Do Energy Drinks Really Hurt Your Heart?
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Do Energy Drinks Really Hurt Your Heart?

Find out why massive amounts of caffeine can pose surprising health risks.

It’s 2 p.m. You’re at work but wish you were home napping. You need caffeine. You could go for the old standby of coffee or tea, but you decide to try an energy drink. “All-natural ingredients,” the label says. Can’t go wrong with that, right? Not so fast.

“If I were an energy drink marketer, I’d say ‘We have naturally-occurring ingredients that increase energy and focus,’” says Dale Yoo, MD, a cardiac electrophysiologist with Medical City McKinney in McKinney, Texas. “But the problem with that is there are no known toxic ranges for a lot of these ingredients.”

What’s more, each company has a proprietary blend of ingredients, and the FDA doesn’t scrutinize these drinks. “It sounds like a healthy beverage but you’re tripling or quadrupling your stimulant intake,” Dr. Yoo says. That could cause an irregular heartbeat and dangerous increases in heart rate and blood pressure. The dangers are most pronounced in people who already have heart trouble, says Yoo. In rare cases, the drinks have even been linked to sudden cardiac death.

The dangers of stimulants
Emergency room visits involving energy drinks doubled between 2007 and 2011, according to the most recent data available from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), for reasons that include insomnia, irregular or racing heart beat and spikes in blood pressure and blood sugar. About 1 in 10 of those required a hospital stay.

While the caffeine in energy drinks is one concern, the caffeine combined with other ingredients increases the potential health risks. Guarana, taurine, kola and yerba mate are popular energy drink ingredients, says Yoo, and they either also contain caffeine or are themselves stimulants. A small 2015 study involving one brand of energy drink, published in JAMA, concluded that the energy drink caused spikes in blood pressure and stress hormones.

How much is safe?
A one-cup serving of coffee contains between 70 and 100 milligrams (mg) of caffeine. Some energy drinks may have up to four or even five times that, and that’s where problems start to arise. “We know there are antioxidants with coffee that may have a beneficial effect on stamina, attention and blood pressure. But at 400 to 500 mg of caffeine, the harms are increased,” says Yoo.

Stimulants such as caffeine raise the heart rate, and Yoo points out that anything that increases the heart rate has the potential to cause other heart rhythm problems. “The risk is higher if you have a preexisting condition like a heart defect or high blood pressure,” he says. “Stimulants can also increase the risk of heart attack.” People often don’t know they have heart problems, putting them at greater risk; this has been a particular concern for adolescents.

Moderation is key
There are a few symptoms that spell trouble for regular consumers of energy drinks. Here are a few things to look for.

  • Palpitations—Heart palpitations can feel like your heart is beating too fast, beating too hard, fluttering or skipping a beat. These can be an early sign of arrhythmia (among other things), says Yoo.
  • Elevated blood pressure—Elevated blood pressure rarely has symptoms, but it’s something you need to monitor regularly, especially if you have a heart condition or experience palpitations. “We shoot for 120/80,” says Yoo. “If your blood pressure is up over 140/90, that’s something to watch for.”
  • Needing more—If you need more and more caffeine or energy drinks to have the same effects, that could be a sign that you’re developing a tolerance for the drinks, says Yoo. “In more extreme cases it could be a sign of heart failure, where your heart doesn’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs, or signal metabolic or structural issues.”

If you’re a regular drinker of energy beverages or high levels of caffeine, think about why you feel you need it. “Many people are trying to cram 36 hours into a 24-hour day,” Yoo says. “I’m not saying no one should use any kind of stimulants, but if you get to the point where you’re having too much, that’s not good. Moderation is key.”

Natural Ways to Increase Energy
A few lifestyle tweaks may be what you need to keep your engine running smoothly. Here, top ways to boost energy and get through the day without quaffing energy drinks:

  1. Pare down your To Do list. Saying yes to every request--whether at work, from a relative or a social obligation—can exhaust anyone. Choose what’s really important. Learn guilt-free ways to set healthy boundaries and say no kindly.  
  2. Get regular exercise. Of the many benefits you gain from exercise, energy is near the top of the list. Why? You’ll get better sleep—meaning more energy to power you through the following day.
  3. Don’t smoke. Here’s yet another reason to ditch the cigarettes: Smoking can lead to insomnia. The nicotine in tobacco is a stimulant, and if caffeine keeps you up at night, smoking will make it even harder to fall asleep.
  4. Eat for all-day energy. Aim to eat small, nutritious mini-meals and snacks throughout the day. Avoid sugary, refined foods that are absorbed quickly, leading to an energy crash.