Young athletes may not know risks of energy drinks

Some coaches, trainers already limit their use; Virginia considers ban

  • Michael M. Gimbel, director of Powered by Me!, a program at St. Joseph Medical Center, talks to children and adults about the ingredients and side effects of the drinks.
Michael M. Gimbel, director of Powered by Me!, a program at St.… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
September 15, 2010|By Katherine Dunn, The Baltimore Sun

Mike Gimbel travels around Baltimore with a cache of energy drinks, everything from Red Bull to Monster to 5-Hour Energy shots.

When he talks to teenage athletes, the Towson-based substance abuse expert uses his display to help them understand what they consume when downing an energy drink before practice. Sure, they get the caffeine and the sugar that provide the boost they're looking for, but Gimbel said the athletes — and their parents — would be surprised to discover what else is on the label.

"The real problem here is that the energy drinks contain a lot more dangerous ingredients than just caffeine. That's what people don't understand," said Gimbel, director of Powered By ME!, a campaign to educate middle and high school students about steroids, energy drinks and other performance-enhancing substances.

With high school sports in full swing, Gimbel and other experts are afraid teenage athletes will reach for energy drinks to improve their practice or game performance even though caffeine and other stimulants in energy drinks may not be safe when they are working out.

Two years ago in an article in Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal, Johns Hopkins scientists called for warning labels on energy drinks, because the amount of caffeine can vary widely and caffeine intoxication can result in symptoms such as anxiety, rapid heartbeat and, in a few cases, death. Caffeine is on the NCAA's list of banned substances.

In addition to caffeine, energy drinks can contain such ingredients as guarana, taurine and yerba mate, which also act as stimulants. The herbal supplements can compound the effects of caffeine, Gimbel said. Most cans also contain more than one serving, and few teenagers stop at a half or a third of a can.

Eastern Tech football coach Marc Mesaros doesn't want his players drinking them.

"I think anything that artificially raises your heart rate is bad," Mesaros said. "And I think they're dangerous when combined with the work [players are] doing and the conditions. The best thing is water and Gatorade. If you're in shape, that's all you need."

The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association and the local private school leagues — the boys Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association and the girls Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland — have no official policies on energy drinks, although Mesaros is far from the only coach, athletic director or trainer to strongly discourage their use.

In Virginia, the MPSSAA's counterpart — the Virginia High School League — will consider a recommendation this fall to ban the use of energy drinks.

Dr. Katherine Dec, chair of the VHSL sports medicine advisory committee, said her committee has enough anecdotal evidence to begin discussing the possibility of a ban. The proposal will be presented to the VHSL executive committee at its meeting Tuesday, said Mike McCall, a VHSL spokesman.

"The kids see [the drinks] as something to give them energy," Dec said. "But it's not the physical nutritional energy that they need to perform well, so we want to try and keep with that hydration, replenishment concept. We want them to be appropriately replenished post practice and games and appropriately hydrated so they don't run into problems with heart rate, blood pressure, jitteriness — some of the complaints from kids through the past few years after drinking these drinks."

Like Dec, T.J. Morgan, Archbishop Spalding's athletic trainer and the president of the Maryland Athletic Trainers' Association, acknowledged that there is still disagreement in the medical field about the effects of energy drinks on athletes and that study will eventually determine the full extent of their impact. In the meantime, he also discourages their use.

"We've taken a stance that we do not endorse or approve energy drinks prior to athletic activity," Morgan said. "We ask them to consider it as serious as a performance-enhancing substance, because we want to make it clear that we don't want to have somebody succumb to the effects of one of these drinks and possibly suffer catastrophic occurrences."

While caffeine amounts are listed on energy drink labels, amounts of herbal supplements don't have to be because they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, said Gimbel, a marathon runner.

"When you actually look at the amount of caffeine in these drinks, you might go, 'It might be a few cups of coffee, not a big deal,' " Gimbel said. "But then, when you look at these supplements, we don't know how much is in them. We don't know the potency, because they don't have to tell us. So the key here is, in my opinion, these herbal supplements are more dangerous in energy drinks than the caffeine."

Officials in local counties and private school leagues cannot recall any serious repercussions from local athletes consuming energy drinks.

However, Loyola football coach Brian Abbott said he has seen their effects.

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