Above: Image © MarySan, iStock

What do you drink in the morning? Coffee? Tea? Or maybe an energy drink?

Many young people find energy drinks a tastier alternative to coffee or tea. In fact, a 2011 study found that 68 percent of energy drinkers in Europe are teens. And a 2012 Study found that as many as 25 percent of US college students mix these drinks with alcohol.

Both alcohol and energy drinks are legal in Canada, as long as you’re old enough. But is it safe to combine the two?

Scientists already know that the caffeine in energy drinks can mask the effects of alcohol. So if you drink them together, you may you look and feel less drunk than you actually are. This can lead you to drink more alcohol than you should. Too much alcohol can cause all kinds of problems, including a hangover the next day.

But when you combine alcohol with energy drinks, you might end up with a longer-term problem: addiction.

Did you know? Sugar, fatty foods and addictive drugs (such as cocaine) can all increase levels of the ΔFosB protein. As ΔFosB increase, you need more and more of a substance to feel satisfied.

Energy-drinking mice

Scientists at Purdue University found that a combination of alcohol and energy drinks can affect on the teenage brain similarly to cocaine.

Researchers gave adolescent mice an energy drink and alcohol mixture. The mice that drank the mixture became more physically active and had higher levels of the ΔFosB protein than the mice that didn’t. When an organism has increased levels of ΔFosB, it needs more and more of a substance to feel satisfied.

In this particular study, researchers gave mice artificially sweetened water. The mice that had drunk the energy drink and alcohol combination needed more artificially sweetened water than those that hadn't. This probably means that chemical changes happened in the brains of these mice.

Did you know? Increased levels of the ΔFosB protein related to addition happen in the nucleus accumbens. That’s a part of the brain involved in motivation and reward.

Energy-drinking people

Let’s think about how this could play out for a person. You may have heard people say that drinking alcohol produces “good feelings”. If what’s true for teen mice is true for teen humans, then drinking energy drinks and alcohol together as a teen could make you less sensitive to those “good feelings”. You may end up drinking more to get that same payoff. That is how an addiction can happen.

What does all of this research suggest? If you’re a teen who combines energy drinks with alcohol, you may be causing changes in your brain. These changes could make you more likely to over-consume other substances.

Energy drinks on their own may seem harmless, especially if you drink them occasionally. So might alcohol—if you’re of legal age and drink in moderation, of course!. But together, combining the two creates a dangerous cocktail that could hurt you.

Always follow the recommendations and warnings on any product you put in your body. And remember, moderation is always a good idea.

Learn more!

Energy Drinks (2016)
National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health

Mixing energy drinks, alcohol may affect adolescent brains like cocaine (2016)
EurekAlert!, American Association for the Advancement of Science

Energy drink consumption in Europe: a review of the risks, adverse health effects, and policy options to respond (2014)
J.J. Breda et al., Frontiers in Public Health 2

Sasha Strong