A new rage on college campuses is a cocktail of caffeine-loaded energy drinks laced with alcohol — like the popular Red Bull™ and vodka. But there is some evidence it can be a dangerous combination.
A new laboratory study discovers the combination of the energy drink and alcohol enhances feelings of stimulation in participants. Those who drink alcohol and energy drinks in combination can be highly stimulated and highly impulsive, but feel like they are less impaired, according to psychologist Dr. Cecile A. Marczinski, first author of the study.
The findings will be published in the July 2011 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
Use of alcohol by younger adults has changed, Marczinski said. “Classic mixed drinks such as rum and coke have been replaced with mixed drinks that use energy drinks instead, such as yagerbombs and Red Bull™ and vodka.”
But Dr. Amelia M. Arria, Director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland, said, “there is insufficient data to support the growing concern.
“We have sales data showing that energy drinks have gained in popularity, and we know anecdotally that this practice is popular, but we have little data on objective and subjective responses that support growing concern about the safety of mixing energy drinks with alcohol,” she said.
Marczinski did not disagree. “While consuming energy drinks with alcohol is thought of as a risky drinking practice, the laboratory evidence demonstrating this is quite limited,” she said.
“In fact, most of the evidence that consuming alcohol/energy drinks is risky comes from epidemiological studies that have reported an increased risk of accidents and injuries associated with their use. However, those studies do not address the key confound that risky drinkers, who are prone to drinking heavily anyways, are just attracted to these drinks since they are trendy. Our study was designed to demonstrate that alcohol/energy drinks are pharmacologically distinct from alcohol alone and are adding to the risks of drinking.”
Marczinski and her colleagues randomly assigned 56 college student participants (28 men, 28 women), between the ages of 21 and 33, to one of four groups that received four different doses: 0.65 g/kg alcohol, 3.57 ml/kg energy drink, energy drink/alcohol, or a placebo beverage. The participants’ behavior was measured on a task that measures how quickly one can execute and suppress actions following the dose.
Participants also rated how they felt, including feelings of stimulation, sedation, impairment, and levels of intoxication.
“We found that an energy drink alters the reaction to alcohol that a drinker experiences when compared to a drinker that consumed alcohol alone,” said Marczinski.
“A consumer of alcohol, with or without the energy drink, acts impulsively compared to when they had not consumed alcohol. However, the consumer of the alcohol/energy drink felt more stimulated compared to an alcohol-alone consumer. Therefore, consumption of an energy drink combined with alcohol sets up a risky scenario for the drinker due to this enhanced feeling of stimulation and high impulsivity levels.”
In other words, blending alcohol with an energy drink did not change the level of impairment associated with alcohol consumption although it did cause an individual to pereive they were less impaired.
“The findings from this study provide concrete laboratory evidence that the mixture of energy drinks with alcohol is riskier than alcohol alone,” said Marczinski.
“College students need to be aware of the risks of these beverages. Moreover, clinicians who are working with risky drinkers will need to try and steer their clients away from these beverages.”