Mixing Alcohol With Energy Drinks Sets Stage for Problem Drinking

A new study has found a link between energy drink consumption and abusive drinking, including among teenagers aged 15 to 17, adding weight to previous associations observed in college-age drinkers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive alcohol use is responsible for 88,000 deaths every year in the U.S., and understanding factors relevant to the development of problems is essential in minimizing this needless loss of life. The role of energy drinks in America’s drinking problem is becoming more and more widely known, and although this study focuses on younger drinkers, the conclusions appear to hold true for people of any age.

Energy Drinks and Alcohol

Energy drinks ordinarily contain caffeine or other stimulants, and this is central to the issue with mixing energy drinks and alcohol. The caffeine in the drinks reduces the depressant effects of alcohol, making the person consuming mixed drinks feel less drunk than if they’d mixed the alcohol with something like orange juice or lemonade. The problem is that the caffeine does nothing to alter the processing of alcohol by the liver or any of the other consequences of excessive drinking. Young people in particular regularly consume energy drinks, and often do so mixed with alcohol. Among 12 to 17 year olds, 31 percent drink energy drinks, and for 18 to 24 year olds, this increases to 34 percent. Previous research has shown that those who mix energy drinks and alcohol are three times more likely to binge drink than those who consume alcohol without energy drinks, and they are about twice as likely to be taken advantage of sexually, to take advantage of others or to get in a vehicle with a driver who is under the influence.

Energy Drinks and Alcohol Binges

The study used a sample of 3,342 youths aged 15 to 23, taken from a national survey. The researchers looked at energy drink consumption and alcohol use disorders, splitting energy drink users into those who’d done so recently and those who’d ever mixed energy drinks with alcohol. They used the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test to determine who was addicted (or drinking at hazardous levels), including asking whether each participant had ever had six or more drinks on one occasion (to identify binge drinkers). For the 15 to 17 year olds (of whom there were just over 1,500), 13.3 percent had recently consumed an energy drink and 9.7 percent had at some point consumed an energy drink mixed with alcohol. Almost half (47 percent) had ever consumed alcohol, and the 15 to 17 year olds who’d recently consumed energy drinks were over 2.5 times more likely to have done so. Those who’d recently consumed alcohol mixed with energy drinks were around 4.7 times more likely to be binge drinkers, were 3.25 times more likely to meet the adult criteria for hazardous alcohol use and 4.15 times more likely to meet the adolescent version of the same criteria. The authors point out that there was no indication that the findings differed depending on the age of the participants. First author Jennifer Emond commented that, “These findings are concerning. They highlight that mixed use of alcohol and energy drinks may signal the development of abusive drinking behaviors among adolescents.”

Mixing Alcohol With Energy Drinks—A Warning Sign

The findings indicate that somebody who drinks alcohol with energy drinks is more likely to have a problem with his drinking, and although the findings only address 15 to 23 year olds (and previous research often focuses on college-age drinkers), the same basic conclusions will apply to older drinkers. If you know somebody who regularly mixes alcohol with energy drinks—or if you do so yourself—it doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual has a problem with drinking or bingeing, but it’s definitely a warning sign. Emond expresses concern about adolescents in particular: “Abusive alcohol use among adolescents is a dangerous behavior that can lead to injury, chronic alcohol use and abuse, and even death. Identifying those most at risk for alcohol use is critical.” She goes on to suggest, “Given that this is a sensitive issue, it’s possible that clinicians, parents and educators might open dialogues about alcohol use with adolescents by starting the discussion on the topic of energy drinks.”

A Dangerous Combination

The subjective effect of mixing alcohol and energy drinks—feeling less intoxicated—makes the two a dangerous combination, and the findings of this study suggest that this is definitely the case for younger drinkers. For older drinkers, despite not being directly addressed by much of the research into the area, the same reasoning applies. Following Emond’s advice about using energy drinks as a lead-in to the topic of drinking for youths can help you identify any potential problems early, and although the same approach would be a little transparent for adults, mixing alcohol and energy drinks is a red flag for bigger issues being at play.

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