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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The dangers of overindulging in caffeine

Published: November 2, 2012
Section: Featured, Opinions

Last week, a young girl named Wendy Crossland died of a heart arrhythmia after drinking two large cans of Monster in 36 hours. Her family filed a suit against the makers of Monster Energy for not clearly labeling the product with the associated risks. Lawyers for Monster argued that there is no clear evidence tying the girl’s death to their product and that they are not at fault.

Crossland’s family then requested for the FDA, under the Freedom of Information Act, to release all incident reports pertaining to the link between Monster Energy drinks and premature death. The reports stated that five people have died during the past three years after drinking Monster Energy drinks. In an interview with Shelly Burgess, an FDA spokeswoman, she stated that the agency had also received reports of other events following the intake of Monster energy drinks, such as abdominal pain, vomiting, tremors and abnormal heart rate, some of which required hospitalization.

According to a Monster Beverage spokesman, the company had not received copies of the FDA filings, apart from an incident in connection with the death of Anais Fournier of Maryland, who died in December from a cardiac arrhythmia. In the autopsy report, Fournier’s death was reported to be “due to caffeine toxicity.” Monster responded to the incident by stating, “Monster does not believe that its beverages are in any way responsible for the death of Ms. Fournier. Monster is unaware of any fatality anywhere that has been caused by its drinks.”

To those of us who don’t drink energy drinks like Monster and Red Bull, crunching the numbers makes it easier to understand the effects of these drinks. In an 8-ounce cup of coffee, there are anywhere from 60-120 milligrams of caffeine. Decaf coffee also contains a small amount of about 1-5 milligrams of caffeine in an 8-ounce cup. Espresso has 45-100 milligrams of caffeine in a 2-ounce cup. A 12-ounce can of Coke contains 35 milligrams of caffeine and an 8.3-ounce can of Red Bull has 76 milligrams. Just one of the 24-ounce Monster cans that Anais Fournier drank before her death had 240 milligrams of caffeine, as well as guarana, the seed of a tropical shrub that contains extra caffeine not included in the amount listed on the bottle label. Fournier had the equivalent of 28 cans of Coke in the two Monster drinks that induced her fatal heart attack.

I have never been a big fan of energy drinks. I started drinking coffee during the second semester of my first year at Brandeis and the only effect I noticed during those months was a caffeine crash during my 3 p.m. class. It wasn’t until the beginning of my sophomore year that I decided to stop drinking caffeinated beverages. I noticed the difference almost immediately. In situations where I had felt depressed, apathetic and pessimistic in the past, I found that I had a more positive outlook on classes, homework and my friendships. I wasn’t as tired, I never had a caffeine crash, and the mood swings I had always blamed on female hormones were gone. I even started to notice how small effects of caffeine in a can of Coke or a cup of caffeinated tea negatively affected me. Knowing that just one cup of coffee will give me jitters and shakes, I personally cannot imagine the effects of ingesting 240 milligrams of caffeine.

Emergency room visits involving energy drinks increased to 13,114 in 2009, according to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. These hospitalizations also involved drugs or alcohol, meaning that these substances were used alongside caffeinated drinks. Anais Fournier didn’t drop dead of a heart attack on her last sip of Monster. It was hours before the caffeine took full effect in her bloodstream.

Considering that drinks like Monster and Red Bull are often associated with alcohol, the effect of just a few sips of these two substances together have the potential to be dangerous. The alcoholic, caffeinated drink Four Loko was banned from shelves for this exact reason. So if you’re dead set on going to a party after pulling an all-nighter, I recommend skipping the energy drink and sticking with a safe number of pale ales and a good 12 hours of sleep. If you are not a part of the partying crowd, try grabbing a fruit juice or a good old fashioned bottle of water to hydrate your body and raise your energy level.

Avoid the Monster available in the C-store. The reasoning behind selling amounts of caffeine that have been proven dangerous, and in some cases fatal, remains unclear. Many people choose to take 5-Hour Energy, a product marketed to give you five hours of energy without the crash. One 2-ounce bottle of 5-Hour Energy contains 138 milligrams of caffeine. If your argument in support of energy drinks relies on the idea that 5-Hour Energy is a safer, healthier version of an energy drink, consider the fact that New York’s attorney general issued a subpoena to the company that produces 5-Hour Energy, Living Essentials, for information on its ingredients.

Given the fact that such strong measures have been taken against products like this, I would willingly choose to avoid them. The benefits of drinking a Monster do not outweigh the risks. It’s up to you to decide whether the risk of potential health drawbacks of drinking high levels of caffeine are worth the small energy burst and crash that’s sure to follow. As a society and a generation, I think it would be a good idea to redefine how we look at caffeine. I believe the best approach to caffeinated beverages is to use them in moderation and in small amounts, and not to rely on them to get through the day. So enjoy your coffee tomorrow morning. Just be aware of how much it affects your body in the long run.