Ginseng and Taurine and Guarana, Oh My!

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Posted October 1, 2007 in Mind Body Spirit

This time of year, your schedule is probably still packed with summer events such as going to weddings, concerts, clubs, festivals and fairs, as well as surfing, playing beach volleyball, water skiing, camping and attending a billion barbeques. However, as we make our way through the month of August, many of us are starting to find ourselves just a smidge more tired as the endless days of fun in the sun roll on. For a number of folks, the answer is as easy as grabbing an ice-cold can of their favorite energy drink and just keep go-go-going. Red Bull, Rockstar, Blast, Venom, Monster, Full Throttle, Amp–everybody has their favorite. But what exactly goes into those little cans of carbonated, neon-colored "energy" that taste like something you could use to disinfect your toilet? Luckily your Weekly has its finger on the pulse of power-pop–read on to figure out if you’d be better off with a jolt of the juice, or a good old-fashioned nap.

The main reason most of these beverages seem to give you energy is that they contain large doses of caffeine. Red Bull, usually considered that first energy drink that western capitalism latched onto, and one of the most popular, contains 80 mg of caffeine in one small can, the same amount you would find in a cup of coffee. In addition to caffeine, different drinks contain varying amounts of legal but often unregulated stimulants such as guarana (a plant-based chemical that functions similarly to caffeine), ginseng (a controversial root-based stimulant that some have compared to the problematic and dangerous ephedrine), taurine (an amino acid that occurs naturally in the body and helps to rebuild protein, detoxify and cleanse the body), glucuronolactone (a natural metabolite and carbohydrate that detoxifies and provides an instant energy boost), sugar, B vitamins and more.

Because these drinks are cold and similar to soda, it’s easier to drink larger quantities more quickly than a beverage like coffee that you have to sip. Side effects include elevated heart rate and blood pressure, heart palpitations, anxiety and irritability, and sleep difficulties. Although studies of energy drinks have been relatively limited so far, most experts agree that they should be avoided by children, pregnant women, people with heart disease and athletes, and that you should completely skip it when drinking alcohol.

Say what? Vodka mixed with Red Bull is one of the most popular bar drinks around. According to the Brown University Health Education Department, the problem is that the stimulant effects of energy drinks can prevent you from realizing how much alcohol (a depressant) you have consumed. No matter how alert you think you are, your blood alcohol concentration is the same as it would be without the energy drink–i.e. you aren’t actually less drunk, you just feel less drunk and therefore might drink way more than you would if you could sense your fatigue. Once the stimulant effect wears off, the depressant effects of the alcohol will remain and could cause vomiting in your sleep or respiratory depression. They also won’t help you out if you have to take a Breathalyzer test . . .

In addition, both energy drinks and alcohol are very dehydrating (the caffeine in energy drinks is a diuretic, just as alcohol is). Dehydration can hinder your body’s ability to metabolize alcohol and will increase the toxicity, and therefore the hangover, the next day. In other words–you’d definitely be better off with a vodka-cranberry juice.

If you simply love the taste, you’re insane–but you should be okay as long as you limit yourself to one or two cans a day.


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