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Energy Drinks May Raise Risk for Alcohol Problems

College Students Who Often Drink Energy Drinks May Become Problem Drinkers, Researchers Say
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Nov. 16, 2010 -- Drinking energy drinks daily or even on a weekly basis may increase your risk of developing alcohol problems.

The new findings, which appear online in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, are especially concerning given the trend of mixing alcohol with high-caffeine energy drinks.

In the new study of more than 1,000 college students, people who drank energy beverages 52 or more times a year were more than twice as likely as non-users to meet criteria for alcohol dependence. In addition, such "high-frequency users" were more likely to get drunk at an earlier age, drink more in one sitting, black out, and/or experience hangover symptoms that limited their usual activities, the study showed.

Overall, more than 60% of college students drank an energy beverage at some point in the past year and 10.1% had these drinks weekly and 2.6% daily or almost daily.

The study helps identify a new high-risk group, says Harold C. Urschel, MD, an addiction expert in Dallas. "People that drink these energy beverages daily or weekly need to be careful about alcohol consumption," he says. Urschel was not involved in the study.

Exactly how energy drinks increase risk for alcohol dependence is not fully understood. People who drink these beverages may rely on them to get through classes after a drinking binge or to power through a hangover. Alternatively, energy drinks may mask drunkenness and pave the road toward binge drinking, which raises the risk of future alcohol dependence.

When alcohol and energy drinks are drunk together, "the caffeine helps to disguise intoxication so you can drink more without realizing that you are drunk," Urschel tells WebMD. "You are more intoxicated and more revved up, and that is quite dangerous."

"Wide-Awake Drunkeness"

"This is serious," says study author Amelia M. Arria, PhD, the director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health in Baltimore and a senior scientist at the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia. "When you consume alcohol and energy drinks at the same time, it prolongs the drinking episode because it decreases your perceived level of intoxication, so you can drink for longer periods of time," she says.

This phenomenon is called "wide-awake drunkenness" and can lead to risky or even life-threatening behaviors, she says.

"I don't think it is ever safe to combine energy drinks with an alcoholic drink, and they are on the menu in many bars and restaurants," she says. Some energy drinks are pre-mixed with alcohol. Washington and Michigan have banned caffeinated alcoholic beverages.

"Drinking alcohol and caffeine at the same time is like hitting the gas and the brake at the same time," says John Higgins, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and director of exercise physiology at Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine Institute, also in Houston.

"Alcohol is a known depressant, and these energy drinks have many materials in them that are known stimulants, the most common one being caffeine," he says.

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