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Energy Drinks Raise Red Flag In High School Athletics

Daniel Juřena

High school athletes in Kansas and Missouri start outdoor workouts for fall sports in August, no matter how hot or humid it is outside. One of the main safety concerns in the heat is dehydration. 

Sometimes it’s not the weather but what the athletes drink that makes the problem worse. A can of Red Bull, Monster, 5-Hour Energy, or any other energy drink before practice can dehydrate an athlete.

Dr. Randy Goldstein, the medical director for youth sports at the University of Kansas Hospital, says he has treated more dehydration victims in recent years, related to the consumption of energy drinks.

“We do see it around this time of the year where we have emergency room visits and safety concerns with energy drinks. Those are drinks with extra caffeine, taurine and extra sugar,” said Goldstein.

How much extra? Dr. James Roberson works at the center for sports medicine at Children’s Mercy Hospital.

“Those can have up to 15 times more than a can of soda worth of caffeine in them, which can cause heart palpitations (and) definitely cause dehydration because of the diuresis,” explained Roberson. “So you’re going to the bathroom more often with that caffeine consumption.”

The American Beverage Association maintains that energy drinks are safe. But this summer a consumer advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public interest, has been applying pressure toward the Food and Drug Administration to add a safety warning for minors.

The FDA hasn't taken action on that, but nearly three years ago, the National High School Federation issued a consensus statement to its state associations: Caffeinated energy drinks should not be used before, during or after physical activity.

Brent Unruh of the Kansas State High School Activities Association in Topeka is a certified trainer and has witnessed the trend first-hand.

Here at the state level in the state association, that’s a big emphasis from us,” said Unruh. “To get the message out, not only about energy drinks, but any type of student safety issue this time of year with heat and everything.”

In recent weeks, there’s been a dialogue between doctors on both sides of the state line and high school administrators and coaches about precautions that include the use of energy drinks.

But Goldstein says the messages don’t always get through to parents.

Parents give an energy drink to their children that have taurine or caffeine in them trying to wake them up for their early morning game only to find out that the child has heart palpitations and fast heart rate and ends up in the emergency room,” said Goldstein. “Rather than doing a good job for their team they end up ill.”

Their makers advertise energy drinks as a quick and easy way to overcome fatigue and improve performance.

But Roberson countered, “In reality it’s really a detriment to their athletic performance.”

Though the FDA hasn’t reached any conclusion on the safety of the drinks, Roberson and other feel there are plenty of red flags about teens and energy drinks.

Despite the concerns, the energy drink market isn’t drying up anytime soon.  According to Forbes magazine, Red Bull and Monster, the top two energy drink brand names, combined for almost $4 billion in sales last year.

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