to health risks and complications ranging from mild to severe if you go well beyond the recommended daily limit. But that’s true for any heavily caffeinated drink, like coffee, so don’t be afraid to try an energy drink if you feel like it could be good for you and your workouts from time to time! Just try not to drink more than one energy drink per day, and to not make it a part of your daily routine. If you train at high intensities or usually take part in demanding physical activities, perhaps a better option for you would be a sugar-free sports drink or pre-workout that contains electrolytes, that help replenish your water levels when you’re breaking a heavy sweat. 

The consumption of energy drinks is a delicate topic, which is why we want to make sure that you’re well informed about it before trying it out. If you’re still skeptical about them or have any pre-existing health conditions seek medical advice because as always your health and wellness comes first!