If you’re planning on partying any time soon, you might be planning what sort of drinks to have. And one popular choice over the last several years has been to mix alcohol with caffeinated energy drinks.
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While this may seem like a good idea – the energy drink overpowering alcohol’s drowsiness effects – there are some negative side effects that warrant consideration.
Registered Dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, warns the high caffeine content in energy drinks may get you to drink more than your limit. “Caffeine is a stimulant but once you come down from that high you want it again, just like coffee,” she says. “It’s a very addictive effect.”
We chatted with Zumpano to get the low-down on why you should avoid such a troubling mix, no matter what your situation is.
The alcoholic energy drink craze
In the late 2000s, brands flooded the market with canned beverages that packaged the two ingredients together, resulting in a wave of popularity for drinks like Four Loko and Sparks. But, in 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent warnings to several companies that produced these drinks.
According to the FTC, these drinks presented a risk to consumer health because, “Consumers – particularly young, inexperienced drinkers – may not realize how much alcohol they have consumed because caffeine can mask the sense of intoxication.”
Several drinks, like Four Loko, altered their drinks by dropping caffeine from their ingredients list. Other brands simply pulled their lines altogether.
Even with those specific drinks pulled from the market, though, the chance to mix energy drinks with alcohol remains an easy enough cocktail to make. Drinkers just have to make their own mix instead of relying on these pre-mixed formulas. And with that remains certain dangers.
Caffeine’s effect on intoxication
According to Zumpano, researchers have spent a lot of time over the years exploring the way in which energy drinks might reduce the sensation of intoxication — which may induce more drinking.
Researchers not only wanted to find out if energy drinks offset the sedating effects of alcohol, but they were also looking to determine if the reduced sensation of intoxication impairs judgment relative to risky behaviors, like drunk driving or binge drinking.
“Alcohol has this sedative effect. It makes you feel more relaxed” says Zumpano. “But it also has the residual effect of making you feel tired. Some people like being relaxed but not feeling tired so they add caffeine, a stimulant, to bring them back up, to enjoy the feeling of being relaxed without feeling tired.”
The problem, she says, is that the stimulation can mask how drunk you actually are, prompting you to overdrink. Additionally, she points out that because of the caffeine intake, you’ll have more energy through the night meaning you might be drinking longer and taking in more alcohol.
That syncs with the conclusions of multiple studies in the decade since that initial wave of popularity: yes, mixing alcohol with energy drinks does seem to increase the desire to consume more alcohol and could result in more alcohol-related injuries.
As for whether or not these drinks alter one’s perception of how intoxicated they are, the evidence has been less conclusive so far.
Issues with the heart
Another side-effect of consuming energy drinks is potential damage to the heart. As Zumpano notes, both caffeine and alcohol have their own separate effects on blood pressure and, when combined, can create even more havoc.
One 2018 study tested 44 non-smoking, healthy students in their 20s, exploring the impact one 24-ounce energy drink had on the function of their blood vessels. According to the study, “vessel dilation was on average 5.1% in diameter before the energy drink and fell to 2.8% diameter after, suggesting acute impairment in vascular function.”
And a 2016 study found that while acute energy drink consumption didn’t lead to a significant increase in heart rate, it did lead to a significant increase in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. This is particularly bad for someone who already has elevated blood pressure, Zumpano says, but it can also lead to long-term problems if you don’t.
Given that it’s already been established that excessive amounts of alcohol can negatively impact your heart health, combining it with energy drinks could up that risk even more. “If you’re consistently drinking and combining caffeine and alcohol, forcing your blood pressure to be elevated, you’re increasing your risk of stroke, heart attack and heart disease,” she says. “And long term excessive alcohol use can negatively affect your kidneys and your liver, too.”
Caffeine and alcohol both stimulate atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat), Zumpano adds, noting that people who already suffer from it should be even more cautious when consuming alcohol, caffeine or both combined.
There’s also a question of sodium. “Some caffeinated/energy drinks could contain sodium which could further increase your blood pressure,” Zumpano adds.
And this is all further compounded by the way both alcohol and highly caffeinated drinks can drastically alter your sleep pattern which can lead to even more heart issues.
Loaded with calories
Besides all of these other issues, Zumpano says sugar-laden energy drinks will definitely put a big dent in your diet. And that, in turn, can still circle around to have a big negative impact on your heart health.
“Alcoholic drinks can range from 100 calories up to 500 calories per drink, depending on what you’re having. A traditional 9oz pina colada provides 500 calories and 63 grams of sugars,” she says.
And it’s not just mixed drinks; Zumpano points out that stout beers brewed with coffee, which have become increasingly popular over the years, carry plenty of calories and caffeine, too.
Beyond the caloric content of the alcohol, most of these energy drinks average between 250 to 300 calories, says Zumpano, so they add up very quickly. “If you have three of those drinks, now you’ve got a 900-calorie intake from those alone. If weight loss or weight management is a goal for you, that intake is going to adversely affect your goals.”
There’s also the issue of sugar, which is a common, loaded ingredient of the energy and caffeinated drinks. “High amounts of alcohol and simple sugars lead to elevated blood triglycerides,” she adds. “Triglycerides are fats in the blood that are separate from cholesterol but can still contribute to plaque formation in the arteries.”
That kind of consumption can lead to fatty liver disease or pancreatitis. Additionally, the alcohol-caffeine combo can also lead to elevated blood sugar and blood triglyceride levels which can lead to a higher risk of diabetes.
How to mitigate risks
Zumpano says the best way to make sure you don’t risk these health issues is simply to avoid mixing caffeine with alcohol, particularly when that includes energy drinks.
“If you do want to have alcohol but want to stay up later, try having a separate caffeine drink a few hours before,” she suggests. “And try avoiding high levels of caffeine. Instead of an energy drink, try a caffeinated tea, a small cup of coffee or a shot of espresso.”
If you do like mixed drinks, Zumpano recommends using a club soda, flavored water or seltzer as a mixer. She also suggests avoiding high sugar drinks. Besides the issue of sugar, people are more inclined to consume more sweet drinks and have them quicker which could lead to over-consuming.
Finally, she suggests including water between each alcoholic and/or caffeinated drink. Water will help you rehydrate, which can lessen the effects of a hangover the next day. Water between each alcoholic drink will also help you consume less alcohol, calories and sugar.
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