Energy Drinks and Drug Use: A Surprising Connection

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Energy drinks can give someone a temporary boost in alertness or physical pep, but there’s a downside. We’ve mentioned before that using energy drinks can have unpleasant side effects. People have even gone to the ER complaining about side effects.

Now it turns out there’s another risk associated with energy drinks: College students’ regular use of energy drinks might increase their risk for drug problems.

Energy now, trouble later?

A recent study asked more than 1,000 college students about their use of energy drinks and other caffeinated drinks, cocaine, and alcohol. The researchers found that students who regularly consumed (or increased their use of) energy drinks had higher rates of cocaine use, prescription stimulant misuse, and alcohol problems compared with students who didn’t consume energy drinks.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that regularly using energy drinks causes drug problems later, but the connection is getting the attention of scientists.

Caffeine and the teen brain

Some studies have suggested that caffeine, found in high amounts in many energy drinks, might be “priming” the teen brain—which is still developing—for drug use later in life.

Teens who regularly consume caffeine might have a greater "tolerance" to it, compared to adults, which means they're more likely to consume more caffeine to feel that peppy effect. So, scientists suspect that caffeine may cause greater brain changes in young people who consume it regularly compared with teens who don’t. One of those changes could be a higher risk for drug problems, including addiction, in the future.

Learn the difference between drug tolerance, dependence, and addiction.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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