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Could too many jägerbombs kill you?

Daniel Potter takes us through the growing popularity of high caffeine drinks and the alarming potential side effects.

 

Whether it’s nights out, 9 a.m. lectures or the strenuous exam period, energy drinks are a big deal for the student lifestyle, not to mention big business. Annual worldwide consumption of energy drinks totalled some 906 million gallons in 2006, with income from the American market topping $5.4 billion the same year. The growth of the market has been exponential.

After surfacing in the 1960s in Europe and Asia, it was the introduction of Red Bull to Austria in 1987 that began the explosion of the high caffeine energy drink market. Whilst tea and coffee have long been commonplace and their effects are well studied, this relatively new ‘high-dose’ phenomenon has yet to have its social and biological impact fully elucidated.

However, dots are being connected. The tragic deaths of numerous people and the high profile cardiac complications of professional motocross rider Matthew Penbross during competition have been attributed to energy drinks.

Often sensationalised without grounding, their safety has become a controversial subject. Published this year, a review carried out by McGill University, Canada, is the first to combine data on energy drink-related cardiac events, and begins to shed light on their potential involvement.

Of the cases described, eleven were cases of cardiac arrest. Out of these, nine cases saw the individuals in low risk groups show no predisposition to cardiac abnormality. Excess energy drink consumption was seen in all cases. Whilst the review can neither suggest nor rule out causality, the authors do encourage clinicians to be aware of energy drink consumption as a factor in similar situations, as the number of hospital visits with ties to this consumption continues to rise.

Moreover, we are encouraged to be aware of our own potential susceptibility to high-dose caffeine, with potential risk factors ranging from genetic constitution through to a simple lack of pharmacological tolerance.

Although they seem less drastic, we students face a variety of other potential dangers outside the realms of cardiac events. Most of these we happily encounter in the form of bulk buying energy drinks mixed with a certain cough syrup flavoured alcohol, jägermeister. According to researchers at East California University, around 25% of us rapidly consume energy drinks when having a knees up, often to excess (my own observations of Guy’s Bar say this is probably a conservative estimate).

Further work, part funded by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the US, shows that individuals assess themselves to be less drunk when consuming alcohol mixed with energy drinks. However, actual motor movement skills and visual reaction time remain equally as impaired as those not consuming energy drinks with their alcohol.

The same study puts forth data which makes for slightly more uncomfortable reading. Of 2,800 students polled, people who consume alcohol with energy drinks were significantly more likely to ride with intoxicated drivers, to be injured and require medical treatment. Most worryingly, there was an increased likelihood of instances of sexual assault.

As bars continue to make bulk buying drinks affordable for even the most financially challenged students, and manufacturers use aggressive marketing techniques specifically aimed at people within our age range – many of whom may not be as tolerant of caffeine and/or alcohol as they might like to think – it’s worth being aware of our limitations, and more importantly, our susceptibility to misjudging them.

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