A favorite of both fitness nuts and party animals, Red Bull has some reported side-effects. Now people have started mixing energy drinks with alcohol, adding to the potential toxicity. France, one of the last countries to approve its sale, asks if its really OK.
PARIS – Non-stop dancing, all night. For years, Jean-Christophe has been drinking Red Bull with vodka, five or six times per night.
This young IT consultant describes himself as a heavy consumer of Red Bull since he was 18 years old. Today he is 28 and drinks at least one can every night, “to be able to do 16 hours of computer programming a day.” Used with marijuana, “it creates a sort of ‘trance.’” As a result, he can stay up until 5 or 6 in the morning.
Eric, a former salesman, used to drive 2,000 to 3,000 kilometers every week. Sick of drinking coffee, he decided to try energy drinks instead. Then he started drinking one to four every day from Wednesday to Friday. “It helped me keep my rhythm and push back my limits.” But one day he felt ill, with his legs going wobbly and an irregular heartbeat. That was three years ago, back when he was 27. His doctor attributed the problems to fatigue and stress. Several months later, he had another attack. “That time, I thought about my lifestyle and I hypothesized that energy drinks might be responsible. So I stopped drinking them, and I haven’t experienced cardiac arrhythmia since.”
Earlier this month, the French National Agency for Food Security (Anses) raised the alarm. Six cases of dangerous side effects (epilepsy, coma, tremors, anxiety) have been reported since 2009, including two deaths by cardiac arrest, for which the link with energy drinks is currently being evaluated. Since the Anses put out their alert, they “have been notified of six other occurrences which are currently being examined,” explains Professor Irène Margaritis, head of nutrition risk evaluation at the Anses.
Feeling good on the dance floor
Vodka-Red Bull is the fashionable cocktail in nightclubs and among young people. Red Bull but also Monster, Dark Dog, Burn and Frelon Detox are all available in supermarkets or sports clubs. They are favorites of partygoers and fitness experts, night workers and video game addicts. “My Monster is my second life,” says Emmanuel, a 21-year-old working student.
But like Eric, many of them have experienced undesirable side effects: heart problems for Emmanuel; slight dizziness, sweating, a heart that “beats so hard that I have a hard time recovering,” for Karim, a student from Marseilles. Others talk about temporary and unusual depressions, “crashing” after the effects of the drink wears off.
After a night out drinking four or five cans of Red Bull, Sophie was in great shape despite having slept only three hours. Her parents found her agitated – her father is a doctor – and were worried. But she wasn’t: “this drink helps me keep going. On weekends, you want to let go. After one or two cans, I really feel the difference on the dance floor.”
France was one of the last countries to approve the sale of these energy drinks. In 2001, the Anses had expressed doubts on their innocuousness. But Red Bull and analogous drinks were authorized for sale in May 2008 thanks to the Economy Ministry’s green light, and despite opposition from the Health Ministry.
“How many accidents will it take?” asks Doctor Laurent Chevallier, a nutritionist and member of the Health environment network. “These are not essential products. It is surprising the European Union hasn’t taken any action.”
It is the alcohol-energy drink combination that worries the Anses the most. This explosive cocktail is associated with binge drinking, very popular among young people. “Teenagers use these energy drinks to drink more and longer,” explains psychiatrist Xavier Pommereau, head of the teenage department at Bordeaux’s hospital.
Because these drinks decrease the perception of alcohol’s effects, doctors strongly advise against mixing the two. “Scientists are currently studying the toxicity of taurine when it is associated with alcohol,” says Doctor Pommereau. In addition to taurine, these drinks contain “stimulating” ingredients such as caffeine, guarana, ginseng, vitamins or D-glucuronolactone (a potentially toxic substance).
But most young people believe “it isn’t as toxic as amphetamines or ecstasy,” says a Nantes public servant, for whom “the controversy around a few unproven cases is a real non-issue.” Some consume these drinks to stay awake and don’t see what’s wrong. “The real danger for young people is that they start drinking huge amounts of strong alcohols at an early age,” believes Paul, a 30-something Parisian.
“Since the beginning of the 2000s, there have been two new phenomenon: drinking alcohol at an increasingly young age, and binge drinking, especially for girls. I’ve seen 14-year-old girls with vodka bottles in their bag,” says doctor Pommereau. Out of the 15 patients in his unit, two are 12 years old.
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