We get it – student life is a hectic time. You’re trying to balance study, work, family, friends, and all of life’s other pressures, and it can feel as though there just aren’t enough hours in the day. To cut down on sleep and nab a few extra hours of productivity many students are fuelling busy schedules with energy drinks. But while this may seem like a quick and easy fix, the impacts of this sleep deprivation, combined with the long lists of potentially harmful ingredients in these drinks, can have harmful effects on your health, both in the short and long term.
The demand for energy drinks has grown significantly over the past few years, with the estimated annual sales of energy drinks and shots reaching $21.5 billion by 2017. The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) suggests a more appropriate name for these drinks is “stimulant drink”. The energy boost they provide is largely made up of caffeine, as well as huge quantities of sugar. Other common, and often unregulated, ingredients, include tyrosine and phenylalanine, which can have adverse interactions with other medication, kola nut and guarana, both of which are also sources of caffeine, and yohimbe, which can interact with anti-depressants.
Regular consumption of drinks like Red Bull and Monster can have serious effects on your health. In the short term they can be responsible for irritability, insomnia, anxiety, caffeine overdose and elevated blood pressure, and more serious long term effects can include type 2 diabetes, migraines, neurological and cardiovascular system effects, poor dental health, and obesity.
While the use of energy drinks is widespread in universities, students’ knowledge of the ingredients and potential health hazards of such drinks is generally very limited. And as energy drinks become increasingly popular on campuses (including as mixers for alcoholic drinks) it’s important to note their wide ranging adverse health effects.
One of the main causes for concern is the extremely high levels of caffeine in energy drinks. Caffeine is great at revving you up, but afterwards you crash back down. It’s an addictive substance that can interfere with your sleep patterns, and when it wears off it leaves you feeling weary and restless. There have even been a number of reported cases linking energy drinks and caffeine overdose to deaths.
Energy drinks can contain anywhere up to 170 milligrams of caffeine per 30 millilitre of drink, and while in the US the FDA limits the amount of caffeine in soft drinks to about 71 milligrams for a 350 millilitre can, energy drinks are usually sold as dietary supplements, in which the caffeine limit is unregulated. The limits of how much caffeine an adult can safely handle in a day ranges from 200 to 400 milligrams, and for children and adolescents ingesting over 200 milligrams can be dangerous.
Finding the cause
If you find yourself regularly relying on energy drinks, there will be an underlying reason for your fatigue. It may that you’re burning the candle at both ends, or it could be that you’re lacking something in your diet. Understanding the cause will help you find a way to rectify it, so that you can deal directly with the problem, rather than just it’s symptoms.
If you’re tired because you aren’t getting enough sleep, you might be trying to cram too much into your day. Whilst finding more time in your day is easier said than done, the importance of sleep can’t be underestimated, and without adequate rest you won’t be performing at your best. Take some time to sit down and assess your schedule, and find ways to manage your time more effectively. This can include finding a way to spend fewer hours at work, and learning how to study more efficiently.
If your tiredness is diet related, it could be due to many things, including low blood sugars, iron deficiency, or simply dehydration. If you’re cramming in quick meals and snacks when you get the chance, you might not be eating a balanced diet. A quick trip to a dietitian or a naturopath will ensure that you understand what you need to be eating in order to keep your body and mind performing at their peak.
Blood sugars drop 30 to 45 minutes after a high-sugar snack, whereas they stay elevated for 3 to 4 hours after a proper meal. To avoid crashing quickly after eating, try to make your meals and your snacks as nutrient dense as possible. This means filling up on lean proteins and complex carbohydrates, which not only will have a positive impact on your overall health, but will also keep you energised for a longer period of time.
Try to eat largely plant based meals, which are easier to digest and won’t have you feeling sluggish and tired after eating them. Base your meals around vegetables, include some complex carbohydrates such as brown rice or quinoa, and add some healthy fat and protein sources like legumes, tofu, nuts, or fish.
For on the go snacks it’s handy to always have a stash of nuts or trail mix on hand, so when you feel hunger pangs you have a healthy option at the ready and don’t have to go running to the vending machine. Other great on the go energy boosting snacks include hummus and vegetable sticks, brown rice sushi, or fruit and nut based energy balls or bars.
The sugar rush that you’ll get from soft drinks and sweets won’t last long, and only contains empty calories. Fruits are a great natural source of sugar, as well as adding an assortment of vitamins, minerals, and fibre to your diet, keeping your health in check, and preventing your digestive system from getting sluggish. Fruit based breakfast smoothies (especially if you can handle throwing a few leafy greens in!) are a great way to fit a super quick and nutrient rich breakfast into even the busiest of schedules.
The power of H2O
Dehydration is one of the most common causes of fatigue, but drinking enough water is one of the easiest things to forget to do. “If we’re dehydrated, a lot of our organs and vital systems are slowing down, which can make us lethargic and tired,” Black says. Make sure that you have a water bottle with you at all times, which will help remind you to keep up your fluid intake, as well as saving you money on buying bottled water.
Get up and move!
Exercise is one of the best ways to get a quick energy boost. It bumps up your levels of feel-good brain chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin, which has an enormously positive impact on your productivity. By exercising more frequently, your body gets used to a larger energy expenditure. As a result, it makes more energy freely available at all times, which enhances your mental and physical capacity.