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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

Energy Drinks May Raise Risk for Alcohol Problems

College Students Who Often Drink Energy Drinks May Become Problem Drinkers, Researchers Say
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"Wide-Awake Drunkeness" continued...

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.

FDA Should Regulate Energy Drinks

The amount of caffeine or other ingredients in these energy drinks is not regulated. Some may have three of four times the amount of caffeine found in a cup of coffee, he says. Higgins recently published a paper on the caffeine content of energy drinks in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

"Manufacturers can put anything they want in here and some of the substances have stimulant effects themselves as well as caffeine-type effects, so you get a double hit," he says. "The FDA regulates things that are less dangerous than these beverages."

Alcohol-Caffeine Combo Is Risky Business

Susan Foster, vice president and director of Policy Research and Analysis at The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University in New York City, agrees. "The combination of highly caffeinated, sugary drinks and alcohol is enormously dangerous in many ways."

For starters, "these are the equivalent of a binge drink in a can, and consuming high levels of caffeine, which increase alertness and take away the usual signals that getting drunk, can lead to alcohol poisoning," she says.

It takes two to tango, says Toben F. Nelson, ScD, a professor of epidemiology & community health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis. "The stimulant can mask the depressant effect and students don't realize how intoxicated they are so they consume more," he says. "The combined effects of alcohol and caffeine really are making students more susceptible to the risks of alcohol and heavy drinking, and this is a relatively new phenomenon."

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