"Children under ten or twelve certainly have no reason to include any
caffeine in their diets."
- Judy Owens, MD
A Chicago study released in October of 2006 found that out of the total
number of people who called poison control in relation to caffeine, 12%
of callers had to visit emergency rooms and 8% required intensive care
stays. However, fatality from a caffeine overdose is highly unlikely;
one would have to consume anywhere from 27 to 125 energy drinks,
depending on the different caffeine percentages per brand.
Teenagers are rapidly becoming the top consumers of energy drinks. Over 500 new brands were launched this year, giving teens a wide variety of styles, flavors and sizes to choose from. Although commonly marketed like sports drinks, which replenish some important nutrients lost during vigorous exercise, energy drinks have little proven nutritional value. Furthermore, the potential side effects should lead parents to give energy drinks a second thought.
Caffeine is the primary "boost" ingredient in energy drinks and potentially the most dangerous element. The drinks can also include sugar, taurine, ginseng, and other stimulants, such as ephedrine. Recently, health professionals have become concerned with the amount of caffeine consumed by teenagers, from energy drinks and other sources.
"Caffeine is a psychoactive drug," says Judy Owens, MD, director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center at Hasbro Children's Hospital. "Children under ten or twelve certainly have no reason to include any caffeine in their diets; caffeine has no nutritional value and drinking caffeinated beverages may reduce consumption of more healthy beverages, like milk and juice." There is currently little research regarding the short- and long-term effects of caffeine on children.
The side effects teenagers may experience from caffeine can range from stomach upsets, irritability and sleep disruption, to blood pressure changes and heart arrhythmias for those sensitive to stimulants. In particular, the risk of cardiovascular complications increases when energy drinks are combined with other drugs or stimulants, such as caffeine pills.
The real danger teens face is forming a dependence on energy drinks, which is very easy in light of hectic school, activities, sports and part-time job schedules. "Teens often assume that the caffeine in these drinks will allow them to get by on only six to seven hours of sleep per night, far short of the nine hours they need at this age," Owens says. "They believe the drinks will restore normal alertness levels or, even more dangerous, reverse the effects of alcohol. There is no research to indicate this is true."
While European countries such as France and Sweden have banned certain energy drinks, the FDA currently does not regulate them in the United States and does not require manufacturers to list the amount of caffeine in foods and beverages. Without this information, teenagers (and parents) are unaware of the amount of caffeine they are consuming, which can further lead to dependency. Breaking a caffeine dependency can be very difficult and produce a wide variety of withdrawal symptoms for teens, from mood alterations and headaches to impairments in school and athletic performance.
According to Owens, parents can take several steps to prevent or break a caffeine dependency:
Owens says, "Of all the things that parents do to help their children succeed in school, one of the most important things they can do is make sure their child gets enough sleep."
For further information on children and sleep, parents can read Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep, a book co-authored by Owens and produced by the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center at Hasbro Children's Hospital.