I was astonished last week when I was picking up some last-minute school supplies for my soon-to-be second grader. As I was collecting colored markers and paper, I turned to the buckets filled with glue sticks and pencils, and found a separate bucket full of a popular "energy shot" beverages, strategically placed amidst the school supplies.
What many people don't realize is that the terms "energy drink" or "energy shot" aren't regulated—there's no standard definition of what constitutes an energy type beverage. So, the name itself is just marketing spin, designed to sell a product. However, most of these products do contain a well-known stimulant: caffeine. That's where the action is, when it comes to a possible energy boost. Everything else is just fluff, trying to make the product stand out on the shelf.
The use of caffeine to boost energy levels is nothing new. In fact, many people of a certain age remember "NoDoz" capsules that were (and still are) popped in efforts to pull all-night study sessions. The difference with this newer form of caffeine ingestion, via energy beverage versus pill, is that we don't tend to think of a "drink" as a "medication." When people willingly pop a pill containing caffeine, at least they're aware that they are playing around with a drug—which is what caffeine is, after all!
So, what does caffeine do to the body? It stimulates the central nervous system, helping to reduce fatigue and increase alertness. However, just like any drug, the correct dose makes all the difference. At higher doses, a person's blood pressure can be elevated (which is quite risky if the person is prone to high blood pressure to begin with). Even moderately high doses can cause undesirable side effects, such as shakiness, irritability, anxiety, nausea, and sleep problems.
It can be tricky to figure out what the right dose is, because this depends on the size of the person, as well as how much caffeine he or she typically takes in. In general, smaller people can only handle smaller doses, especially when their bodies aren't used to caffeine. So, placing a bin of caffeine shots right next to glue sticks is not exactly responsible marketing.
When caffeine is allowed in a child's diet, one of the main concerns is the disruption of sleep. Caffeine can stay in the system for hours. If the response to our typical afternoon "slump" is to slam an energy shot, there's a good chance that caffeine will still be doing its work at bedtime. This leads to a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation, followed by caffeine dosing. Worse, studies have linked sleep deprivation to future obesity. Conceivably, kids who get hooked on an afternoon energy shot—and then rely on less sleep every night—could be setting themselves up for a weight problem as they grow.
The hard truth is this: If we are trying to trick the body into having more energy, we probably aren't taking very good care of ourselves to begin with. Energy comes from getting enough sleep, managing stress, getting enough exercise, eating healthy and regular meals, staying hydrated, and sometimes, from simply taking a break. If you or your child are dragging daily and need a shot of "energy," it might be wise to take stock of the real cause for that slump.
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Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.