Eighteen deaths may not sound like a lot, especially in a world where millions of energy drinks are sold and consumed each year, an $8.9 billion-dollar industry. But that’s still 18 people whose lives were possibly cut short thanks to, well, a short cut. And if the death toll isn’t shocking enough, how about this stat: a federal report found over 13,000 emergency room visits linked to energy drinks in 2009.
I have been in the latter group and, depending on who you ask, I was nearly in the former.
I feel sick just remembering it. The funny thing is that I was so sick, I don’t remember much of the experience but the one thing I remember most was how horribly awful I felt. In 2010 I ran a local 10-mile race. No biggie, I’d run more than twice that distance in the past and my friends and I had signed up for it just to have an excuse to put on tutus, run and laugh together. It was supposed to just be a fun run. But because of my super perfectionist drive (and because I’d just had a baby and was trying to prove that I was back in black), I’d gotten it in my mind that I was going to try for a PR (personal record, in running parlance). Never mind that I hadn’t trained for a PR. Never mind that I still wasn’t fully recovered from childbirth. Never mind that I knew, deep down, that even if did run my socks off it still wouldn’t make me enough. Because no matter what I did, I never felt like was enough in those days. I hadn’t learned yet how to separate who I am from what I do .
So when we queued up at the start line and a friend offered me a couple of mysterious “energy” pills (including a powder I mixed into my water bottle), I took them. I took them because I couldn’t look “failure” in the face and to me “failing” was doing anything less than 110% of what I was capable of. Looking back it all sounds so ridiculous now. It was a relatively small race in a relatively small town and I’ve never been the fastest runner. I’ve never won anything, ever. Not a single person in the world cared what my finishing time would be. No one would love me less for running slow. Except me.
“You remember the children’s story The Red Shoes ? Little orphaned girl covets red dancing shoes, girl gets shoes and loves them more than anything else, the shoes become possessed and bind to her feet forcing her to dance until at last she convinces someone to chop off her feet. And then she dies! Charming little tale: deadly sin, demonic possession, punishment that way overshadows the crime – sure don’t make fairy tales like they used to! Well, I was now the girl in the red shoes. My legs only had one speed: sprint. So I ran the first three or four miles at a crazy pace and then it hit me. No, not another stick. The nausea that had been building now punched me in the stomach and I immediately knew I shouldn’t have blogged about runners who poop their pants because I was pretty sure I was about to join their ranks. I stopped just long enough to blow chunks. Thankfully they came out of my mouth. (I never thought I’d be so grateful for barf!)
I have never, ever vomited during a race. Wanted to, yes. Done it, no. I walked a few paces and then my stupid possessed legs took off again. This became my strategy for the last 6 miles: sprint until I was 99% sure I was going to puke again, retch/vomit and then walk. Sprint, dry heave, walk. Repeat. I’m pretty sure this particular strategy isn’t covered in any of the major running manuals. Can’t say I recommend it either. By mile 8 I just wanted to die. If I’d known the neighborhood at all, I would have ducked out of the race but I knew I had to make it to the finish line to find my friends and my ride home. So I continued to run the most schizophrenic race ever, alternately confusing and horrifying fellow runners and bystanders alike. Hey kids, don’t do drugs!
The finish line is supposed to be a glorious moment where you sprint with your arms held high in the ecstasy of victory. I dragged over it after having walked most of the final mile, my possessed leg muscles twitching in protest. To be honest I don’t remember much after that. I hugged Gym Buddy Dennis. Some man I didn’t know gave me a picnic blanket to put over the two sweatshirts I was already wearing over my running clothes and I still couldn’t stop shaking. I ate one bite of a salted nut roll only to throw it back up in my mouth. My legs were weak, I wanted to cry and my heart was beating so fast and funny I was sure I’d just self-medicated myself into a heart attack. I kept a brave face on until I got home (at least I think I did, my friends would have to tell you how convincing I was) hoping that my husband would be home. He wasn’t.
I burst into hysterical sobs, threw up again and eventually managed to drag myself into bed which is where my kids found me sometime later crying and hyperventilating. By the time my husband got up there I begged him to take me to the E.R. because I was that sure I was dying.”
Not my finest moment, to say the least.
In the days following this saddest of all race reports, I got more than a few e-mails from readers telling me how stupid I’d been. (And I agreed with them. Who takes pills/powder without even knowing what they are?!) But I got two particularly memorable notes, from doctors, telling me I was lucky I’d puked so much of it back out because I could have died from that amount of caffeine*. Indeed, people have died doing pretty much what I did. The combined effect of the stress on the heart from running and the stress on the vascular system from the energy pills/drinks can be lethal. That was very sobering. I had just had a baby. I had four kids who only had one mom. I can’t even imagine not being able to come home to them because of something as silly as a race time.
Energy drinks like Rockstar, Monster, J3cked and especially 5-hour Energy have been in the news of late, thanks to a number of lawsuits against the companies saying their product is often harmful, sometimes lethal. There’s been a lot of discussion around the web about whether or not these cases can be attributed to the energy drink alone or if the problems occurred because the drink was taken with something else (vodka Red Bull tonic, anyone?) or because it was taken far in excess of the recommended serving. To me, while those arguments are interesting, they’re ultimately irrelevant.
The only salient question in my mind is this: Why do you need an energy drink?
I’m sure that there are people like night-shift nurses and air traffic controllers who will say they need a 5-Hour Energy to do their jobs properly. And I won’t dismiss that. But the vast majority of answers I’ve heard are fairly frivolous, like mine was. Slightly increased athletic performance. Studying through the night for a final exam. Dancing until dawn. Needing it to “wake up” in the morning. Ice fishing (wha?). Weight loss.
There’s a reason you see a Starbucks cup molded into every Hollywood starlet’s hand in every paparrazzi pic. There’s a reason that diet drinks are all “fortified” with kola nut, mate, and guarana (all sneaky names for caffeine). There’s a reason diet pill is synonymous with caffeine pill. Caffeine is known to be an appetite suppressant and also gives you a boost of energy that you may need due to dieting – at least until you get used to the effects. Which only takes about two weeks. At which point you either need to take more or switch to a different formulation… until you get used to that one. And so it goes. This is why diet pills don’t work. You may drop some pounds in the beginning but it’s not a lasting effect. I’ve known anorexics who routinely took enough caffeine to kill a horse. You can’t win. Like Oprah said, “If there was a diet pill that really worked, I would have found it by now and it would be one of my Favorite Things.” (Pill bottles with little bows for everyone in the audience! Magic!)
These days, as I’m still very sensitive to it, I mainly avoid caffeine. Sometimes I drink a Crystal Light energy (60 mg caffeine) before a really hard workout or on a really bad morning. I don’t think it’s bad in and of itself and there are good uses for it. But like many things, some is good and more is not better. Scale is important: There’s a difference between a cup of coffee in the morning and pounding Red Bulls like they’re water. You need to be really aware of what you’re putting into your body (and make sure to figure out what all those other things in that “proprietary energy blend” are!) but even more importantly you need to know why you’re taking it. Even if it’s a small risk, is it worth it just to get an extra hour of studying in?
So now I’m asking you: Do you ever use energy drinks/pills/supplements? If so, why? Anyone else ever OD’d on them like I did? Do all these new statistics coming out make you nervous? Would you eat caffeinated Cracker Jacks?
*To this day I’m still not sure exactly how much caffeine I consumed, mostly because when I did finally figure out what the products were and looked them up, all the formulations were proprietary. And because they were marketed as supplements and not food/beverages, there was no FDA oversight requiring such disclosure. My best guess is it was around 2 grams. (The average cup of coffee is 60- 90 milligrams). It should also be noted that not everyone reacts as badly to caffeine as I did. I hardly ever have it so my tolerance for it is very low. The person who gave it to me took the same dose I did and was totally fine.