Energy drinks may make you feel like you can stay out all night, but mixed with alcohol it makes a dangerous combination.
For years, studies have shown that mixing alcohol and energy drinks is a bad idea. Yet many are still unaware of the potential dangers; It was reported that 34 to 51 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds regularly consume these caffeine cocktails.
If you or someone you know are among those who love their Red Bull Vodkas, or enjoy mixing energy drinks with alcohol, please continue reading.
Below, we list some of the reasons why we really should not be mixing energy drinks with alcohol.
1. They make you ‘wide awake drunk’
The real risk of this combination is that people feel they aren’t drunk when they are
To be ‘wide awake drunk’ means that you’re alert, but don’t feel the effects of alcohol on your thinking and your ability to react in an emergency, says London-based GP Sarah Jarvis.
Energy drinks mask the effects of alcohol and make you feel wide awake and energised, so you may underestimate how you’re feeling and end up drinking more alcohol than you usually would.
This creates a false sense of security where you feel as if you’re not drunk, when you really are. This can be very dangerous.
“That’s because caffeine wards off the sedation that normally comes when you drink,” Dr. Charles O’Brien, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Center for Studies in Addiction explains.
The combination has this effect because alcohol and energy drinks work in different ways:
Alcohol is a depressant, i.e. it slows down the brain’s functions and acts as a sedative. That’s why when you drink a lot, you might experienced slurred speech, have slower reflexes and feel sleepy.
Energy drinks, however, contain a lot of caffeine and acts a stimulant.
When you mix them together, you’ll feel the stimulant effects of the caffeine more strongly, and this masks the way alcohol slows down your reaction time, memory and other processes in the brain.
This makes mixing alcoholic drinks with energy drinks a very risky thing to do as you don’t feel the effects of alcohol in slowing you down or affecting your reflexes.
2. You’re at a higher risk of binge drinking
…the sweetness of the energy drink may have augmented people’s desire to drink more alcohol
Studies in Australia and America have found that people had a greater urge to keep drinking after downing a beverage containing both alcohol and an energy drink, compared to when they drink alcohol on its own.
In both studies, participants who drank the combination alcohol and energy drink reported a greater increase in the urge to continue drinking alcohol than the group drinking only alcohol.
The energy drink consumers also reported liking the cocktail more and wanting to drink more of it than those who only drank only alcohol. This was especially true among the test subjects who had higher blood alcohol levels, the researchers found.
It is thought that the energy drink’s sugary additives increases the drive to drink more. According to a press release, “adding sweeteners to alcohol increases subsequent alcohol consumption, and therefore the sweetness of the energy drink may have augmented people’s desire to drink more alcohol.”
3. You may be extremely drunk, but still blow under the legal limit
Additives and carbohydrates in energy drinks can alter alcohol metabolism levels that may in turn decrease blood alcohol levels.
An interesting finding by the Australian study was that the energy drink group had, on average, lower breath alcohol concentration (BAC), even though they consumed the same amount of alcohol as the alcohol-only group.
These lowered BAC levels might be attributed to the sugary additives (such as inositol and taurine) and carbohydrates found in energy drinks. The added sugar and extra carbs can alter alcohol metabolism levels, and this in turn may decrease blood alcohol levels.
Although it’s uncertain if energy drinks are directly related to the lower BAC readings (the study notes that other unmeasured individual factors could also contribute to the link between lowered BAC levels and alcohol metabolism fluctuations, such as genetics, recent consumption of food and body weight), we should be careful of how much we drink, especially if using a breathalyser to track our BAC while drinking.
“Some people may buy a breathalyser just so they can continue drinking, as long as they’re under the legal limit. They forget that any amount of alcohol in our system is not safe, and being under the legal limit does not indicate that it is safe to drive,” says Erica Magat, who heads the customer service team at Andatech. “Even if you blow under the legal limit, you are still affected by alcohol and could cause an accident.”
The effects of the energy drink may make it less obvious to police officers that a driver is drunk, making the officer less likely to breathalyse. Even if they do breath test the driver, the driver may blow below the legal limit and be let off easily, even if he or she is affected by alcohol and unfit to drive.
4. You consume more sugar, calories, and caffeine
…It increases your chances of putting on weight and developing type 2 diabetes.
The high sugar content in many energy drinks, and not to mention the large amount of calories in alcohol, can cause weight gain among regular drinkers. This can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Just one small can of energy drink can contain up to 30g of sugar – that’s half our daily sugar allowance. In calories, a 50ml measure of liquer typically mixed with energy drinks can contain 126 calories.
Energy drinks also contain loads of caffeine – about 80 milligrams (mg) in a small 250ml can. That’s the same as three cans of cola or a mug of instant coffee.
With such large amounts of sugar, calories, and caffeine that could be in a single mixed drink, it’s scary to think just how much one could be consuming in excess on a single night of drinking.
5. You may feel more side effects from mixing energy drinks with alcohol
Caffeine is a long lasting drug
Energy drinks are packed with caffeine, which on its own can cause side effects such as heart palpitations, problems sleeping, and feeling tense or agitated.
In excess, caffeine is not good, especially among younger people. Too much caffeine can increase feelings of anxiousness and experiences of panic attacks.
“Caffeine is a long lasting drug,” says Professor Jonathan Chick, a Consultant Psychiatrist. “In high quantities, it increases the heart rate and so does alcohol. And although alcohol sends you to sleep, it can cause you to wake up in the night. So people who consume both may well expect to have a doubling of their mid to late night insomnia.”
6. You’re increasing your risk of alcohol-related problems
People need to be particularly careful of an alcohol combination that encourages them to drink more.
Mixing the two increases your risk of binge drinking to intoxication, thereby increasing your risk of getting involved in alcohol-related problems.
A NSW survey on young adults’ consumption of alcohol and energy drinks found that mixing alcohol with energy drinks is a popular practice among young people in NSW and particularly in public places such as licensed venues and music festivals.
The researchers also found that people who combine consumption of alcohol and energy drinks may already be risk takers. These people were more likely to consume more alcohol or illicit drugs, as well as be more involved in aggressive incidents than people who do not combine consumption of alcohol and energy drinks.
Similarly, a study out of Wake Forest Medical Center revealed that:
- Students who drank the mix were likely to become more intoxicated and become intoxicated twice as often.
- Students were twice as likely to be injured on this concoction.
- They were twice as likely to ride with a drunken driver.
- They were also twice as likely to be taken advantage of sexually or take advantage of someone else.
A lead researcher explained, “Students whose motor skills, visual reaction times, and judgment are impaired by alcohol may not perceive that they are intoxicated as readily when they’re also ingesting a stimulant.”
7. You’re more likely to drink and drive
Mixing energy drinks with alcohol also leads to increased rates of drunk driving. A recent study found that of those who consumed both caffeine and alcohol were more likely to still get behind the wheel than those who consumed alcohol alone. Those that combine were also more likely to ride as a passenger with someone who was drunk.
The increased likelihood of engaging in risky behavior, particularly drunk driving, is chief among the public health concerns, says Cecile Marczinski, associate professor of psychology at Northern Kentucky University and author of “Can Energy Drinks Increase the Desire for More Alcohol?”
The caffeine rush in energy drinks makes a drinker look and feel more balanced and coordinated than their drinking would suggest, leading some drinkers to believe they’re not actually drunk.
In a study that Marczinski cited, people who combined energy drinks and alcohol were four times more likely to think they could drive home than their counterparts who drank alcohol alone.
The effects of the energy drink may also make it less obvious to police officers that a driver is drunk, making the officer less likely to breathalyse.
8. You’re at a higher risk of developing an alcohol-related disorder
Those who mixed alcohol with energy drinks were four times more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder…
There is also, not to mention, a variety of health complications such as liver problems, coronary heart disease, and alcohol poisoning, associated with drinking too much alcohol.
“The more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk of developing long-term health harms associated with alcohol, which include increased chances of developing cancer, liver disease and stroke,” says Professor Wallace. “So people need to be particularly careful of an alcohol combination that encourages them to drink more.”
More concerning is a 2015 study from Dartmouth’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center, which found teens aged 15-17 years old who mixed alcohol with energy drinks were four times more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder than a teen who had tried alcohol but never mixed it with an energy drink.
What do we do from here?
It’s a good idea to stop mixing alcohol and energy drinks the next time you’re out for a drink.
However, if you still decide to drink them together, it is possible to reduce the risk of short and long term harms by:
Tracking how much you’re drinking.
Keep track of the number of standard drinks you’re drinking to avoid exceeding the low risk unit guidelines, and try not to drink more than one mixed drink over the course of a night.
Keeping an eye on your friends.
You’re more likely to take risks when you combine these drinks so keep an eye on your friends as well as yourself.
Eating before drinking.
Never drink alcohol on an empty stomach. A full stomach helps to slow down the rate your body absorbs alcohol, so it won’t go to your head so quickly.
Keeping check of caffeine and sugar content.
Energy drinks contain high amounts of both which can have an effect on your health, as mentioned before. So do check the calorie, sugar and caffeine contents of the drinks you are drinking and try not to exceed the daily allowance.
Avoiding them before going to bed.
Alcohol and energy drinks can both cause insomnia so avoid drinking them if you know you’ll be heading home soon.
Though the studies do not provide enough evidence to advocate for restrictions on the availability of energy drinks in bars, they are an important step.
If more studies are able to demonstrate the harmful consequences of mixing energy drinks with alcohol, then we may be in a stronger position to regulate the availability of these beverages and deliver public health messages about their potential harm.
Those most at risk are young adults, and given that this is a sensitive issue, it’s a good idea for clinicians, parents, and educators to open dialogues about alcohol use with adolescents by starting a discussion on energy drinks.
In the mean time, we hope these studies and their findings have provided you with some good food for thought the next time you’re thinking of mixing a Red Bull with your vodka.