Whether it’s in locker rooms, classrooms, or board meetings, it seems that wherever you find people striving to do their best mentally and physically, you will also find an energy drink. Indeed, research shows that the consumption of energy drinks has skyrocketed in the last few years — recent sales reports suggest that Americans bought 60 percent more energy drinks between 2008 and 2014. But with all this information around energy drinks, a key question remains: What are energy drinks doing to your brain?
When you break down energy drinks from a neuropsychological perspective, you find that they work mainly by exposing your brain to caffeine — a very common stimulant drug most of us experience in coffee or chocolate. Your brain treats caffeine like other stimulants, which include cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamine, and methylphenidate (the active ingredient in drugs created to help people with ADD, including Concerta and Ritalin). In smaller doses, as with a cup of coffee, caffeine in energy drinks stimulates your brain to release chemicals that increase attention, focus, memory storage, and reaction time for brief periods of time. In the short run, these low doses of caffeine can help you get through boring, difficult, or tedious tasks, be it a lecture, calculating tax returns, or an important team meeting.
While a little caffeine goes a long way, many energy drinks contain much larger doses of caffeine, which can lead to serious problems over time. The high levels of caffeine in multiple servings of energy drinks give you more than just wings — they can also lead to many difficulties in brain function, including seizures, panic attacks, racing thoughts, reduced attention, and ineffective memory. For some people who have symptoms of bipolar depression, high doses of caffeine found in energy drinks have led to episodes of mania in the form of reckless spending, life-endangering behaviors, poor attention, and loss of emotional control. Long-term use of energy drinks can throw your brain into daily periods of painful headaches, anxiety, and cold sweats, and may even increase your likelihood of becoming addicted to stronger stimulants (cocaine and methamphetamine) as your brain seeks out ever stronger buzzes just to get through your day.
So while energy drinks may market increased energy and focus, it’s important to be mindful of what that extra serving of Red Bull can do to your brain.