When thinking about dependency, energy drinks do not readily spring to mind as drinks you could become dependent or addicted to. Supposedly, energy drinks are just another drink that can be consumed as a beverage and they’re readily available in supermarkets as they’re non-alcoholic.
Quite surprisingly, they are marketed as improving mental and physical performance.
However, there’s a big BUT because in 2014 the NHS issued a warning, stating that the danger of consuming energy drinks primarily lies in the caffeine content and some of the potential risks are caffeine overdose, substance-dependence and sensation-seeking behaviour. They’re a threat to your health and well-being as well as being highly addictive!
Why are energy drinks addictive?
Energy drinks contain 316mg in 8oz of super-high quantities of caffeine as well as elevated levels of sugar and preservatives. According to the European Food Safety Authority, daily caffeine intakes from any source should not exceed 400mg per day for healthy adults
Both caffeine and sugar are highly addictive substances and are incorporated into energy drinks because they reduce feelings of tiredness and lethargy.
Caffeine blocks the receptors in the brain that are responsible for feelings of tiredness and the need for sleep. By blocking these receptors, it increases the body’s natural stimulants – dopamine and noradrenaline.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter controlling the reward centres of the brain. Increasing levels of dopamine creates pleasurable feelings which a person may wish to create on a regular basis. Repeated cravings and usage of high-level caffeine energy drinks could lead to a desire to recreate the ‘reward’ stimulus it creates and eventually lead to dependency and/or addiction.
Adrenaline is naturally produced in the body to provide the ‘fight or flight’ response to dangerous situations both of a physical and mental nature. However, over-consumption of caffeine can stimulate adrenaline release for the wrong reasons because at the time of consumption you’re not necessarily in a heightened sense of danger.
To give some context to this, some energy drinks contain nearly eight times more caffeine than a regular cup of coffee – that’s a lot! Just imagine drinking eight cups of coffee in a 10-15 minute period – essentially that’s what you would be doing if you were drinking some of the more potent energy drinks on the market.
The most common cause of overdose is due to caffeine toxicity causing abnormal heart rhythms and incapacitating the other major organs of the body, possibly leading to death. This is because interactions with other substances and compounds are being metabolised in the same pathway, thus overloading the system to dangerous levels.
Sugar is also very addictive, and research suggests it is more addictive than cocaine. Again, it affects the levels of dopamine in the brain, but instead of blocking receptors, it triggers the production of more dopamine as you consume the sugar. Sugar also activates the reward circuits of the brain which control addictive behaviour.
Who’s most at risk?
Young people (teenagers) and those people with dependent or addictive tendencies are more at risk of becoming reliant on energy drinks.
Young people are more likely to be attracted to the ‘streetwise’ packaging of energy drinks. Plus, they provide a legal high which is appealing. Not many young people will give any thought to consuming a few cans of energy drink to relieve lethargy and/or gain an increase in energy. With names like Cocaine, Spike, Wired, Bang, Rockstar and Speed Stack, to name but a few, they are extremely attractive to impressionable teenagers.
Young people are very vulnerable as they will not realise that the ingredients of the energy drink are potentially dangerous to their well-being and they will not have been educated to the dangers or possible side-effects either.
Energy drinks may be consumed as an alternative to other substances such as alcohol, a young person’s thinking being that they are choosing the safer and more socially acceptable alternative – this is not the case!
People with dependency or addictive tendencies and those in recovery are more vulnerable to becoming dependent or addicted to energy drinks. People in recovery who are abstaining from other substances may see energy drinks as a way of producing the same ‘high’ feeling. This is known as ‘cross addiction’.
In extreme cases, people recovering from an alcohol use disorder may replace the alcohol, can for can, with energy drinks – imagine how dangerous this could be.
Signs of energy drink use disorder:
Put simply, if your energy drink isn’t energising like it used to and you need more to get the same effect then you could have a dependency and /or addiction.
As with most dependencies and addictions, there are signs that could become markedly apparent.
Dependency and/or addiction to energy drinks is no different. These are some of the signs that may indicate that you’re dependent and/or addicted:
- Consuming several bottles or energy drinks during the day
- Inability to function without your daily energy drink intake
- Tolerance to energy drinks
- Withdrawal starts when you stop drinking energy drinks
- You lose concentration when you do not have energy drinks
- You cannot get a night’s sleep whether you drink energy drinks or not
Energy drinks cause a variety of disturbing and dangerous symptoms too:
- Anxiety and nervousness
- Stomach ulcers
- High blood pressure
- Rapid heart rate
Whilst the above are some of the classic signs and symptoms of energy drink dependency and/addiction, they may be very different and have more dangerous consequences if you are mixing energy drinks with alcohol or other addictive substances.
The more energy drinks that you consume, the more extreme the physical and mental stressors will be on your body and ultimately you should try to remember that, as with any other addictive substance, the over-consumption of energy drinks may have severe outcomes for the individual concerned.
Can Energy Drinks Act as a Gateway Substance/Drug?
In short, YES.
Having large amounts of caffeine circulating in your body can be habit-forming and lead to physical dependence. This level of dependency causes people to experience caffeine withdrawal symptoms similar to those experienced with alcohol and drug withdrawal.
Apart from being dependent and/or addictive, caffeine can also act as a gateway drug. It changes the brain’s neurochemistry, see Balancing Brain Chemistry with Supplements, by causing constant mild euphoria in the brain. In turn, this makes the brain more sensitive to ‘drug-induced’ euphoria. Studies show teenagers who don’t take energy drinks are a lot less likely to have substance use problems.
Mixing any alcoholic substance with energy drinks can have a dire effect too and can be equally as addictive and dangerous. It’s a major concern that caffeine offsets the intoxicating and sedating effects of alcohol. Consequently, you will not realise how intoxicated you are, and you will be more prone to drink more and more. Thus, your judgement will be more impaired and your behaviour riskier. Whilst caffeine allows moderately intoxicated individuals to respond more quickly than those who have no caffeine in their system, responses will still be more impaired. In summary, you may respond more quickly but your responses will be incorrect, random, imprecise and uninhibited – not a good combination.
Getting a hit from an energy drink can entice dependency and/or addiction. As with most substances that alter the body and brain chemistry, returning to normal can produce uncomfortable symptoms as the body withdraws. See Help & Support.