Energy is a hot commodity these days. Consumers are drawn to products promoted as energy boosters, from bars to balls, shots, and a whole lot of drinks. Energy drink sales alone in the U.S. steadily increased between 2015 and 2018, with annual sales over $3 million.
But are the risks of energy drinks greater than the rewards? That seems to be the conclusion of a new research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. For the study, healthy, young participants consumed 32 ounces of one of two types of energy drinks or a caffeine-free, stimulant-free placebo. The drinks were finished within a one-hour period on three separate days, with a six-day break between each.
Scientists found that the energy drinks altered the electrical activity of the participants’ hearts, and raised their blood pressure. The changes the subjects’ hearts experienced, which were related to the heart chambers squeezing and relaxing, are generally considered mild. But the study authors say that people with heart conditions, or those on certain medications, who have energy drinks could be at increased risk.
Energy drinks and heart problems
In previous research, energy drink consumption has been tied to side effects including elevated blood pressure, irregular heart beat, seizures, stroke, and heart attack. One study suggested that in healthy young adults, a single 24-ounce energy drink may impair blood vessel function.
One problem with energy drinks is that they often contain caffeine, in addition to one or more additional stimulants, such as ginseng and guarana. These herbs can have a synergistic interaction with caffeine, meaning the combined effect is greater than the impact of each alone.
Bottom line: I don’t recommend energy drinks for anyone, including athletes and healthy young adults. In addition to the potential adverse effects, energy drinks mask symptoms of fatigue, which are signals that your body is out of balance.
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Healthier ways to boost your energy
When it comes to your energy level, some of the most important factors are sleep, nutrition, hydration, stress management, and physical activity. Even small shifts can make a difference.
For example, aim for more and better quality sleep—even 30 to 60 minutes more per night to start. Opt for more produce, and replace highly processed foods with fresh alternatives. Make water your drink of choice, with a target of 64 ounces spread throughout the day. Try out a free, five-minute guided meditation app to help manage stress. And finally, find ways to build in movement, even if that simply means going for a walk around the block.
If you still feel like you need an instant energy lift, try green tea or matcha. They create a sense of alert calm due to a natural substance in tea called l-theanine, which induces relaxation without drowsiness. Just be sure to avoid add-ins that can zap energy, like excess sugar, artificial sweeteners, and conventional dairy products.
But six hours before bedtime, stop drinking any source of caffeine to aavoid interfering with sleep. And remember that the key to sustained energy is keeping your body and mind in balance.
Instead of a quick fix in a can, grab a glass of water and sit outside for a few minutes. Or snack on an apple with almond butter, or veggies with hummus rather than a sugary option. The small steps you take to prioritize wellness will lead to greater energy payoffs, both today and down the road—no artificial boost needed.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a nutrition consultant for the New York Yankees.
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