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Dangerous Energy

Posted on 6/20/2012 by Dr. Martha E. Rich
Over caffienated boy jumping into the air I hope that by now, we are all becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of highly-caffeinated energy drinks – especially when they are used by children and young adults. Since Red Bull was first introduced to the American market 15 years ago, extreme energy drinks have become a staple on grocery store shelves, on bar menus, and most unfortunately on the athletic field. When my son was still in high school, I watched many of his friends consume energy drinks as meal replacements – especially at breakfast time. But energy drinks are not the same as sports drinks or meal replacement shakes.

While Gatorade and other electrolyte replacement beverages are designed for hydration after intense physical exertion, and meal replacement shakes contain protein and other vital nutrients, energy drinks have no nutritive value whatsoever. The sugar and caffeine may keep you going for a little while, but they won't help a growing body build muscle and bone. And on the athletic field it's important to recognize that energy drinks do not contain electrolytes at all, and can be dangerously dehydrating when used as a replacement for a sports drink. Consuming extreme energy beverages like Monster or Amp before, during, or after strenuous physical activity can not only lead to increased dehydration, they can also contribute to the development of potentially fatal heat illnesses and cardiac arrhythmia in some young athletes.

In December of 2011, fourteen year-old Anais Fournier died from caffeine toxicity after drinking 48 ounces of Monster Energy Drink within a 24 hour period. The two cans contained over 480 milligrams of caffeine combined – more than five times the maximum daily allowance for a child her age, and the equivalent of about 5-6 cups of regular coffee. Anais had been previously diagnosed with a mitral valve prolapse, but all medical professionals agree that her condition alone would not have led to her death without the excess of caffeine in her system.

Death from caffeine toxicity is quite rare. Depending on a person's weight, the average lethal dose ranges anywhere from 5 to 10 grams in a 24 hour period. For the average person, this translates into drinking at least 42 cups of coffee in one sitting. That's pretty hard to do. But for people like Anais, who was young and already had a heart condition, the lethal dose was just 0.48 grams. And while the number of actual deaths based solely on energy-drink consumption alone is still quite low, there is a marked increase of caffeine overdose especially in young people in the last several years. In fact, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association reports that between 2005 and 2009 (the most recent data available as of this writing) ER visits related to the use of non-alcohol energy drinks increased ten-fold from 1,128 in 2005 to 13,114 in 2009. 77% of these cases were reported in young people ages 18 to 39.

Those are a lot of scary statistics – hopefully enough to convince you that energy drinks are not worth the risk. But we are also learning even more about how energy drinks can damage the body in slower, less obvious ways.

A recent study published in the May/June 2012 issue of the AGD Journal, General Dentistry, compared the effects of sports and energy drinks on the loss of tooth enamel. Both kinds of beverages tend to be highly acidic and damaging to the teeth, but the two have never been compared so rigorously before. The results were startling. All the sports and energy drinks tested well below a pH level of 5.5 – the reading at which enamel dissolution begins in most people – but there was a significant difference in what is called titratable acidity.

Titratable acidity is different than pH in that it measures how much buffering material is required to bring the acidic substance back to a neutral pH level of 7.0. Two beverages may have the same pH, but depending on their ingredients, the titratable acidity of each beverage can be quite different. This study revealed that while all the popular sports and energy beverages tested had similar pH levels, the energy drinks all had a titratable acidity level 2 to 3.5 times higher than the sports drinks tested. Enamel loss was consequently recorded at 2 to 3 times greater with the consumption of energy drinks as compared to sports drinks with the same level of exposure.

Loss of tooth enamel may seem like a small thing when compared to some of the other possible side-effects of consuming too many energy drinks, but tooth enamel is not replaceable. Your body cannot remake it. Regular exposure to highly-acidic drinks like these can erode your enamel to the point where the teeth can no longer be protected without very expensive and invasive reconstructive procedures. And even though those replacement procedures are available, the truth is that the best teeth to have for the rest of your life are the ones you were born with.

This month, I've added a new resource article exploring specifically how pH works in the mouth and how you can protect your teeth from this kind of acid erosion in The Acid Test. I believe that the more we all inform ourselves on how our dietary choices can affect our health and longevity, the better. I hope that you will take a look.

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