Despite the bad reputation that they have, energy drinks continue to be a popular beverage among young people in the UK. In 2020, us Britons consumed 836 million litres of sports and energy drinks[i], an alarming figure that is enough to make parents across the country worry. You may want to know if energy drinks are really that bad for you, and what the risks are of letting children drink them.
What qualifies as an energy drink?
Energy drinks are soft drinks advertised as providing a quick, caffeinated mental boost, allegedly increasing alertness and energy to allow a person to function even when tired.
Although it’s true that energy drinks do have this effect, it’s primarily caused by the high levels of taurine (an amino acid), glucose (a sugar substitute) and caffeine found in the beverages. Experts recommend that teenagers should consume no more than 24g of free sugars[ii] and 100 mg of caffeine per day[iii], yet many energy drinks contain the majority of, if not more than the recommended allowances. The effects of the overconsumption of these ingredients can be serious and may lead to serious health issues.
What is the recommended energy drink intake?
Since energy drinks are high in several active ingredients, limited consumption is best.
The NHS recommends that teenagers and adults drink no more than 2 cans of fizzy drink per day, and young children have none.[iv] This is due to the high sugar content, which can be as much as 21 teaspoons[v], and the high levels of caffeine.
To help put this into perspective, these are the average amounts of caffeine in Britain’s favourite drinks. As you can see, energy drinks come out on top with shocking caffeine contents of 160mg, meaning a whole 60mg more than the recommended daily caffeine consumption can be found in a single can of energy drink.
|Drink||Average Caffeine Content|
|Coca-Cola Classic (330ml)||34mg|
|Dr Pepper (330ml)||42mg|
|Diet Coke (330ml)||46mg|
|Lucozade Energy (380ml)||46mg|
|Tea (1 cup)||50mg|
|Green Tea (1 cup)||50mg|
|Standard Energy Drinks (250 ml can)||80mg|
|Red Bull (250 ml can)||80mg|
|Brewed Coffee (1 cup)||95mg|
|Standard Energy Drinks (500 ml bottle)||160mg|
|Monster Energy (473 ml)||160mg|
The laws around young people and energy drinks
Currently, there is no law against selling energy drinks to young people. Those under 16 do not need ID to buy an energy drink in a shop, and there is no legal limit on the amount of caffeine-containing products that a young person can buy at once. Despite this, most shops will refuse to sell energy drinks to those under 16.
There have been several campaigns for the government to ban the sale of energy drinks to children, and this question remains under consultation.
For more information on this, take a look at the government’s ‘Ending The Sale of Energy Drinks To Children’ consultation.
Are energy drinks bad for you?
Although fizzy drinks have become a staple across the country, there are many debates on whether these drinks are bad for our health, especially regarding younger people.
Energy drinks in particular cause quite a stir due to the controversial ingredients that they contain. However, like almost everything else, energy drinks are worse for you if consumed in large amounts. If you drink energy drinks in moderation alongside a healthy diet, then you should see no issues. However, surpassing the recommended daily dosage of energy drinks, caffeine or glucose can lead to serious side effects.
The physical impact of energy drinks
The physical effects of consuming too many energy drinks are mostly related to the high caffeine content. In children and young adults, an increase in caffeine consumption can cause serious physical side effects, including hyperactivity, heart issues, sleep disturbances and even incontinence.
The overconsumption of caffeine can cause insomnia and poor sleep quality, as well as potentially worsening pre-existing sleep conditions.
Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, which is what causes the ‘boost’ many people experience with energy drinks. However, too much caffeine towards the end of the day will overstimulate the system, leading to sleep issues. Additionally, the consumption of caffeine in fizzy drinks is believed to increase the severity of sleep-disordered breathing, which is a main symptom of obstructive sleep apnoea.[vii]
Learn more about why sleep is so important here.
Hyperactivity is a common side effect of an overdose of caffeine and/or sugar. It’s particularly troubling when present in young people, since it causes boredom, restlessness, carelessness and impulsiveness.
In a survey conducted in 27 middle schools around America, students who reported the consumption of energy drinks were 66% more likely to be at risk for hyperactivity[viii]. This implies that the advertised mental boost of energy drinks is unlikely to help your children, but rather hinder their education instead.
3) Abnormal Heartbeat
Drinking energy drinks has many effects but it is of real concern when it starts to affect the heart by causing an abnormal heartbeat which can be very frightening.
Many energy drinks contain taurine which, if consumed in high doses, can send an excess of calcium to the heart. This can cause an abnormal heartbeat and may even lead to cardiac arrest. Also, the caffeine found in energy drinks can raise your heart rate and blood pressure, which can be fatal for those with heart disease[ix].
Although an abnormal heartbeat is not necessarily deadly, the reoccurrence of the issue may point to other serious health conditions, some of which may be caused or worsened by energy drinks.
Read our helpful guide on blood pressure
Caffeine is a particularly dehydrating stimulant. When drinking, it causes the blood vessels in the brain to compress. However, once the caffeine intake stops, those blood vessels begin to expand, increasing the blood flow and thus triggering a headache.
This is why experts tend to recommend that water consumption is increased to compensate for the dehydration caused. Headaches are particularly detrimental in young people since they can distract them from their education and interfere with their social lives.[x]
Research has proven that caffeine, particularly in high doses, may have a diuretic effect on the kidneys, causing the body to produce more urine than usual. It’s believed that caffeine does this by increasing blood flow to the kidneys and making them release more water.[xi] This in turn will affect your hydration levels.
If energy drinks are consumed in excess, this may lead to the development of incontinence. If you or someone you know is struggling with incontinence, we would recommend getting in touch with your GP or local Bladder & Bowel service. They may recommend therapies, medications, and incontinence supplies to help you manage the condition.
For more advice on incontinence, visit our information centre.
The mental impact of energy drinks
The impact of energy drinks on mental health, particularly in adolescents, can be even worse than the physical ones. Since the caffeine and sugar found in energy drinks can cause dependency, they can severely affect mental health, influencing how teenagers make food and drink choices well into adulthood.
Like insomnia, the stimulation of the central nervous system that a high amount of caffeine causes can lead to anxiety or worsen pre-existing anxiety. Although this does not necessarily mean someone is suffering from the disorder, the use of caffeine has been proven to mimic symptoms of anxiety[xii] for periods of time.
These symptoms include nervousness, restlessness, sleeping troubles and gastrointestinal problems. If caffeine consumption is not reduced, these symptoms are likely to cause more severe issues in the future.[xiii]
2) Inability to Concentrate
Although it is true that energy drinks provide a boost that increases alertness, they also lead to a crash in that same energy once the effects wear off. The exhaustion that this causes then leads to an inability to concentrate, since the body and mind are too tired to focus properly.
Many people, particularly teenagers, consume energy drinks in a bid to stay awake for longer, whether this be for studying or meeting friends. However, the crash in energy that this causes will disturb the body’s natural circadian rhythm and interfere with daily activities.
Cortisol, our primary stress hormone, is important for the brain and body to function properly. However, certain situations and substances can increase cortisol, leading to severe side effects and increased stress.
Caffeine is a particularly common culprit, with too much of the stimulant elevating cortisol levels for a prolonged amount of time and often resulting in chronic stress. Since energy drinks contain such high levels of caffeine, their effects on a young person’s natural cortisol and stress levels can be severe. This may lead to anti-social behaviours and serious health issues.
Suddenly stopping consuming energy drinks after regular use can cause serious side effects, known as withdrawal.
Since the body becomes dependent on the caffeine, sugar and chemicals found within energy drinks, the chemistry and circuitry of the brain must regulate and learn how to continue without the dependency,[xiv] and therefore you may suffer withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal from energy drinks has been proven to increase levels of stress, symptoms of depression and suicidal behaviour in adolescents[xv].
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that, although the ingredients found in energy drinks can have negative effects, if the beverages are consumed in moderation, they are unlikely to be harmful. Choose water or sugar-free alternatives where possible and try to limit consumption of energy drinks.