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Published on March 30, 2017

Energy Drinks and Alcohol: A Recipe for Disaster

Energy drinks mixed with alcohol are a favorite choice for many people during a night out dancing or at a concert. Many feel the extra boost of energy keeps the fun going while feeling the intoxicating effects of the drink. However, research and statistics on mixing these two powerful drugs – caffeine and alcohol – show that they just may be a recipe for disaster. Together, they produce more harmful side effects than if either of them were consumed on their own.

Energy Drink and Alcohol

“Mixing alcohol and caffeine creates the ‘wide-awake drunk’ effect that may people look for during a night out,” said Kevin Zakrzewski, MD, a primary care physician with Abington—Jefferson Health. “Unfortunately, it can be dangerous and bad for your health, especially if it’s something you do frequently.”

Caffeine Masks the Effects of Alcohol

When you consume alcohol alone, your body goes through a fairly standard routine. Most people feel relaxed and happy after a drink or two. However, as your intoxication level rises, your body starts to go through changes: Balance and coordination worsen and you’ll likely start to feel tired and sleepy. These symptoms are caused by the depressant effects of alcohol.

When you mix an energy drink with alcohol, the stimulant effects of the caffeine short-circuit this normal process. Although your blood alcohol level continues to rise, you won’t feel as tired. However, you’re still just as intoxicated since caffeine has no effect on how fast your liver processes and removes alcohol from your body.

In fact, in a study that compared drinkers consuming energy drinks and alcohol with people drinking alcohol only, the energy drink group reported feeling less tired, less sedated, and twice as stimulated – even though both groups had the same amount of alcohol. As a result, the energy drink and alcohol consumers continued to drink for a longer time, drank in greater quantities and ultimately became more intoxicated.

Mixing energy drinks with alcohol is especially popular on college campuses. Researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed a group of 744 university students about their drinking habits and how frequently they mixed alcohol and energy drinks. On the occasions when they mixed the two, they found that the college students drank more heavily and more quickly reached high peak blood alcohol levels than on days when they drank alcohol only. “For young college students who are likely less accustomed to drinking significant quantities of alcohol, this can result in very serious medical consequences; even death,” said Dr. Zakrzewski.

Alcohol and Energy Drinks Increase Risky Behavior

“People who mix alcohol and energy drinks are more likely to underestimate their level of intoxication,” said Dr. Zakrzewski. “This can lead to poor choices such as thinking you’re still sober enough to drive.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an increase in risky behaviors and negative consequences associated with mixing alcohol and energy drinks, including:

  • People who mix alcohol and energy drinks are three times more likely to binge drink, defined as four drinks for a woman or five drinks for a man in the course of two hours.
  • They are also twice as likely to report being taken advantage of sexually, or to have taken advantage of someone sexually, than people drinking only alcohol.
  • They were four times more likely to think they could still drive a car than people who drank only alcohol, and were also more likely to ride in a car with a drunk driver.

In addition to prompting these risky behaviors, mixing energy drinks and alcohol has the potential to alter the way the brain works. In one study on adolescent mice, researchers reported that caffeinated alcohol produced the same effects on the brain as cocaine.

“Mixing alcohol and caffeine is not a great idea for anyone, but especially for teenagers and young adults,” said Dr. Zakrzewski. “These substances can have long-lasting effects on their still-developing brains.”

Your safest bet is to skip the energy drink mixer if you’re planning to drink alcohol. And as a best practice, keep track of how many drinks you’ve had so you know when you’ve reached your limit. It’s also a good idea to alternate drinking a glass of water and an alcoholic beverage. This way, you won’t drink as much and you’ll be less dehydrated.

If you or your loved ones think you have a drinking problem, have an honest conversation with your healthcare provider.

For a referral to an Abington—Jefferson Health physician, please call 215-481-MEDI (6334) or search our online directory.

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