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The hidden dangers of energy drinks

Is your teen OD’ing on caffeine?

Coffee shop, teens, caffeine overload

On a cold February Monday in my junior year of high school, I stumbled down the stairs and, in an act of defiance, poured myself a cup of forbidden coffee.

Steeling myself against my parent’s outrage, I was instead met with mild interest and a gentle warning to drink only two cups a day. As my parents are usually right, I have always tried to live by their simple rule.

But even if teenagers today are heeding the two-cup rule when it comes to coffee, there are now so many other ways to ingest caffeine in amounts that could jolt an elephant from a coma.

The Mayo Clinic recommends that adults consume no more than 400 milligrams per day, and that adolescents limit their caffeine intake to 100 mg per day, roughly the amount of one small cup of brewed coffee (although a Starbucks 16-ounce grande coffee contains about 330 mg of caffeine).

READ MORE: Why kids shouldn’t be guzzling energy drinks

Beyond coffee
In one beverage alone, your child could be drinking three times the amount of recommended caffeine. Moreover, the scientist in me can’t help but wonder if 100 mg a day is a relative figure, given the variations in children’s size, weight and metabolism.

For those parents who wouldn’t dream of giving their kids a cup of joe, keep in mind that a 20-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew contains 54 mg of caffeine, and a 20-ounce bottle of Coke contains 58.

The latest trend of energy drinks for kids has nutritional health advocates worried. Thanks to the advent of Red Bull and Monster drinks, the flood gates have been opened for numerous food and drink supplemented with caffeine. Those little yellow “5-Hour Energy” shots? They contain 200 mg of caffeine in each bottle.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids addicted to energy drinks, using it too late during the day, and lying about their use,” says Dr. Barbara Payne, a pediatrician at Mount Kisco in Rhinebeck. “Quite honestly, we should ask more kids about their caffeine use. We ask them about drug and alcohol use, but not about caffeine. I’m not even sure they see it as a drug.”

READ MORE: Are your kids drinking enough?

Energy and empty calories
Nancy Case, a nutritionist and dietician in Dutchess County, says parents often complain to her about their child’s nervousness, restlessness and poor appetite, while having no idea how much caffeine their child is consuming. She has also seen a correlation between caffeine consumption and sleep issues in Hudson Valley children.

What Case finds even more disconcerting is that children are using energy drinks to replace what could have been nutritious snacks, especially the more active kids who are involved sports. Caffeine can also increase the amount of calcium that is flushed out in the urine, thereby causing calcium deficiency.

“This in turn adversely affects the nutritional needs of children,” she says. “They are merely consuming empty calories.”

Maria Cecilia Melendres, a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep specialist at John Hopkins Children’s Center, notes that overloading on caffeine actually prevents the brain from functioning optimally.

“Teens are still undergoing brain maturation and sleep is especially important to that process,” she says. “Caffeine, which has been shown in studies to disrupt sleep, may have adverse effects on brain development as a result. Caffeine also decreases the time you spend in slow-wave sleep, which has a critical role in learning and memory. At the same time, more awakenings during sleep leads to daytime sleepiness, which prompts you to consume more caffeine. It’s a vicious cycle.”

READ MORE: Top tips for parenting teens

Marketing to children
In a 2011 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics entitled “
Sports Drinks and Energy Drinks for Children and Adolescents: Are They Appropriate?,” the group calls the marketing of sports drinks and energy drinks toward children inappropriate.

“Sports drinks are flavored beverages that often contain carbohydrates, minerals, electrolytes … and sometimes vitamins or other nutrients. Although the term “energy” can be perceived to imply calories, energy drinks typically contain stimulants, such as caffeine and guarana. ... Using energy drinks instead of sports drinks for rehydration can result in ingestion of potentially large amounts of caffeine or other stimulant substances.” 

Barbara Crouch, executive director at the Utah Poison Control Center, said in a 2013 interview with CNN that unlike coffee drinkers, energy drink consumers (especially teens) like to chug down not just one, but two or three to get a good jolt on before a hardcore workout or sports practice.

"When you pound down more than one energy drink verses sipping a cup of coffee, you're not metabolizing it the same way," she says. Crouch also notes that factors like size, age, gender, drug interactions, hydration levels and the amount of food in the stomach can mean different outcomes for different people when on a caffeine binge.

“There is absolutely such a thing as caffeine poisoning, and the dose essentially makes the poison."

No FDA regulation
Caffeine does not currently fall under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration, so “energy” products are not regulated. And more and more of these companies are gearing their advertising to adolescents as an answer to their busy lives.

And it’s not just drinks. Your little darlings can now buy “Wired Waffles” (200 mg caffeine), “Bang! Caffeinated Ice Cream (125 mg caffeine) or even “Crackhead Expresso Beans” (200mg).

Until the FDA begins regulation of caffeine, it is up to parents to educate themselves and their kids about the drinks they are putting into their bodies. There are many adverse side effects of caffeine in large amounts, which need to be taken into consideration.

So wake up parents (pun intended) and watch out for your teen’s caffeine consumption. It could save their lives.

Kymberly Breckenridge is a freelance writer living with her family in Rhinebeck.