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Wake-Up Call

Getting Enough Sleep Far Healthier Than Turning to Chemicals for Energy, UMD Researcher Finds

By Chris Carroll

Wake-Up Call

Illustration by Jason Keisling

Illustration by Jason Keisling

Unleash your inner beast. Party like a rock star. It’ll give you wings!

Those are some of the promises of energy drinks. What their makers don’t advertise is that sustained consumption of the popular caffeine and sugar bombs also appears to contribute to increased drug and alcohol abuse among young adults.

That’s the recent finding published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence by Amelia Arria, a professor of public health. She’s studied energy drinks for more than a decade, ever since a research assistant on a project measuring student health introduced her to rows of the beverages at a local store.

“All I could think was, ‘Wow, in my day we had orange juice,’” she says. “Through a questionnaire, we found that nearly 25 percent of students reported using them in the previous 12 months. Two years later, it was 66 percent.”

The newly established link between energy drinks and subsequent illicit use of drugs like cocaine and prescription stimulants is based on a multi-year study of 1,099 college students. Those with a “persistent trajectory” of use—about half the sample—were significantly more likely than non-users to engage in substance abuse and have alcohol problems at age 25. Those who scaled back on energy drinks were less likely to use other drugs, Arria says.

One troubling aspect of energy drinks is their frequent pairing with booze. “Energy drinks might mask how drunk you feel, leading to more serious alcohol-related consequences,” she says.

Beyond caffeine, the drinks also contain substances like guarana, tuarine and inositol. They can affect the heart and other organs, and haven’t been tested for safety in combination, says Dr. Stacy Fisher, head of the adult congenital heart disease program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

“There is clear, mounting data of adverse events, and there’ve clearly been reports of multiple, well-documented deaths associated with energy drinks,” she says. “I think it’s better to avoid them, and I think it’s really important to pay attention to your own family history of sudden death and heart disease.”

Arria advocates for stricter government oversight, and says the FDA should apply the same maximum caffeine standard to energy drinks it does to traditional carbonated soft drinks. 

Students don’t need more of a chemical buzz, she says. “Ironically, sleep is the very best energy drink.”

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Research

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School of Public Health

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