Is 5 Hour Energy Bad For You?
5 Hour Energy is an ‘energy shot,’ the original of new genre of drinks that other brands including Red Bull have now gotten into. The company that makes it promises that it’s ideal for ‘Busy, hard working people who can’t afford a letdown.’ It’s designed to deliver what the drink is called: five hours of increased energy. But is that healthy? Can 5 Hour Energy be OK to use, or is it filled with hidden dangers?
Well, some users think so. There’s a few reports on the web about how it contains secret ingredients that can cause all kinds of problems. Individuals and websites have reported that 5 Hour Energy can cause palpitations and sweats and tremors, and several people report blacking out. There are even several reports of people having heart attacks. The question is, how seriously should we be taking all of this when we’re trying to figure out whether this product is harmful or not?
First, let’s look at what the company itself has to say about its product. They are a little vague about the proprietary blend of vitamins and minerals that make up the bulk of the energy shot, but they do warn that if you’re not familiar with the drink you want to drink only half the shot and wait a while to see how it affects you. Some of the people I mentioned above, who reported ill effects, were taking several shots a day, or a couple within a short time. But the drink’s manufacturer advises against this: They say you shouldn’t take more than 2 shots a day, several hours apart. The website warns: ‘Do not exceed two bottles daily consumed several hours apart,’ and further warns users to ‘limit caffeine products to avoid nervousness, sleeplessness and occasional rapid heartbeat.’ In most energy drinks, the energy effect comes from stimulant drugs. Sometimes Guarana is used. That’s a substance taken from a climbing plant found in Brazil. It’s a herbal stimulant that’s used for the caffeine content of its seeds. More usually another source of caffeine is used. Either way, the result is the same: caffeine is a stimulant drug.
Caffeine is found in tea, coffee, hot chocolate, colas and a variety of other sources including chocolate. It mimics the action of adrenaline, so in low doses it causes you to feel more alert and awake, and is usually pleasurable. In high doses it can have some unpredictable effects – it increases blood pressure and interferes with the part of the nervous system responsible for regulating heartbeat, leading to rapid or irregular heartbeats. It can make you sweat and shake, and it has the effect of loosening sphincter muscles, making the pupils of your eyes bigger even as it also relaxes the rectal and urethral sphincters. That explains why you may need visit the toilet after drinking a few cups of coffee.
All these effects, including sweating (from having an elevated body temperature) and dizziness from higher blood pressure, are all consistent with the complaints of people who’ve used 5-hour energy and found that it doesn’t work for them or who believe that it’s unsafe.
So how much caffeine does 5-Hour Energy contain? The manufacturer’s website says it has ‘just the right amount of caffeine,’ which is a little imprecise. We’d like to know exactly how much we’re drinking. Elsewhere the manufacturers say 5-Hour Energy contains as much caffeine as a cup of the leading premium coffee. But that can be pretty variable too. The leading brand of premium coffee might be a different company depending on where you live, but let’s base our research on Starbucks for now. A single espresso, the least caffeinated Starbucks beverage, contains 75 mg of caffeine. But a venti Americano can contain as much as 300 mg – about the maximum safe limit for most people. So if we take an average of those amounts – 180, about the content of a large size Starbucks latte – then we’d expect to find that 5 Hour Energy probably has about that much caffeine in it, maybe a little less. That way 2 shots of 5 Hour Energy a day wouldn’t give you more than 300mg of caffeine a day, and it would still stay inside the safe limits.
Some sites claim to give the caffeine contents of various beverages. EnergyFiend.com, one such site, says it gets its information by various sources including the labels of products. In the case of 5 Hour Energy, we’ve already seen that the caffeine content is concealed inside a proprietary blend. However, the site goes on to report that they contacted the manufacturer, who gave them the amount of caffeine per shot: 138 mg. That way, 2 shots spaced several hours apart would never take you over the 300 mg threshold. That doesn’t mean that 5 Hour Energy couldn’t contribute to heart attacks or other problems in some people, but it’s likely that any caffeine source would have the same effects: it’s probably unwise to run on 2 a day constantly, or to take more than 2 a day.
Some people reported thinking that 5 Hour Energy had far more than 138 mg of caffeine in it, citing their own experience of using the drink as evidence that it was far higher in caffeine. One user reported thinking there might be as much as 1000 mg of caffeine in a single bottle. A single dose of 1000 mg of caffeine would be expected to cause severe toxic symptoms like nausea, vomiting, anxiety, tremor, seizures, tachycardia, dysrhythmias, hypotension, hypokalemia, and metabolic acidosis. Dysrhythmia means a broken heart rhythm, hypotension means reduced blood pressure, hypokalemia refers to dangerously low levels of potassium in the blood and tissues and metabolic acidosis is sometimes very serious, causing shortness of breath, dizziness and sometimes clinical shock. It can also be a factor in sudden death. Clearly, this kind of caffeine intake isn’t something to be trifled with. So how did these people come to think they might be taking this much caffeine on borad if 5 Hour Energy only contains 138 mg of caffeine?
Well, one way would be to consume other caffeinated beverages. If you take 2 large size Americanos from a coffee house and 2 bottles of 5 Hour Energy you’ve had nearly 1000 mg of caffeine. But most of that caffeine has come from the coffee. 5 Hour Energy is innocent here.
Another would be to confuse caffeine symptoms with the symptoms of something else. 5 Hour Energy’s website warns that some users might experience a ‘Niacin flush’. Niacin is a B vitamin that most of us aren’t eating anything like enough of, and if you’re unaccustomed to high doses it can cause increased blood flow to the skin and extremities, making you feel warm and flushed. It usually doesn’t happen after the first dose and it’s not a sign that anything’s wrong. But it could make you think you’ve had way more caffeine than you’ve actually had.
Another reason could be that people tend to take 5 Hour Energy when they need to perform and they aren’t prepared. So if you had a heavy night and an early morning, you might use 5 Hour Energy to get you out of bed and into the office. The problem here is that you’d already be dehydrated, have reduced blood sugar and glycogen stores and depleted electrolytes – the salts that make cells exchange fluids – before you took the drink. Caffeine and similar stimulants like adrenaline work by making your liver give up its glycogen stores – they release energy already stored. But if you have no energy to release, they just clear out the sugar from your blood even faster, leading to symptoms of hypoglycaemia, including sweating, dizziness, faintness, shortness of breath – a similar list to the symptoms of mild to moderate caffeine toxicity.
A final point is that 5 Hour Energy also contains Taurine, as do many energy drinks. However a 2008 study by Klauson et al found that most energy drinks don’t contain enough taurine to do you any good or any harm: the dose is just too low.
The bottom line: If you’re taking two bottles of 5 Hour Energy a day, stay away from other sources of caffeine. Don’t take it every day, do not take more than 2 bottles a day, and don’t use it as a replacement for a healthy diet and a good night’s sleep. This is exactly the advice on offer at the company’s website. Use it as directed, and you’ll be fine.