The latest craze among the party crowd, as well as those who must work through the night, is the use of so-called “energy drinks” (also marketed as gels or shots.) These caffeine and sugar concoctions are designed to keep people awake. Unfortunately, athletes have begun to use them as supplements to improve athletic performance.
These products should not be confused with drinks like Gatorade or Powerade that are designed to replace electrolytes and carbs after a strenuous workout.
Drugs such as caffeine, thyroid hormone and testosterone have long been used to increase muscle irritability in conditions causing chronic weakness like myasthenia gravis and muscular dystrophy. While they achieved some success, these drugs were replaced by more effective treatments.
Although they may have had some modest benefit to impaired muscles, there has never been any evidence suggesting a beneficial effect of stimulants upon healthy muscle. In fact, the result is often uncontrolled muscle twitching known as “fasciculations.”
Jeffrey Anderson, MD, is the medical director for UCONN athletics and the UCONN Human Performance Laboratory. “These drinks are nothing more than stimulants in a can; fortunately, their use has not been a problem with our athletes,” Anderson said.
Herbal stimulants like ephedrine have been popular for their ability to increase metabolism to produce weight loss.
Any stimulant has the potential for many serious side effects including tachycardia (rapid heart rate) and seizures. Athletes typically experience physiologic stimulation due to the release of adrenaline while participating in a sport. The addition of synthetic stimulants further amplifies this state to dangerous and potentially life-threatening levels.
There is continued debate whether energy supplements can cause disabling muscle cramps in healthy muscle. Even the possibility of this in a competitive athlete is troublesome since it can result in an athlete being unable to complete the event.
Based on both scientific and anecdotal information, athletes are better off sticking with a balanced diet and adequate hydration.