Always thought your occasional afternoon-slump-busting energy drink from the office vending machine was an innocent (and an end-of-presentation-lifesaving) little indulgence?
I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you.
What Do Energy Drinks Do to Your Heart?
A new study out of the University of Texas, Houston, suggests that just one caffeine-, sugar- and stimulant-laden energy drink can negatively affect your cardiovascular health.
In the study, Dr. John Higgins and a team of researchers at the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth measured artery diameter, an established marker of arterial health and heart attack risk, in 44 healthy students before and after they drank a single 24-ounce energy drink.
Compared to their pre-energy drink values, Higgins found that the diameters of the students’ arteries were cut in half within 90 minutes after finishing the beverage, suggesting a serious drop in their arterial health.
From a single energy drink.
How Can Energy Drinks Harm Your Heart Health?
Higgins and the other researchers think the harmful effects they found likely come primarily from the caffeine and sugar in an energy drink.
How Does Caffeine Affect Your Heart?
Caffeine promotes narrowing of your arteries because it can interfere with signals sent from your nervous system to your artery walls.
These signals normally tell your artery walls to relax, allowing blood to flow more smoothly. Without these signals, your arteries narrow, causing your blood pressure to rise and putting your heart at risk.
While this risk technically exists with any source of caffeine, energy drinks have a couple of unique traits that make it more likely you’ll see negative effects of your arteries when they’re your source of caffeine.
First, unlike coffee and tea (the other common sources of caffeine), energy drinks are served cold, making it easier to drink them quickly.
Drinking energy drinks faster means that their caffeine makes it into your bloodstream more quickly.
This means that, even though the dose of caffeine in energy drinks typically isn’t that much more than in tea or coffee, the level of caffeine in your blood still spikes higher. And a higher spike of caffeine in your bloodstream makes it more likely you’ll experience side effects, even if the overall dose is the same.
Energy drinks also tend to combine caffeine with additional stimulants or caffeine synergists, such as guarana, taurine and ginseng, which coffee and tea typically do not. These extra energy drink ingredients make the nerve-blocking effects of caffeine worse, increasing the risk of side effects for your heart.
How Does Sugar Affect Your Heart?
Large doses of sugar consumed quickly, like those you get from drinking an energy drink, are also terrible for your heart health.
Sugar spikes in your bloodstream damage the cells that line your arteries, leading to inflammation and oxidative stress which narrow your arteries and raise your blood pressure.
And, boy, can energy drinks give you a whopping sugar spike.
Depending on the brand and size, a single can of energy drink can contain between 42 g and an insane 102 g of sugar.
That’s 2-5x more sugar than you should be getting in an entire day flowing into your body in the time it takes you to finish a single energy drink.
No wonder your arteries suffer from downing just one of these fizzy, sweet libations!
Should You Ditch Your Energy Drink for Your Heart Health?
So, do Higgins’ results mean that in order to protect your heart you should never sip one of those sweet, energy-boosting, brightly-colored brews again?
Since this is such a small study, I would say, if it were all by itself, not necessarily.
Unfortunately, it isn’t all by itself.
There are actually a handful of older human trials that show a single energy drink may harm your cardiovascular health. They just show it in different, less direct ways, so they got less attention when they were published.
For example, in 2015 researchers published a study showing that a single energy drink could cause blood to become “stickier” and more likely to clot.
Now, none of this evidence is overwhelming, even together.
But, considering drinking large numbers of energy drinks is linked to serious cardiovascular side effects (including heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, cardiac arrest, and death), it seems reasonable to suspect energy drinks really do have immediate, direct effects on your arteries and you would be better off avoiding them altogether.
Energy Drinks and Your Overall Health
Now, if you’re not convinced that the potential risk to your heart is worth giving up your beloved caffeine-lifeline, here’s a little context you should keep in mind: energy drinks don’t just affect your heart health.
Non-Cardiovascular Dangers of Caffeine
In addition to the effects of high doses of caffeine and stimulants in energy drinks on your heart health, there are also possible side effects of these compounds on the rest of your body as well.
At higher doses, caffeine and caffeine-like stimulants can cause:
- stomach aches
- difficulty relaxing
- difficulty sleeping
And if you consume massive amounts of caffeine, you can just flat-out overdose. A caffeine overdose causes symptoms such as:
- muscle spasms
In extreme cases, a caffeine overdose can even be fatal.
Non-Cardiovascular Dangers of Sugar
Just like with caffeine, the negative effects of large doses of sugar extend well beyond your arteries.
Studies clearly show that sugar, particularly drinking sugar, is downright awful for your health in all kinds of ways.
Drinking liquid sugar has been linked to:
- weight gain
- type 2 diabetes
- fatty liver disease
- chronic kidney disease
- dental cavities
- Alzheimer’s disease
- certain types of cancer
Heart Healthy Alternatives to Energy Drinks
Okay, so energy drinks pose some threats to your heart and total body health.
But it’s also kind of a danger to your health if your mid-afternoon zombie-like-state causes you to, I don’t know, wander into traffic, fall down a flight of stairs, slip in the bathtub, mindlessly gnaw on a marker full of toxic ink or something, right?
On the whole, a mid-afternoon energy boost probably works out to a net gain for your health if you look at it that way, right?
Mmm, you may just have a point there!
Luckily, no one’s saying you have to make do without any type of pick-me-up! Just that it’s probably better when it’s something healthier than an energy drink.
Here are my favorite healthy alternatives to energy drinks.
1. Drinking a Cup of Green Tea
Pop by my office any ol’ afternoon and you’ll almost certainly find me with a cup of green tea in hand!
Green tea offers a respectable dose of caffeine and a good energy boost, much like an energy drink does. But the tea comes with a barrel of health benefits, rather than a slew of side effects.
Green tea can:
- reduce the risk of developing cancer
- decrease the risk of heart disease
- improve blood cholesterol levels
- reduce inflammation
- ease blood flow through and lower blood pressure
- protect cells and DNA from oxidative stress
- boost immune function
- decrease the risk of developing dental cavities and gum disease
2. Squeezin in a Mini-Workout
Energy-boosting (and writers-block busting!) mini-yoga routines and solo dance parties are also regular mid-afternoon visitors in my office! In fact, sometimes they’re the only way I can bust out of a slump — no amount of green tea will do it.
But you don’t have to take my word for it that mini-bouts of exercise can help!
There are plenty of studies showing that getting up and moving around can significantly improve energy levels and boost focus.
Of course, I realize not all of you work from home and can spaz out to dance tunes whenever the need strikes (at least not without the traumatized stares I would entirely deserve).
Luckily, walking (a much less conspicuous activity) may work just as well!
If you’re feeling sluggish, try getting up and going for a short brisk walk, either outside or around the office.
And if walking around isn’t really feasible where you work, see if you can at least stand up for a little while. Breaking up prolonged periods of sitting with bouts of standing, for even a couple of minutes, has been shown to be enough to improve sleepiness and concentration!
3. Drinking a Cup of Coffee
Somedays, the mild flavors of green tea just won’t do it for me and I have to reach for the stronger, richer flavors of a cup of coffee. And when I do, I don’t feel bad about it at all!
While perhaps not as renowned for its health benefits as green tea, coffee holds its own in the scientific literature, with studies showing serious health benefits such as:
- decreased risk of depression
- reduced risk of multiple sclerosis
- decreased risk of colon cancer
- reduced risk of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer
And, of course, it’s rich in caffeine to offer the necessary jolt!
If you opt for an afternoon coffee, be sure you don’t add a bunch of sugar!
4. Sipping a Smoothie
If I know my energy’s slumping because my blood sugar is hitting an afternoon slump, too, I like to reach for a healthy source of simple sugars, like a smoothie.
Smoothies are rich in natural fruit sugars, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other health promoting phytonutrients. This means smoothies can offer a burst of energy and a whole bunch of nutrition — sounds like a way better option than a sugar-laden, nutrient-bankrupt energy drink!
5. Taking a Nap
An afternoon nap is actually a pretty rare occurance around here, but if I give in and take one, boy, oh, boy does it work.
I mean, of course it does! Sleeping is the natural response to feeling sleepy!
That’s undoubtably why taking naps during the day can seriously improve energy, alertness, concentration, and reaction times, and why those effects stick around way longer than anything you can get from caffeine or sugar!
If you can’t get up and dance at work, you’re likely not going to be able to take a nap either. But if you find yourself in a work environment that allows a quick siesta, catching some z’s may be your healthiest, most effective option, by far.
You won’t miss your energy drink at all — promise!
Take Home Message
New evidence suggests that even a single energy drink can harm the health of your arteries, putting you at higher risk for heart attacks and strokes.
Though the evidence here is young, the fact that energy drinks can lead to other serious side effects, from both their high amounts of caffeine and large quantities of sugar, means it is likely better to avoid energy drinks altogether.
Healthier options for boosting your energy during the day are drinking green tea, coffee or a smoothie, going for a brisk walk or taking a nap.