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Drinking and 'Speeding' Don't Mix

Stimulants mixed with depressants are recipe for disaster, say experts

THURSDAY, Nov. 29, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The latest legal high in colleges and in clubs is a mix of supercharged energy drinks and hard liquor. While the combination isn't illegal, it has experts worried that swilling a drink that is both heavily stimulating and depressing at the same time is a recipe for disaster.

Mixing energy drinks, like Red Bull and Venom, with liquors, like vodka, is most popular among the under-30 crowd. There's no hard research yet on the subject, and so far, no deaths or medical emergencies have been attributed to the new mix, but experts say that may be just a matter of time.

"This is happening at house parties, as well as at some of the clubs," says Jessica Burtt, outreach coordinator with Crossroads, a substance abuse education program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. College bars around the country are advertising "Red Bull Nights" (read: Red Bull and vodka). Last year, James Madison University's Student Government Association advertised a Red Bull Night as part of its Senior Week festivities, and recipes for "Red Bull Martinis" and "Red Bull Blasters" abound on the Internet.

The so-called energy drinks (marketed under names such as Red Devil, Battery and Erektus, in addition to Red Bull and Venom) boast a variety of stimulants, including caffeine, ephedra, guarana and ginseng.

David Pearson, exercise physiologist at Ball State University's Human Performance Laboratory, says the drinks are geared to what he calls the "Mountain Dew generation," the legions of teens and young adults who have been raised on caffeine, have built a tolerance and are looking for an even bigger kick. Mountain Dew, with 37 milligrams of caffeine in an 8-ounce can, has one of the highest caffeine contents on the market, reports the National Soft Drink Association. Coca-Cola Classic, by contrast has 23 milligrams, and 8 ounces of brewed coffee has about 85 milligrams.

The stimulants alone could cause problems for some people, but "the combined effects of caffeine, ephedra, guarana and ginseng pose the greatest concern," Pearson says. "With that type of stimulation, you could run into a heart attack. You could have a stroke. If a student or anyone drinking one of these had an unknown cardiovascular problem, it could exacerbate that."

And that's just the stimulant side of the equation. Adding alcohol, a depressant, only increases concern. In particular, experts worry that the stimulation of these energy drinks may prevent people from realizing how much alcohol they've consumed or how intoxicated they are. "You've got alcohol, which is basically wanting to depress the system, working against very powerful stimulants and telling the body 'no, no, no, go, go go,'" says Pearson. "The stimulants are so powerful they would allow the average individual to stay alert and potentially consume more alcohol than they would if they were just having a vodka tonic, for instance."

"People think this substance is somehow making them process alcohol quicker, or it's decreasing the concentration of alcohol in the blood, but it's definitely not doing that," says Cynthia Sass, a registered dietician with the University of South Florida, in Tampa. "If they think it's doing that, they may act differently -- drink more, drive. It's very similar to drinking a lot of coffee after you've been drinking. You're going to feel a little bit more alert and capable of handling things, but blood alcohol concentration hasn't changed at all."

This may be good for bar business, but it's not good for the students. "Once the stimulants wear off, then you've got this huge depressant in the system," says Pearson. "You could have something as simple as an individual vomiting in their sleep, which doesn't sound very harmful but which has been a cause of death. You could have respiratory depression effects."

Hopefully, people will realize the danger before someone dies, says Pearson. "This is one of these things that would be very difficult to study because I can't imagine that our university would allow me to do a study which would purposely endanger the life of any subjects by giving them alcohol and these drinks. It's a Catch-22. We have to kind of go on common sense, and common sense tells us not to mix these two things together," he says.

What To Do

Don't mix stimulants with alcohol.

Curious about what you're drinking? Check this chart of how much caffeine is in those soft drinks in your fridge.

And here are the ingredients for Red Bull, Red Devil, Battery, Erektus and Venom.

For more information on a range of issues affecting male teens, visit Pearson's "Ask Dr. Dave" column at MH-18 magazine.

SOURCES: Interviews with David Pearson, Ph.D., exercise physiologist, Ball State University Human Performance Laboratory, Muncie, Ind.; Cynthia Sass, registered dietician, University of South Florida, Tampa; Jessica Burtt, outreach coordinator, Crossroads, University of North Carolina at Wilmington
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