Why do energy drinks make me feel weird?

Energy drinks are one of the most popular sources of caffeine. If you need a quick pick-me-up, you can count on just about any convenience store to have one. It only takes seconds to chug a can, and before you know it you are not feeling fatigued anymore. There's tons of variety, too. Sugar-free? Unicorn flavor? There's an energy drink for you.

But there is a sinister side to energy drinks. Some people report adverse effects, such as:
  • I get anxiety from energy drinks
  • Energy drinks give me heartburn
  • I feel jittery after drinking energy drinks
  • Energy drinks make me crash afterwards

If you experience any of these symptoms, read on. Here are some reasons why energy drinks make people feel weird...

  1. You're consuming more caffeine than advertised

This is a secret about caffeine products that I only discovered after wading neck-deep through research articles.

When I don't have any DYNO Bars lying around, I grab energy drinks at the grocery store to tide me over to the next batch. Coffee tastes like dirt to me. I always preferred the energy drinks from the health food stores - the ones with low sugar and natural ingredients. Since I set a strict limit on my daily caffeine consumption, I would read every label and ration out a set amount to get me through the week.

Here's the secret I discovered: Some of the herbal ingredients in the energy drinks I bought, like guarana and yerba mate, add an extra punch of caffeine, but manufacturers aren't required to disclose them as caffeine sources. For example, one gram of guarana contains 40 to 80 mg of caffeine - about as much as an espresso shot. Even more, guarana naturally has a longer half-life than other sources, so it stays in your body longer.

When I ran into big words on ingredients lists, I used to trust the manufacturers at their word. Now, I'm a little more careful.

  1. Energy drinks' caffeine levels widely vary from brand to brand
My local grocery store stocks plenty of energy drinks with wildly different caffeine levels. For example:
  • Grocery brand caffeinated sparkling water - 35mg per can
  • Small RedBull - 80mg per can
  • Monster - 160mg per can
  • Bang - 300mg per can

This means there is a roughly 10x difference in caffeine content per can on the grocery store shelves. Normally, having tons of options is great!

The problem comes when it's time to keep track of your consumption throughout the day. If you are a typical caffeine consumer, you're probably using your own energy levels as a barometer. You will want more caffeine if you woke up groggier than usual, or if your first dose didn't give you the kick you expected. I have the caffeine content of all of my favorite energy drinks memorized, all the way down to the weird non-round numbers on each different size of RedBull, because I obsess about caffeine products. Do you? Probably not. One possible reason you're suffering is that you grab a RedBull when you're feeling RedBull, and Bang when you're feeling Bang - knowing that the two are different but not realizing the difference between the two is nearly quadruple!

You also might mix energy drinks with other caffeine products. The average person's day includes a morning coffee, maybe a soda with their lunch, and then whatever energy drink tastes good and is nearby.

Meanwhile, no matter what you know or don't know, all of the biochemical effects happen in your body anyway.

The solution is to commit to a product, or a habit, that makes it easier to measure your consumption on a daily basis. DYNO Bars were conceived to help solve this. It has as much caffeine as a double espresso - easy to remember, and not so much that it'll accidentally put you into the danger zone if you consume other caffeine products that day.

Don't want to worry about measuring and tracking everything? Create a simple habit with familiar products. Don't grab random drinks off shelves, especially if you don't know the caffeine content. For example: limit yourself to two cups of coffee per day, then add a DYNO Bar or a small RedBull - and nothing more - if you need an extra kick before doing something badass.

  1. You're digesting a liquid, not a solid

Fair warning on this one: The scientific literature is nonexistent here because caffeinated food products are still emerging. Researchers have had much more time to look into coffee, tea, and energy drinks. Still, I think it is important to share my own point of view, as it might resonate.

Compare caffeine to alcohol. We do know that food slows alcohol absorption. There is plenty of advice out there, from your grandmother to academic journals, backing this up.

When you drink on an empty stomach, you get real sideways real quick. You try to fight the bouncer, and feel weird every minute between bottoms up and your bottom landing in the backseat of a police car. When you drink with a big meal, the feeling evens out and you have a more pleasant time.

Quick pause: the science is clear in stating that alcohol slows absorption and make the experience more pleasurable. But it won't make you less drunk! You'll still drive like Ricky Bobby no matter what, but if you eat dinner before, you'll feel better.

I don't think it's a stretch to claim caffeine is similar. Having food in your stomach when you consume caffeine softens the blow while still letting you absorb all of the brain fuel you need.

Energy drinks only have sugar or artificial sweeteners in them. They go through your body just as quickly. If you drink too much of any liquid caffeine product, advice out on the internet suggests eating some light, highly digestible foods like bananas or graham crackers to replenish electrolytes and give you some food to digest.

Why not eat your caffeine, so all of that comes as part of the package?