Energy drinks have gained tremendous popularity among teens and young adults. These drinks contain mixtures of caffeine, sugar, and herbal supplements that can vary widely by brand. As their use becomes more common, there is increasing concern about the effects they have on substance use. Energy drinks have been shown to have other negative effects, especially on teens, such as sleep problems, high blood pressure, and kidney damage. But what is their impact on drug use?
According to a study in the journal Alcoholism Clinical and Experimental Research, there is a compelling association between energy drink use and alcohol dependence. College students who used energy drinks weekly or daily also reported that they drank alcohol more frequently and in greater amounts. This was true even when adjusting for factors such as fraternity or sorority involvement, signs of depression, substance abuse problems in parents, and childhood behavioral issues.
The Journal of Addiction Medicine published a study that also looked at college students. They found that energy drinks users showed heavier alcohol consumption. What’s more, they were more likely to have used other drugs, including nonmedical use of prescription stimulants, prescription painkillers, and illicit drugs. They also showed higher levels of sensation-seeking behavior.
This trend seems to be true for high school students as well. Found in the journal Preventive Medicine, researchers discovered an alarming pattern in students who were in 8th through 12th grade (13-18 years old). The more energy drinks the students used, the higher the likelihood that they would use soft drugs (cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana). This soft drug use then made it more likely they would subsequently use hard drugs, things like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and LSD. This process, which the authors referred to as a “cascading effect” seemed to be strongest among younger females and older males.
A similar study looked at high school students between the ages of 14 and 16. Published in Acta Paediatrica, the findings showed that students who regularly used energy drinks at age 14 were significantly more likely to use cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana at age 16. The correlation was so strong that the authors recommended that adolescents be screened by health professionals for energy drink usage and that regular users be followed for future substance abuse problems.
If you’re wondering if the association continues past high school and college-age people, a study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence examined the energy drink usage among young adults 21 through 25 years old. They found that although the usage dropped significantly across these years, over half of the people they looked at continued to use them regularly. People who used them regularly were more likely to abuse alcohol. Even the people who continued to use them intermittently seemed to be affected. In the groups that continued to use them regularly or intermittently, people were more likely to use cocaine and abuse prescription stimulant drugs.
These studies give us lots of information about energy drinks and the likelihood of alcohol and drug use. What they can’t tell us is exactly how it works. Do energy drinks affect the brain in a way that desensitizes it, causing people to seek out more profound “highs”? Or do people who tend toward addictive behavior gravitate toward sensation-seeking actions, such as using energy drinks?
Regardless of the exact mechanism, it seems clear that there is a link. Knowing this connection provides an opportunity to identify someone who is more likely to struggle with addiction. As science explores the process that seems to lead young people from energy drinks to drug and alcohol use, we can use the knowledge we have so far. In the struggle with the baffling disease that is addiction, information is our ally.