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Students Fool the Body, Face Health Dangers by Combining Alcohol & Energy Drinks

A new college ritual is producing the “wide-awake drunk” — a perilous state that can occur when students combine alcohol and energy drinks.

The practice increases the risks for alcohol poisoning, driving drunk and other harmful outcomes, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan. This is also the case even when alcohol is consumed separately but on the same day as energy drinks.

“We found that college students tended to drink more heavily, become more intoxicated, and have more negative drinking consequences — such as passing out, being in a situation where no one was sober enough to drive, and having a sexual experience that was regretted,” on days when both alcohol and energy drinks were consumed, says Dr. Megan Patrick, Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.

The study, “Energy Drinks and Alcohol: Links to Alcohol Behaviors and Consequences Across 56 Days” was co-authored with Dr. Jennifer Maggs at Penn State University and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2013.

Patrick and Maggs surveyed 652 college students about their use of energy drinks and alcohol over the course of four semesters. They found more adverse consequences on the days when both substances were used, versus the days when only alcohol was consumed, Patrick notes.

As a general rule, most health experts say an occasional energy drink on its own is safe, and some brands contain less caffeine than a cup of coffee. For example, an 8.4-ounce serving of the popular Red Bull Energy Drink contains about 83 milligrams of caffeine, while an 8-ounce cup of drip coffee has 104 to 192 milligrams.

But many products pack a stronger jolt: just 1.9 ounces of 5-Hour Energy Extra Strength has 242 milligrams of caffeine, and 2.5 ounces of Rockstar Energy Shot contains 229 milligrams of caffeine, according to independent testing by Consumer Reports. Monster brand energy drinks add 92 to 221 milligrams of caffeine (as a comparison, a 12-ounce Coca Cola has 34 milligrams).

Along with their highly caffeinated profile, most energy drinks are also laden with sugar, other stimulants, artificial ingredients and preservatives.

The real danger, however, lies in combining caffeine — a stimulant — with the effects of alcohol — a depressant, in drinks such as a Vodka Red Bull. Mixing caffeine and alcohol fools the body into feeling more awake and less intoxicated, Patrick says. And that can lead some people to boost their already high alcohol intake.

“This combination of alcohol with energy drinks can make people feel less drunk, when they are actually just as impaired by alcohol,” she says. “This can have serious consequences; for example, if people don’t realize how intoxicated they actually are and decide to drive home.”

Many colleges and universities are warning students about this emerging public health threat.

Your body does not experience the fatigue that warns you that you had enough to drink, which can lead to dangerous levels of alcohol consumption,” cautions the University of Notre Dame on its website for student well-being.

California State University warns students that mixing alcohol and energy drinks “sways them to drink more in order to feel the exhilaration of a good “buzz.” This cycle can quickly take a turn for the worst, leading to alcohol poisoning . . .

College drinking — often to the point of blacking out — is already a widespread concern in the United States. More than 1,800 students die each year from alcohol-related causes and another 600,000 are injured while intoxicated, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). The NIAAA also reports nearly 100,000 college students are victims of alcohol-influenced sexual assault.

Studies show that students who mix alcohol and energy drinks are more vulnerable to hangovers and health complications such as heart problems and severe dehydration (both substances are diuretics).

An increase in risky behaviors, as noted in the University of Michigan study, is also associated with the alcohol/energy drink combo in other academic research. Adolescents who combined the two were more likely to binge drink, get in fights or become injured than those who did not, according to studies by Boston University School of Public Health. And a survey of 355 college students by the University of Western States reveals that students were more likely to drive drunk when they mixed alcohol and energy drinks (compared with those who consumed alcohol only).

More research is planned, but health experts say parents should warn their students about the dangers of combining alcohol and energy drinks. The President of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD), a national nonprofit, wants greater enforcement to deter underage drinking, and more focus on responsible product packaging and marketing practices.

“While SADD can agree with the medical experts about the numerous dangers of mixing energy drinks and alcohol, we are also concerned about the marketing of these products to the underage population,” says Dawn Teixeira, President and Chief Executive Officer of SADD.

“Teens view large amounts of marketing and advertising materials from the alcohol industry,” Teixeira says. “SADD supports efforts to encourage responsible marketing and advertising that does not target teens and is mindful of the impact these materials have on youth attitudes and behaviors.”

Resources

Learn more about changing unsafe drinking patterns with these online resources:

COLLEGE DRINKING: CHANGING THE CULTURE

This website, created by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), offers a helpful parent guide, links to alcohol policies at colleges, tips on how to reduce drinking, and where to get help if faced with an alcohol-related crisis.

STUDENTS AGAINST DESTRUCTIVE DECISIONS (SADD)

With thousands of chapters nationwide, SADD aims to prevent destructive behaviors and attitudes that harm young people – including underage drinking, substance abuse, impaired driving, violence, and suicide. The SAAD website includes guidelines for effective family communication, a parent-child contract to encourage healthy decisions, and links to helpful resources on substance abuse and other topics that affect teens and young adults.

ABOVE THE INFLUENCE

Above The Influence helps young people stand up to negative pressures or influences. The site includes ways to help a friend with a drug or alcohol problem, and lots of tips on making healthy decisions. Above The Influence is a program of the nonprofit Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

RETHINKING DRINKING

This NIAAA-sponsored site includes a wealth of information on changing drinking patterns – with tips on how to build drink refusal skills and cope with cravings.

FRIENDS DRIVE SOBER

Includes tips on how to stop a friend from driving while impaired, and other steps that students can take to prevent impaired driving in their communities.

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