The term “mixed drink” usually conjures up visions of martinis, Mai Tais, margaritas and the like, but among the youth-set, a new type of cocktail has become popular. The drink is a combination of alcohol, usually vodka, and an energy drink like Red Bull or Rockstar — an upper and downer all in one. The combo is so popular, in fact, that it’s earned an acronym: AMED, meaning alcohol mixed with energy drink. Almost a third of college students drink AMED cocktails. The popularity probably has little to do with the taste, and everything to do with the effects.
“Combining energy drinks and alcohol can trick the brain, making people think they’re sober — or sober enough — when they’re not,” says Dr. Dennis Thombs of the University of Florida Medical School. Those who indulge believe they can enjoy the pleasures of getting drunk and then use the energy drink to switch over to sobriety in order to drive home. Unfortunately, Dr. Thombs found otherwise in a study he directed recently.
Surveying about 800 patrons emerging from bars in a college partying area, the researchers found that those who had combined alcohol and energy drinks actually were drunker than those who had consumed alcohol only. In fact, they were three times as likely to be drunk. The energy-cocktail subjects registered an average of .109 on the breath-alcohol scale, far higher than the legal driving limit of 0.08, and far higher than the average alcohol breath concentration of those who had alcohol only, which was 0.081. Also, the energy-drink consumers drank longer and harder than their alcohol-only compatriots, staying at the bars later and imbibing over longer periods of time.
After drinking the alcohol-caffeine cocktail, people apparently tend to overestimate their sobriety, falling into a condition dubbed “wide awake and drunk.” According to study co-author Dr. Bruce Goldberger, “There’s a very common misconception that if you drink caffeine with an alcoholic beverage the stimulant effect of the caffeine counteracts the depressant effect of the alcohol, and that is not true.” He explains that caffeine simply reduces the sleepiness that alcohol brings on, but it doesn’t reduce the intoxication. In other words, motor skills, judgment, and visual acuity all remain compromised. The sobering news is that, in spite of being intoxicated, the energy cocktail kids believed they were so alert that that they were four times more likely to say they planned to drive within the hour, compared to those who drank alcohol only.
Previous research has linked some unfortunate consequences to drinking energy cocktails. According to a 2007 study from Wake Forest University School of Medicine, those drinking the combo cocktail had two times the risk of being hurt or injured compared to those drinking just alcohol alone. They also had twice the risk of needing medical attention and were twice as likely to accept a ride from a drunk driver. Unfortunately, the effects extended even beyond injury risk. The Red Bull and vodka drinkers were twice as likely to sexually assault a partner, as well as twice as likely to be victims of sexual assault.
The impact of the caffeine is amplified, perhaps, because energy drinks contain so much caffeine. While the FDA sets a 65-milligram limit on the amount of caffeine allowed in a food or beverage serving, the FDA doesn’t regulate energy drinks so they can contain far more than that. A small can of Red Bull contains 80 milligrams, but if the cocktail contains Rockstar, that amount shoots up to 120 milligrams, and with Spike Shooter, it’s 300. On top of that, there’s the fact that energy drinks contain stimulants other than caffeine. Red Bull, for instance, also contains taurine, which may enhance the effects of alcohol, as well as glucuronolactone, which may stimulate the basal metabolic rate.
The thing is that both alcohol and energy drinks each have the potential to harm the body. The impact of alcohol is well known, but energy drinks are relatively new and many don’t realize that caffeine intoxication is a real risk, as is dependence, addiction, and withdrawal — if you consume too much.
All in all, it makes you think about the real meaning of Red Bull’s slogan, “It gives you wings.” By any chance, are they referring to the final outcome of your automobile accident?