Alcohol energy drinks (AEDs), also called caffeinated alcoholic beverages (CABs) quickly became a popular drinking alternative within the realm of alcohol use, and more dangerously, abuse. In addition to this, energy drinks have gained widespread popularity as an alternative to sodas or juices as mixers in cocktails or as chasers following shots. Even though this use may be steeped in a party culture that revolves around fun, the results are far from positive—research finds that consuming alcohol in conjunction with energy drinks significantly increases your risk of harmful side effects and dangers.
The CDC reports that sales of caffeinated alcoholic beverages soared and in a mere six years (from 2002-2008) the two leading CAB brands had a combined 67-fold increase in sales. Due to the implications of this influx and the staggering research that illustrated the dangers, restrictions have been imposed to limit the production and sales of these beverages. The CDC’s website states that “in November 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told the manufacturers of seven CABs that their drinks could no longer stay on the market in their current form.”
When it came to alcoholic beverages that were sold premixed with alcohol, the danger was even greater as the alcohol content often surpassed that of an average beer, or what is considered the equivalent of a standard drink. Here, we outline exactly why these premixed drinks are so dangerous, by breaking down their individual components. These risks are also present when energy drinks are mixed together with alcohol.
The Science Behind This Bad Combination
Energy drinks generally contain a blend of caffeine, vitamins (namely B), and other chemical or herbal stimulants, including taurine, guarana, or ginseng, to name a few; many contain large amounts of sugar, as well.
All drugs exert an effect on your body and brain. Within the brain, they alter the functioning of neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that are responsible for sending messages across your brain and to your brain’s receptors.
When you consider the effect that drugs of abuse have on your brain’s neurotransmitters, one commonality you’ll find is that they all affect your body’s dopamine system, causing it to activate. In the case of the alcohol and energy drink combination, the two most predominant ingredients—caffeine and alcohol have one thing in common—they both increase the neurotransmitter dopamine which is associated with reward. Scientists theorize that this is one of the reasons why this combination is so enticing to people.
On the other hand, these two substances exert very different effects on your brain’s neurotransmitters for an important reason—alcohol is a sedative or a depressant, while caffeine is a stimulant. This causes your brain and body to be caught in a tug of war, as neurotransmitters on both ends of the spectrum are being activated and inhibited. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. When the alcohol crosses the blood brain barrier, it activates the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. An inhibitory neurotransmitter inhibits, or slows down, specific neural processes. In the case of alcohol, the resultant state of relaxation or sedation is due to this.
On the other hand, caffeine has the effect of being an antagonist on certain neurotransmitters. This means that it gets in the way of their function. One of the chemicals it impedes is also an inhibitory neurotransmitter. This chemical is adenosine. Due to the fact that this chemical’s effects are significantly impaired, the opposite effect occurs—the hallmark arousal and alertness that people most commonly attribute to caffeine. In amounts of excess caffeine, this imbalance can create a sense of nervousness or anxiety and even cause an abnormally quickened heart rate (tachycardia).
The addition of other stimulants can magnify caffeine’s effects. The fact that many of these stimulants may be naturally derived can be misleading. Just because something is naturally sourced does not necessarily mean that it is good for you. Also, it is worth noting that some people claim that energy drinks are “good for you” or help prevent hangovers because they contain B vitamins. Though it is true that B vitamins are essential for good health, the negative effects of this delivery method far outweigh any positives. There are numerous other healthy ways by which one can obtain these necessary vitamins, namely through a healthy diet, but also by actually taking vitamins.
A very common and dangerous supposition is that caffeine or other stimulants decrease the metabolism of alcohol or make its effects and outcomes less harmful. According to the CDC, “caffeine has no effect on the metabolism of alcohol by the liver and thus does not reduce breath alcohol concentrations or reduce the risk of alcohol-attributable harms.”
The journal Frontiers in Public Health published a study that researched the adverse effects of energy drink consumption in Europe, with attention to the risks that resulted from its consumption with alcohol. They found that “while the consumption of energy drinks with alcohol significantly reduces the subjective perceptions of some symptoms of alcohol intoxication including impairment of motor coordination, there is no actual reduction in the effects of the alcohol on the impairment of motor coordination, reaction time, or the breath alcohol concentration.” Just because you can’t see the effects as blatantly as when you drink alcohol alone, doesn’t mean that your body and brain are not suffering from them.
This combination of chemicals and subsequent neurotransmitter activity, or lack thereof, can cause what some scientists coined as “wide awake drunkenness.” As a person consumes an excess of alcohol paired with stimulants, some of the stimulant’s properties become more evident and mask those of the alcohol. This may result in a person feeling an inaccurate sobering effect—the stimulant’s properties mislead a person into thinking that they are not as inebriated as they really are, causing them to consume more alcohol and engage in risky behaviors. In fact, this combination of alcohol, caffeine, and other stimulants can in fact further perpetuate already-present risks, while adding on additional dangers.
What Are The Dangers Of Mixing Alcohol With These Stimulants?
Some people might wonder why this is a bad thing—after all, people have been using caffeinated beverages (like cola) in mixed drinks for years. There is a vast difference between mixing a cocktail with cola and pairing alcohol with an energy drink. The amount of caffeine and effect of the caffeine, especially when met with the other stimulants, is significantly different. It’s reported that many of the most popular energy drinks have 4-5 times as much caffeine as your average cola. Pair this with an excess of sugar and a cocktail of other stimulants and you have a dangerous combination.
Worldwide, scientists are concerned about the effects of energy drinks as they stand alone, coupled with alcohol this risk increases. Energy drinks can cause the following side effects alone; here we elaborate and note where alcohol abuse also causes these effects.
- Irritability: Binge drinking can cause a drop in blood sugar as your blood alcohol content falls, which can cause irritability.
- Dehydration: Alcohol itself is a diuretic and causes dehydration.
- Upset stomach: Excess amounts of alcohol can cause nausea and vomiting and other gastrointestinal disturbances.
- Heart palpitations: Alcohol use can cause cardiac arrhythmia, especially in people who already have a present heart condition.
- Increased blood pressure: Alcohol abuse can raise your blood pressure, including binge drinking, which often is concurrent to alcohol use that involves energy drinks.
- Sleeplessness: Contrary to what people might think, alcohol actually disrupts your sleeping patterns and leads to a lower quality of sleep.
This combination can be especially hazardous for people who have certain preexisting conditions such as heart disease or high blood pressure. Alcohol abuse can aggravate both of these conditions and the components of an energy drink can also cause complications for those who suffer from them—together the risk is compounded.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that in 2011, 13 percent of the 20,783 ED visits that involved energy drinks also involved alcohol. In the worst instances, as is supported by the statistics of ED visits and scientific research, this combination can cause seizure and death.
Due to the fact that a person may not be able to perceive an accurate representation of the extent of their intoxication, a person might keep drinking and have suffer further incapacitation of their judgement and decision-making faculties, leading them to take more risks and endanger the health and lives of themselves and those around them.
According to the CDC, those who mix alcohol with energy drinks, in comparison to those who do not are:
- 3 times more likely to binge drink (based on breath alcohol levels)
- About twice as likely to report being taken advantage of sexually
- About twice as likely to report taking advantage of someone else sexually
- About twice as likely to report riding with a driver who was under the influence of alcohol
In addition to these risks, the Frontiers in Public Health study referenced research that found “a positive association between energy drink consumption and high-risk behaviors including marijuana use, fighting, sexual risk taking, failure to use seat belts, taking risks on a dare, smoking, drinking, problems stemming from alcohol abuse, and illicit drug use.”
The Impact On Underage And College Age Drinkers
Though this use affects all ages, it has been especially high and detrimental to the younger population. Frontiers in Public Health found that within a study group of young adults ages 18-29, of those who consumed energy drinks, 71 percent mixed them with alcohol. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) cites that alcoholic energy drinks “are regularly consumed by 31 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds and 34 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds.”
Nonalcoholic drinks are widely popular and increasingly consumed by adolescent and young adults. The alcohol versions were marketed in cans that were eerily similar—decked out in bright colors, with pop art designs and catchy names—all things that purposely added to their trendy and youthful appeal, with what appeared to be a specific aim to market to a underage and college-aged population. In addition, these drinks were relatively cheap and many times contained more alcohol than your average beer, making them a popular choice for individuals within these age demographics.
Scientists at Dartmouth’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center researched the correlation between the consumption of energy drinks and alcohol abuse within a population of 3,342 youth between the ages of 15 and 23 years. The university spoke of the results, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, stating that “teens aged 15-17 years old who had ever mixed alcohol with energy drinks were four times more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder than a teen who has tried alcohol but never mixed it with an energy drink.”
Some of the chemical and herbal stimulants that frequent the ingredient list of these energy drinks, both nonalcoholic and alcoholic, are touted to bring the user a host of seemingly positive benefits (albeit claims that are not backed up by significant scientific evidence), some of which include increased physical performance, stamina, and libido. These things are massively appealing to the college-aged crowd and go hand-in-hand with their pursuit of sociability and sexuality.
These desires can be very dangerous when paired with the increased state of inebriation that commonly results when a person consumes alcohol and an energy drink together. As a person becomes more and more inebriated, their brain becomes compromised and their judgement and decision-making centers are impaired, this paired with decreased inhibitions leads to a higher instance of bad decisions and dangerous behaviors.
A study published in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine studied the effects of alcohol mixed with energy drinks (referred to by the study’s authors as AmED) on drinking behaviors and consequences within college-aged individuals. In comparison to those who consumed alcohol without energy drinks (the latter number), researchers found that “consumption of AmED was associated with increased heavy episodic drinking (6.4 days vs. 3.4 days on average) and also “twice as many episodes of weekly drunkenness (1.4 days/week vs. 0.73 days/week).
Any drinking for under aged individuals can be very harmful as certain areas of their brains are still developing. Research shows that binge drinking, which oftentimes is higher in instances where alcohol is consumed in conjunction with energy drinks, carries specific risks of causing damage to the brain and cognitive processes, and for those of the younger sect, increasing their odds of developing an alcohol use disorder later in life.
Don’t Let This Trend Derail Your Life Or Health
Combining alcohol with energy drinks can be a dangerous and even deadly combination. If you’d like to understand more about the risks associated with this or any other drinking behaviors, or if you’re fearful that you or a loved one is suffering from an alcohol use disorder, please reach out to us today. AlcoholTreatment.net is standing by to offer you the knowledge and support that you need to get your life and health back on track.