Are Energy Drinks Really Necessary?
A few weeks ago I wrote about Hydration and Nutritional Fueling. In that blog post, I discussed pre and post workout nutrition and hydration tips. One category that I left out of that post, however, is one of the fastest-growing products on the market right now - energy drinks.
There are many individuals who use these beverages to give them a bit of a "pick me up" to perform at work, during sports, drawn-out 'gaming' sessions, and more! There seems to be a constant need for people to 'perform' at a higher and higher level, often times causing a vicious cycle to continually consume more 'energy' to maintain said energy levels. I believe this may be a product of our current lifestyles. In a world where we are constantly "on the go", or wanting to perform, individuals are constantly trying to push themselves further and further, oftentimes, with temporary solutions.
Truth is, the human body is amazingly efficient at producing energy. We contain an orchestra of signalling pathways and communications amongst our bodily systems to deliver energy when we need it. Different energy systems work in harmony to produce either drawn-out, slow-burning energy sources for periods of sustained energy, to anaerobic power plants to produce fast-acting, powerful energy for short bursts of intense effort. The problem with all of these systems, however, is they require proper fueling - i.e. healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, fats, etc. Most people in today's society are constantly looking for that "quick fix" to give them a burst of energy, so companies, along with their clever marketing, target the population and convince you into thinking that their product is the best.
Truth is, as cliched and silly as it sounds to most, fruit is nature's energy drink! A piece of fruit gives you ample amounts of sugar and nutrients to perform athletically and mentally at a heightened state. Not only that, but fruit - in its purest form - also contains fiber which slows digestion and delivers a much more steady flow of energy.
Beyond that, and what seems to be most starling to signal where society seems to be heading, is that soft drinks like cola used to be the energy drinks. Large amounts of sugar and caffeine deliver an intense surge of energy. Unfortunately, due to the habitual use of these drinks, most folks barely even feel a spike of energy from consuming soft drinks anymore so they need to take that next step to 're-energize'!
I have included a list of ingredients below that detail the common ingredients found in most energy drinks on the market these days and how much they effect, or don't effect your body.
From Wikipedia: Caffeine is a bitter, white crystalline xanthine alkaloid that acts as a stimulant drug. Caffeine is found in varying quantities in the seeds, leaves, and fruit of some plants, where it acts as a natural pesticide that paralyzes and kills certain insects feeding on the plants. It is most commonly consumed by humans in infusions extracted from the seed of the coffee plant and the leaves of the tea bush, as well as from various foods and drinks containing products derived from the kola nut. Other sources include yerba maté, guarana berries, guayusa, and the yaupon holly. In humans, caffeine acts as a central nervous system stimulant, temporarily warding off drowsiness and restoring alertness. It is the world's most widely consumed psychoactive drug, but, unlike many other psychoactive substances, it is both legal and unregulated in nearly all parts of the world. Beverages containing caffeine, such as coffee, tea, soft drinks, and energy drinks, enjoy great popularity; in North America, 90% of adults consume caffeine daily.
Like alcohol, caffeine is consumed by many across the globe. Because of that, caffeine is also one of the most widely-studied (scientifically) compounds the world has ever known. To be honest, you will probably hear about a new study that comes out every day that is either for or against the safety of caffeine. Personally, I find caffeine to be like most things, it seems to be fine in moderation. Too much caffeine, and you can start to feel jittery, anxious, unable to sleep, and even paranoid.
There are also many documented cases of caffeine and how beneficial it is to improved athletic and psychological performance. When our bodies are at rest, or performing low-level activity, our primary source of fuel is derived from aerobic means (burn adipose tissue, aka fat). As we intensify our actions, our bodies begin to transition towards more anaerobic sources for energy (carbohydrates). Caffeine has been shown to enhance aerobic metabolism which can aid athletes in performing for longer periods of time due to their increased reliance on aerobic energy.
From Wikipedia: Glucose is a ubiquitous fuel in biology. It is used as an energy source in most organisms, from bacteria to humans. Use of glucose may be by either aerobic respiration, anaerobic respiration, or fermentation. Glucose is the human body's key source of energy, through aerobic respiration, providing approximately 3.75 kilocalories (16 kilojoules) of food energy per gram.
One of the most startling facts for many, is when they calculate how much sugar is actually in a specific beverage. Do yourself a favor and look at the nutritional facts on that next can you are about to chug and do the math. Read the number of grams of sugar, and divide by 5 - that is how many teaspoons of sugar (equivalent) that are in that beverage. One serving of Red Bull (255g can), for example, has 26g of sugar. That is just over 5 heaping teaspoons of sugar!
Your body and brain love sugar, so there are certainly benefits to consuming sugary foods/drinks to help performance. However, there are a few things that should be noted. When you ingest a sudden surge of sugar, like the quantities found in an energy drink, your body goes through a sudden insulin spike, (refer to the GI scale). This turns your body into a sudden sugar-burning machine. We have all heard of the phrase "sugar high", well this is exactly what happens. Your body primarily burns up and tries to use all of that sugar you have just ingested, but therefore stops burning body fat or adipose tissue, which is used for its slow-burning or aerobic needs.
So not only does your body stop burning 'fat', but it also runs out of that sugar quite quickly, causing what is also known as the "sugar crash" afterwards. Energy drinks can therefore be a bit misleading when it comes to their marketing. Sure, they may give you a quick burst of energy from the sugar, but that 'burst' will not last long and you will be forced into craving more sugar pretty soon!
From Wikipedia: Taurine, or 2-aminoethanesulfonic acid, is an organic acid widely distributed in animal tissues. It is a major constituent of bile and can be found in the large intestine and accounts for approximately 0.1% of total human body weight. Taurine has many fundamental biological roles such as conjugation of bile acids, antioxidation, osmoregulation, membrane stabilization and modulation of calcium signaling. It is essential for cardiovascular function, and development and function of skeletal muscle, the retina and the central nervous system. Taurine is unusual among biological molecules in being a sulfonic acid, while the vast majority of biologically occurring acids contain the more weakly acidic carboxyl group. While taurine is sometimes called an amino acid, and indeed is an acid containing an amino group, it is not an amino acid in the usual biochemical meaning of the term, which refers to compounds containing both an amino and a carboxyl group.
Despite having a cool-sounding name, the reasons for taurine to exist in energy drinks are questionable. According to what I have read online, taurine is found in the bile of bulls, which is where Red Bull originally got its name. The truth of that matter, however, is that science doesn't really know if taurine has any effect on energy levels within the body, if any, as it may even act as a sedative, which seems to counteract what consumers of Red Bull are actually aiming for.
Also, taurine has not been studied too extensively as part of human consumption, so basically consume at your own risk at this point!
Sodium Citrate, Glucuronolactone, Inositol
I am grouping these three compounds together for a few reasons. All three appear to show some sort of promising scientific-based evidence that they can increase human performance, however, they only seem to work at levels that far exceed anything you would actually find in an energy drink on the market today. Basically, they seem to be present in energy drinks for marketing purposes only, and are trying to "cash-in" on marketing buzz-words to make you feel as though you can run through a brick wall after taking their product.
Keep an eye out for ingredients that sound "fancy", as companies may be trying to make you think their product is more scientifically enhanced than you think. Force yourself to be a conscientious consumer as well, and do some research of your own regarding the ingredients in the beverages and foods you ingest. Do not rely on someone else to say what is safe or not to put in your body as I promise you they do not always have your best interest in mind!
When it comes down to it, everybody has their own personal opinions and choices they have to make to decide what they wish to put in their bodies. What I will say, however, is that it is entirely possible to live, perform, and compete at a high level of physical and psychological activity based solely on a well-rounded diet consisting of healthy simple sugars (fruit), complex carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats. Sleep is also a large factor here, as the more quality sleep your body receives, the better it can heal and repair from the rigors and decay of everyday life to allow you to come back stronger and perform better.
Consistent (intense) exercise also trains your body to become more efficient and productive with its energy sources. By staying active on a day to day basis, you will force your body to become better at what it does, "like a well-oiled machine", and you can remove the need for supplemental energy sources.
You may see professional or amateur athletes using supplemental energy forms for competition, but keep in mind that these athletes are usually competing at the highest-level possible, for long periods of time. If you are a "weekend warrior" or even simply a day to day exerciser, take a serious look at what you are putting in your body, and decide whether some of these ingredients or mystery compounds are right for you.
Also, don't be afraid of experimenting with your lifestyle and removing some of these stimulants for extended periods of time and gauge how you truly feel. I, myself, like to have 1 cup of coffee every morning to help "shake out the cobwebs" and allow me to get into my home gym to workout before my day starts. From time to time, I will take a few weeks off and not have any caffeine at all, acting as a sort of 'cleanse' from my system. I find I can exercise just as well, and then when I return to having my "cup 'o Joe", it helps boost me that much more.
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