What effects do Red Bull and Monster brand energy drinks have on artery function and athletic performance?

Given the “global popularity” of the multibillion-dollar energy drink industry, it is critical we determine if the beverages have any “potential adverse effects,” as I discuss in my video Are There Benefits of Energy Drinks?. “There are currently more than 500 energy drink products available on the market” today. “The most popular, and the most studied,” is Red Bull. A single can has been found to bump up blood pressure by 3 or 4 points within 90 minutes of consumption, as you can see in the graph below and at 0:27 in my video. What about all the other energy drinks? Studies show they similarly increase blood pressure by 3 to 4 points on average.

Is a 3- to 4-point bump really a big deal? I’d say so. If you have elevated blood pressure day in and day out, that bump means a 20 percent higher risk of dying from a stroke and a 12 percent higher risk of dying from a heart attack. Can Red Bull increase your day-long average blood pressure? Researchers put it to the test: “Comparison of the Effects of Energy Drink Versus Caffeine Supplementation on…24-Hour Ambulatory Blood Pressure.”

The Food and Drug Administration imposes a limit on caffeine in soda. Energy drink manufacturers get around this by claiming their carbonated sugar water beverages are not sodas, but “natural dietary supplements.” Red Bull doesn’t have any more caffeine than a cup of coffee, but what are the effects of all of the other proprietary ingredients added to the energy drink?

Researchers gave study participants four small cans of Red Bull or four cups of coffee, each containing the same amount of caffeine. Their blood pressures were measured over the course of the entire day. Even though the Red Bull contained the same amount of caffeine as the coffee, it resulted in significantly higher average blood pressure—about five points higher, compared to coffee. Is it the taurine or some other combination of added ingredients in energy drinks that makes them so harmful?

Energy drinks may also impair artery function. As you can see in the graph below and at 1:55 in my video, drinking just one big can of Monster Energy has been shown to lead to a significant drop in our arteries’ ability to relax normally within just 90 minutes of consumption. The biggest risk, though, is likely the EKG changes that signal an increase in the risk of our hearts flipping into a fatal rhythm. There are cases of young people suffering cardiac arrest after consuming seven or eight cans in a row, or even just drinking three cans one after the other. Some people are just more susceptible. “There are a number of case reports in the literature highlighting multiple potentially fatal cardiac side effects from high-energy drinks in the general population, and the overall toxic effects of energy drinks are being reported more frequently.” But, at the highest risk are the families with a history of sudden cardiac death or fainting. Educating this population about the risks is even more critical, as energy drinks may unmask Long QT syndrome (LQTS), a potentially life-threatening genetic condition, which occurs in about 1 in 2,000 people.

There are safety issues, certainly, but do the benefits outweigh the risks? Unfortunately, “little evidence exists in the literature to support beneficial effects of energy drinks.” What about for athletes? Energy drinks were originally marketed to them, and, boy, did that marketing work! Eighty percent of college athletes reportedly drink them. Do they help their athletic performance? Researchers determined that “preexercise energy drink consumption does not improve endurance,” but it does seem to increase inflammation! In a simulated 25-mile cycling road race, they could not find any athletic performance–enhancing potential for Red Bull above that of just sugar water and caffeine. In addition, the data indicated Red Bull “induced greater inflammatory-related responses” than straight caffeinated sugar water or placebo.

It wasn’t a flop only for endurance sports; there was no apparent effect on resistance training either. Those hoping energy drinks will help rev up their metabolism to lose weight may be disappointed to learn you can get the same stimulatory effects with straight caffeine, though they may cheer up quickly when they realize black coffee or tea is much cheaper than cans of energy drinks.

No wonder there was no change in athletic performance: Unlike nitrate-rich vegetables, energy drinks don’t change oxygen utilization or ratings of perceived exertion. They do, however, raise your resting blood pressure, as you can see at 4:13 in my video. This is the opposite effect of vegetables, like beets and greens, both of which improve athletic performance and reduce blood pressure at the same time. “Energy drinks have no therapeutic benefit.”

For more on this QT thing that I referenced above, see my video Are There Risks to Energy Drinks?. If you have questions about sports drinks, check out my video Are Sports Drinks Safe and Effective?.