Active Voice: The Downside of Energy Drinks - Negative Performance and Psychological Effects
By Conrad Woolsey, Ph.D., CHES

Active Voice is a column by experts in science, medicine and allied health. The viewpoints expressed do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Conrad Woolsey, PhD, CHES, is an Assistant Professor of Health and Human Performance at Oklahoma State University and a sport psychology consultant. His research areas include brain chemistry, addiction, positive health behavior change, health psychology and performance in athletes. He has authored publications and several research presentations related to this commentary1 including one at ACSM’s Annual Meeting and World Congress on Exercise is Medicine™, held in Baltimore in June 2010. For further information, contact the author by e-mail via his institutional website.

Of the more than 500 brands of energy drinks (EDs) now available, several contain 3-4 times the amount of caffeine (300+ mg/8 oz.) as standard energy drinks (80 mg/8 oz.) such as Red Bull. New popular drinks such as Spike and Redline also contain other herbal stimulants such as evodamine and yohimbine which are more powerful and dangerous than caffeine. Strategic marketing campaigns proclaiming improved performance, concentration, and mood have influenced increased ED use. ED use significantly predicts increased alcohol use, the illicit use of amphetamines (Adderall), and risk-taking such drinking and driving. Additionally, in a randomly assigned double-blind placebo controlled study where we tested EDs on a dynamic performance skill, we found performance improvements only when examining one-dimensional variables (e.g., reaction time), which do not necessarily translate well into coordinated multi-dimensional skills. Performers perceived they were doing better, but actually made significantly more errors, due to being hyper-focused and/or over-aroused. Technical skills rely on timing and coordination, and EDs can and often do reduce performance. As a sport psychology consultant, I regularly work with elite athletes whose performances have suffered from using EDs, particularly in high-pressure situations.

There are several contributing factors, such as athletes’ reduced ability to self-regulate biofeedback and state-dependent negative effects on the cerebellum (responsible for coordination/sequencing of motor movements). Typically, my clients are able to effectively utilize relaxation and/or excitation techniques to improve biofeedback and hormonal responses as well as a performance mindset to improve confidence, concentration, and mood. However, due to the pharmacodynamics of EDs, as well as the adverse neurological and psychological adaptations, in the long run, athletes who regularly use EDs are likely to experience performance decrements and to suffer from neurochemical imbalances.

Describing the complex neurological and biochemical cascades resulting from ED use is difficult in a brief report; however, one can start by examining the pharmacological actions of ED ingredients (including stimulant and anti-anxiety effects) on the brain’s stress (amygdala) and neurotransmitter systems. Several ingredients, such as taurine and inositol, are known for their regulatory effects on neurotransmitters and the CNS. Taurine has been shown to act as an anti-anxiety agent by affecting GABA receptors. Inositol is a serotonin modulator and has been used successfully as an anti-depressant medication. Like drugs of abuse, EDs work by causing a large release and/or prolonged action of pleasure-reward neurotransmitters (dopamine/serotonin) and stress hormones (nor-adrenaline/adrenaline), which in turn provides a short term high followed by a low.

There are ingredients in EDs, such as L-tyrosine, which are precursors to the production of neurotransmitters; however, these will not balance out the deleterious neurological effects of ED use. Therefore, using EDs can raise pleasure-reward thresholds and damage neurotransmitter receptor sites. This results in more drug craving and/or thrill-seeking to satisfy homeostatic brain deficiencies and increases the chances of developing anxiety and depressive disorders. This is important because research indicates that significant brain modeling occurs to age 20 and those under 25 are at risk for developing addictive personality traits and behaviors due to incomplete development of the memory (hippocampus), stress, and pleasure-reward systems of the brain. Practitioners, coaches, athletes and athletic trainers need to be well informed that EDs can inhibit peak performance and regular ED use will result in more time feeling tired, anxious, and depressed.

1The undisclosed performance study mentioned will also be coming out in October and ACSM researchers will be highly interested in this publication as it is the first one we know of to report negative performance effects from energy drinks. (Author’s note)

Woolsey, C. (in press). Energy drink cocktails: A dangerous combination for athletes and beyond. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 54(3), December 2010

Woolsey, C., Waigandt, A., & Beck, N. (2010). Athlete energy drink use: Reported risk taking and consequences from the combined use of alcohol and energy drinks. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 22(1), 65-71. Doi:10.1080/10413200903403224

Woolsey, C. (2010, March 18). Energy drinks: The new gateway drug. AAHPERD National Convention and Exposition in Indianapolis, Indiana. AAHE RCB Oral Session – New Challenges in Drug Use/Abuse Prevention and Intervention.

Woolsey, C., Martens, M.P., Beck, N.C. (2009). Understanding athlete brain chemistry and addiction. American College of Sports Medicine, ACSM Central States Regional Conference, Columbia, MO. November 6, 2009. Oral Presentation – 45 min.

Woolsey, C. & Kensinger, W.S. (2009, November 6). Exercise & energy drink use: Juiced jolts or risky sips? ACSM’s Central States Regional Conference, Columbia, MO. Oral Presentation – 45 min.

Woolsey, C. (2010, March 5). The effects of energy drinks and alcohol on brain development and psychological health. Achieving Wellness Through Community. Sponsored by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Norman, OK. Speaker – 60 minutes.