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One energy drink a day is unlikely to cause health problems. But that second Red Bull probably won't give you wings.

Red Bull Commercial May Be More Factual than Viewers Like to Know

One of the most popular energy drinks in the USA is a canned beverage known as Red Bull. The cartoons shown on American television often show a character enjoying a can of Red Bull, shortly thereafter hit by a speeding automobile or wrestling with a lurking crocodile, and then either defying impossible odds, or at least, since "Red Bull gives you wings," flying off to heaven.

The image may be more apt than viewers know.

There is nothing in Red Bull or any other energy drink on the American market that is specifically poisonous. You aren't actually going to be winging off to your eternal reward just because you drink a single can of an energy drink. But the combinations of herbs, amino acids, vitamins, and caffeine in many American energy drinks have never been tested and can have unexpected effects.

Red Bull, for instance, contains about 70 per cent as much caffeine as a cup of espresso. This gives the user an immediate energy boost. Then the combination of taurine (which is, by the way, potentially deadly to your cat, so keep Red Bull away from pets), vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and 27 grams of sugar heighten brain activity. Then the glucoronolactone in the drink degrades into vitamin C and xylulose, which sustains the sugar high for another hour or two—when the user wants another Red Bull.

The makers of Red Bull told Reuter's Health that just in 2010, they sold four billion cans of their beverage in 160 countries. There are no reports of mass casualties due to their energy drinks. There is very little risk of danger from drinking just one energy drink a day unless you are very sensitive to caffeine. But what if you regularly drink two, three, six, ten, or more? Are there any potential problems with the ingredients in energy drinks?

Potential Problems with the Ingredients in Energy Drinks

A research study from New Zealand found that the caffeine from drinking just one energy drink could cause some teens to suffer short-term anxiety, attention deficit, memory problems (not a good thing before exams), and stomach upset. A similar problem, it is only fair to note, also results from drinking coffee at Starbucks.

Also in just a single serving of a typical energy drink are herbal stimulants such as gurana, yohimbine, and ginseng. Gurana is a South American herb used as a pick-me-up. It's high in caffeine but also in other alkaloids that stimulate, or over-stimulate, different parts of the brain.

Yohimbine is best known as a truly effective herbal treatment for impotence. It is a rare and expensive herb. Most products that claim to contain it don't actually contain it, and in its absence, it can't cause health problems. Real yohimbine, however, can interact with blood pressure medications and cause headaches.

The ginseng in energy drinks is never the Panax ginseng used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. This herb often costs as much as $2000 a pound. The ginseng in energy drinks is eleuthero, once known as Siberian ginseng. It is a proven adaptogen, helping the immune system adapt to stress.

This herb also helps the body conserve testosterone, increasing sex drive in both males and females, increasing the frequency of acne outbreaks in both males and females, and increasing the progression of "male pattern" baldness in both males and females. The famous and tonsorially challenged basketball player Charles Barkley, for example, once drank up to 30 eleuthro-based energy drinks every day.

All of these side effects can occur after drinking just one can a day. They multiply when consumption exceeds one can a day—and it often does. But do energy drinks cause real health problems?

What the Medical Literature Tells Us About Energy Drinks

The documented truth is that energy drinks can and do cause serious medical problems. Here are just a few reports from the medical literature.

  • Two boys, aged 14 and 16, had to be treated for atrial fibrillation after drinking Red Bull. The fourteen-year-old came into the emergency room complaining of a flutter in his chest. His heart rate was 130 beats per minute, and echocardiography revealed that he had only 1/6 of the normal output from his heart. He recovered after he was treated with digoxin, a heart medication usually reserved for those who have had heart attacks. The 16-year-old came into the emergency room after drinking an indeterminate amount of Red Bull with vodka at a party. He was severely dehydrated, and had to be given 2 liters of saline solution by an IV to get his heart rate down from 160 beats per minute to 105.
  • An analysis of studies involving 310,819 people done by researchers at Harvard Medical School found that drinking more than one sugar-sweetened beverage per day (including other soft drinks and sweetened ice tea) resulted in 26 per cent greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Even teens can develop type 2 diabetes.
  • Four cases of mania have been reported in persons with bipolar disorder who consumed energy drinks.
  • Five cases of seizures have been reported in people who drank energy drinks.
  • Four caffeine-related deaths have been recorded in the medical literature, including the death of an 18-year-old man who died of cardiac arrest while playing basketball after drinking two cans of Red Bull.
But the real problem with energy drinks may be that kids use them instead of the sports drinks they actually need. Energy drinks provide sugar. Sports drinks provide electrolytes. Electrolytes are essential to healthy heart rhythm under conditions of heat, exhaustion, and stress. The bigger problem for regular users of energy drinks may not be the caffeine and sugar they get, but rather the electrolytes they don't.

Loss of electrolytes can be a factor in cardiac arrest causing sudden death.

One energy drink a day is unlikely to cause health problems. But that second Red Bull probably won't give you wings.

  • Di Rocco JR, During A, Morelli PJ, Heyden M, Biancaniello TA. Atrial fibrillation in healthy adolescents after highly caffeinated beverage consumption: two case reports. J Med Case Reports. 2011 Jan 19,5(1):18. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Malik VS, Popkin BM, Bray GA, Després JP, Willett WC, Hu FB. Sugar-sweetened beverages and risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes: a meta-analysis. Diabetes Care. 2010 Nov, 33(11):2477-83. Epub 2010 Aug 6. Review
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