Energy drinks not for sports
Energy drinks are becoming more commonly seen in the hands of athletes these days. This is a very disturbing image to me as a medical professional.
In this column, I will explain why energy drinks are not designed to be used for pre-workout consumption and give several examples of the side effects I have seen first-hand in athletes that have made energy drinks part of their regimen.
Exercise causes changes in your body’s physiological responses: your heart rate increases, your blood pressure increases, and you sweat and lose fluids. Some of the ingredients in these energy drinks also increase your heart rate and blood pressure, and are diuretics (which promote fluid loss).
Combining these responses from the physical activity and an energy drink can cause dangerous situations, such as heart palpitations, irregular heartbeats, seizure, anxiety, restlessness and dehydration.
I did some research the other day at a local grocery store. I read the labels on several energy drinks. I found that caffeine was listed on just about every one of them. Drinks with greater than 200 milligrams of caffeine can cause major side effects. Because energy drinks aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, they do not have to disclose the amount of caffeine on the labels. Beware of labels that promote being all-natural or herbal. The energy drinks that tout that they are “caffeine-free” still contain guarana, green tea extract, kola nut or yerba mate, which are all herbal sources of caffeine. Consider the additive effect of having multiple ingredients like this in a drink.
You should also consider the serving size of the energy drink and the amount of carbohydrates it contains. There are some cans or bottles that are one serving, while others are 2 or 3 serving sizes. If one is good, more is better, right? Wrong! If one serving contains 120 mg of caffeine, then drinking a full can (2 servings) is putting 240 mg of caffeine into your body. Consuming a drink with greater than 8 percent carbohydrates slows rehydration and can cause stomach distress. In my label research, I found between 9-19 percent carbohydrates in those that contained carbs. These energy drinks are not designed to be used as sports drinks, like Gatorade. I, myself, am a coffee drinker, but I wouldn’t have a cup of coffee right before exercising.
I could go on longer about the facts of why energy drinks are bad for athletes, but it might make more sense if I talk about some situations I’ve seen throughout my career resulting from athletes using energy drinks prior to (or during) activity. One of the reasons I’ve heard athletes say they like energy drinks is that they help get them pumped up and more focused before a game. Sure, the caffeine makes them feel more alert, but it actually has a negative effect on concentration. One game, when I worked with a collegiate ice hockey team, one of the players drank an energy drink beforehand. During that first period, he appeared fine. But, when he had a second energy drink during intermission, then a third the next intermission, by the third period, he was completely unfocused and reacted slower to the game going on around him. Fortunately, that instance didn’t require advanced medical care, but I’ve seen more than my fair share of ambulances being called as a result of energy drinks.
Heart palpitations are the feeling of a pounding or racing heart, which can also result in shortness of breath. The increase in heart rate from the caffeine in an energy drink added to the increased heart rate from exercise can cause this scary situation. Before practice one day, an athlete of mine decided to drink a large energy drink. After warm-ups, he was complaining of being unable to catch his breath and that his heart was racing. When I placed my hand on his chest, I could feel his heart beating. This was not normal, and an ambulance was called.
Toward the end of a football game, I evaluated an athlete who hadn’t gotten hit in the head, but seemed to have signs of a concussion: disorientation, problems with concentration and focusing, pupil irregularities. He also had heart palpitations and a very fast heart rate. I found out later that he had drunk an energy drink and taken a workout supplement before the game. An ambulance was called.
While at a baseball state playoff game, a player from the opposing team just collapsed in right field after attempting to make a play in the top of the first inning. Their athletic trainer and EMS spent a long time evaluating him before transporting him off the field on a gurney. It turned out that he had consumed two different energy drinks prior to the game.
These were serious situations, but I’ve also seen some minor side effects which can greatly affect sports performance. Muscle cramping is very common, as a result of dehydration. A few years ago, I couldn’t understand why I was having so many football players cramping in November. Then I saw the empty energy drink cans. These effects aren’t only limited to athletes; a coach who likes to drink energy drinks before games once ended up with a spastic calf muscle cramp at half time.
Education is the best way to prevent situations like these. Read the labels of energy drinks before you consume them. Don’t use them before exercise or sports activities. If you do decide to use them outside of the sporting world, use them in moderation and drink plenty of water. Eat a healthy, well-balance diet and you won’t need any extra “energy.”
Since I’ve gotten many questions about it, next time I’ll discuss proper nutrition for wrestlers who want to lose, maintain, or gain weight for the upcoming winter season. Until then, stay healthy.