January 17, 2013

Fear The Monster

Why Older Teens and Young Adults Would Be Wise To Channel Their Childhood Phobia of Monsters (and other high energy beverages)

The marketing and use of beverages meant to supplement your energy have experienced meteoric rises in the last half decade. Whether it’s a Starbuck’s Caramel Macchiato with two extra shots of espresso, a 5-Hour Energy for that 2pm slump or having the bartender throw a Red Bull into your vodka, the pervasion of these beverages into many of our daily lives seems to have occurred seamlessly.

On my most recent trip to the Sin City, I went with a few people whose names will be changed to protect the guilty. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t the one who started the trend that spiraled into what will have been an almost tragic end, but I knew to use moderation. I convinced my party we could stay on the casino floor just that much longer if we combined the free vodkas they were bringing us, which in this drinker’s humble opinion, was at too fast a frequency, with the popular energy drink, Red Bull.

My original hypothesis that we could extend our play time was adopted with a vengeance by one in our group. Let’s call him Shawn. Shawn managed to, with the aid of that delicious combination of beverages, stay on the casino floor for 26 straight hours. The end of this story, while not involving a trip to a Las Vegas emergency room, did allow for a firefighter/EMT/Duane “The Rock” Johnson look-alike to make a guest appearance in the hotel room to assess the obviously imperiled health of Shawn.

Not everyone, it seems, was as lucky as Shawn. They weren’t able to re-hydrate and sleep it off. In fact, a new government survey is suggesting that the volume of people who are checking into emergency rooms as a result of energy drink consumption has doubled over the past four years. That same time frame, 2007-2011, also, interestingly enough, coincides with the popularity of energy beverages and their availability at corner stores, coffee shops and bars.

The estimated increase from 10,000 to 20,000 ER admissions mainly involved young adults and teens, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). They released the results of their survey of the nation’s hospitals late last week. The SAMHSA survey is based on responses they receive from approximately 230 hospitals each year. This is a representative sample of about 5 percent of all emergency healthcare providers nationwide. The data culled from their survey is then used to extrapolate an estimate of the total number of energy drink-related emergency department visits nationwide.

While teens and young adults comprised the bulk of the 20,000 ER visitors per year, the group that saw the single highest percentage increase of visits belongs to those people who had already celebrated the big 4-0. Among people aged 40 and over, visits to the ER as a result of energy drink consumption skyrocketed by 279 percent over the four year period.

Their report, which labels energy drink consumption as a “rising public health problem”, did not specify the exact symptoms that brought the individuals into their respective ERs. They did note, however, that highly caffeinated and supplemented beverages can cause issues for the individual like insomnia, nervousness, headache, fast or irregular heartbeat, and seizures that are so severe in nature that medical attention is absolutely required.

“Consumption of energy drinks is a rising public health problem because medical and behavioral consequences can result from excessive caffeine intake,” the report says. “A growing body of scientific evidence documents harmful health effects of energy drinks, particularly for children, adolescents, and young adults.”

The survey reports several anecdotal observations of emergency physicians who are open about the fact that they have seen a clear increase in the number of patients who are suffering from irregular heartbeats, anxiety and even heart attacks, who reported that they had only very recently consumed an energy beverage of one kind or another. While more than half of the patients claimed they had only consumed an energy drink, approximately 42 percent of the reported cases involved the combination of energy drinks with either alcohol or drugs.

“A lot of people don’t realize the strength of these things. I had someone come in recently who had drunk three energy drinks in an hour, which is the equivalent of 15 cups of coffee,” said Howard Mell, an emergency physician in the suburbs of Cleveland, who serves as a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians. “Essentially he gave himself a stress test and thankfully he passed. But if he had a weak heart or suffered from coronary disease and didn’t know it, this could have precipitated very bad things.”

Last week’s SAMHSA report is not the first warning bell we have heard, with regard to the use and overuse of energy beverages. Just this previous fall, a report came out linking the deaths of 18 people to their energy drink consumption. The producers of these beverages have spoken out claiming they and their product are, in no way, responsible for the deaths of their consumers.

Beverage manufacturers fired back at the survey, saying the statistics were misleading and taken out of context. In a statement, the American Beverage Association stated, “This report does not share information about the overall health of those who may have consumed energy drinks, or what symptoms brought them to the ER in the first place. There is no basis by which to understand the overall caffeine intake of any of these individuals — from all sources.”

Of course, these are extreme cases. Estimating some 20,000 emergency room visits out of the 136 million visits, annually, represents a small percentage. What we are seeing is problems with those who overindulge with caffeine and other stimulant additives. The truth is there is plenty of evidence that shows the responsible use of caffeine and stimulants can produce significant health benefits. Responsible use, as defined by most experts, is 200-300 mg, or approximately two to four cups of brewed coffee, per day. In addition to offering a boost in your memory and overall alertness, studies have shown caffeine use may also help to mitigate the effects of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, aid in protecting against diabetes and heart disease, and impact your speed and endurance during exercise.

Legislators are leading the call for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin investigations into the safety concerns around energy drinks and their ingredients. According to FDA spokesperson Shelly Burgess, “We will examine this additional information … as part of our ongoing investigation into potential safety issues surrounding the use of energy-drink products.”

Despite the attention they have been receiving of late, energy drinks hold a small market share in the soft drink world. Their sales volume has been estimated at only 3.3 percent of the total soft drink market. However, the signals on the horizon show that the growth in sales of energy beverages has been steadily on the rise.

According to Beverage Digest, in 2011 alone, sales volume for energy drinks increased by just under 17 percent. They noted these beverages, like Monster, Red Bull and Rockstar, are typically marketed at sporting events that are heavily attended by younger people.

“We were really concerned to find that in four years the number of emergency department visits almost doubled, and these drinks are largely marketed to younger people,” said Al Woodward, a senior statistical analyst with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration who worked on the report.

It is clear that data on this subject will continue to be collected over the next several years. If you, yourself, ever experience any of the adverse side-effects associated with excessive caffeine or energy supplementation, you are urged to request that your health care provider report it to the FDA’s MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting Program. Of course, MedWatch also allows for self-reporting.

We, as consumers, often take manufacturers at their word that what they are peddling is safe. I mean, why would it be on the shelf if it wasn’t safe? The most important rule of thumb is to be a pro-active consumer. It shouldn’t make sense that you rely on a product to keep mentally and physically aware. Abuse of products like these can lead to a myriad of detrimental health effects. As with most everything in life, the practice of moderation should be key.

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