The Truth About Energy Drinks
One of the biggest challenges of being a first responder is staying awake while the community sleeps. Add in some overtime or young children at home, and it’s a wonder that first responders get to sleep at all! This leads some firefighters to lean on energy drinks and other forms of caffeine to stay awake. But are energy drinks a safe option? Let’s review the ingredients to find out.
The FDA recommends no more than 400 mg of caffeine per day, with no more than 200 mg in one sitting. Many energy drinks contain between 150-400 mg per can! Many popular energy drinks like Celsius Heat, Bang, and C4 have 300 mg per can.
If you drink more than one energy drink per day or have other caffeinated beverages, you can quickly blow over the 400 mg recommendation. For reference, 400 mg of caffeine is roughly 32-40 oz of coffee. Exceeding the 400 mg recommendation can increase the risk for side effects like jitters, anxiety, insomnia, and cardiac abnormalities. To reduce the impact of caffeine on your sleep, try to leave 5-6 hours between your last caffeinated beverage and bedtime.
Energy drinks often add herbs, vitamins, and other “special” ingredients. These include taurine, B vitamins, yerba matte, amino acids, and more. These ingredients are often safe individually, but there isn’t enough evidence to show how combinations can impact the body long term. Some of these herbs have stimulant effects that impact blood pressure more than caffeine alone. Often, adding these extra ingredients is a marketing tactic to make unsubstantiated claims. For example, loading B vitamins into energy drinks to “boost energy” will not work for healthy individuals with normal B vitamin levels.
How Do I Cut Back?
If you need to cut back on caffeine, cold turkey may not be the way to go (unless medically necessary). Many people experience headaches, fatigue, low mood, or an increase in depressive symptoms. These side effects are major concerns for first responders. Cutting back slowly may help reduce these side effects.
Remember, you do not need to cut caffeine if you are a healthy individual. The goal is to stay under 400 mg of caffeine daily for healthy people. Your doctor might suggest reducing caffeine (<200 mg per day) if you have high blood pressure, acid reflux, anxiety, or are currently pregnant.
The goal for reducing caffeine is to improve your quality of life, often by improving the quality of your sleep. If you are way over 400mg, consider cutting 50-150 mg caffeine per day off shift and hold there for a week or so. Then, if needed, you can cut back a little more. Consider switching to a lower caffeine energy drink or only drinking half of the can.
Pay close attention to how you feel. If you feel terrible, reduce intake even slower (-50mg/day). If your caffeinated products are not labeled, you can find this information through a quick google search of the brand/product.
The Bottom Line
Energy drinks are not recommended due to the high caffeine content and special ingredients. If you need an energy drink, the next best option is to opt for a sugar-free version with less than 200mg caffeine per can. If possible, stick to coffee or tea for caffeine.
Megan Lautz, MS, RD, CSCS, TSAC-F
Megan is a Registered Dietitian and coach who specializes in firefighter nutrition. Megan’s mission is to help firefighters perform better, recover faster, and enjoy long healthy retirements. Megan is the owner of RescueRD LLC, which provides nutrition seminars and coaching for tactical athletes across the country. Check out @Rescue.RD on Facebook and Instagram.