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Think twice before downing that energy drink during exams

- Wits University

Energy drinks are popular 'go-to fuel' for university students, especially during exams. But what lurks behind the kick?

It is common for students to reach for energy drinks to try to stay awake whilst reading through textbooks and trying to put together a paper or project at four in the morning. However, energy drinks have come under fire recently due to the adverse health effects linked to the high levels of caffeine and sugar content. We ask Professor Karen Hofman, Director of PRICELESS SA Research Unit at Wits, about the health risks of energy drinks.

Student preparing for exam

What is the health impact on your body when you consume energy drinks to ‘help’ you stay awake?

Energy drinks have large amounts of stimulants that can poison the body’s control centres and regulatory authorities and can result in cardiac, neurological, and gastrointestinal problems. The primary concern is the consumption of excess caffeine, which can lead to sleeplessness, anxiety and jitteriness. People also seem unaware that energy drinks contain similar or even higher amount of sweeteners and pose the same health risks as sugar-sweetened beverages. Some popular energy drink brands contain up to 20 teaspoons per 500 ml, while the World Health Organisation recommends a daily limit of added sugars of between six and 12 teaspoons for adults. Energy drinks can lead to weight gain and obesity, which increases the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and liver disease.

How much is okay and how much is dangerous?

Energy drinks can be consumed in moderation and mindfully. Coffee and energy drinks typically take approximately 30 to 45 minutes to "kick in" or to be absorbed into the blood stream. The mistake a lot of students make is simply being impatient with this process and reach for another cup or drink. Since the caffeine does take a little while to kick in, we assume it is due to the quantity we have consume. Time is the real factor not quantity.

On average, the daily amount of caffeine deemed safe for adults is 400 mg. Caffeine levels per serving in an energy drink range from 6mg to 242mg per serving, and an average cup of coffee has about 100mg per serving. Going beyond 400 milligrams is when caffeine starts to wreak havoc on the body. Some of the effects of too much caffeine are insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, irritability, nausea, fast heartbeat, and muscle tremors.

What in the public’s behaviour/lifestyle is behind the rise in the consumption of energy drinks?

A trip to any university would reveal that energy drinks have become enmeshed in the subculture of the campus. College students (and adolescents and young adults more generally) are constantly bombarded with marketing that promote the consumption of energy drinks that enhance performance, support mental alertness, increase stamina and energy, reduce fatigue, accelerate metabolism and  improve general performance. Therefore, it is hard to grasp the fact that energy drinks could be harmful when companies wage aggressive marketing campaigns aimed at college students.

Are there any alternatives to these drinks that can help students to manage time pressures and mental alertness?

While drinking energy drinks to pull an `all-nighter` is seen as a valiant thing to do, denying your brain and body the sleep it needs actually causes you to lose focus rather than learn. Both the quantity and quality of sleep is very important for academic success. Sleep improves memory, attention, verbal fluency, abstract thinking, and problem-solving. When you’re exhausted, it’s harder to pay attention in class, to study efficiently, and to perform well on exams. 

Simple strategies such as keeping the room cold, taking a break every hour for about five minutes and moving around, listening to fast music can be surprisingly helpful in keeping students both mentally and physically awake. Turning off instant messengers, cellphone, television, and any notifications that might distract students also plays a crucial role in time management.

A balanced diet and foods rich in protein can help to keep the blood sugar stable and to balance out the caffeine.

How do we protect the health of the nation?

Despite the significant health risks posed by energy drink consumption, the South African government has taken relatively little action to date. There is a need to the public, especially youth about the potential adverse effects of energy drinks.

Secondly, regulation of advertising of energy drinks alongside other measures such as transparent and clearer front-of pack labeling might have a potential role as a means to control consumption.

Last but not least, do not ever mix alcohol and energy drinks.