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Human services speaker outlines the health risks of misusing energy drinks

Rick Moldenhauer uses energy drinks as props Thursday as he conducts his "Energy Drinks: The Other Six-Pack" presentation at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building in Willmar. The presentation was conducted to draw attention to an increasing number of teens and young adults who are consuming energy drinks in ways that may put their health at risk. Moldenhauer is a treatment services consultant with the Minnesota Department of Human Services. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Rick Moldenhauer brought an entire show-and-tell Thursday to a seminar on energy drinks: 16-ounce beverage cans, highly concentrated "energy shots," and even caffeinated versions of breath mints, candy bars and beer.

By themselves, these pro-ducts aren't inherently bad, Moldenhauer told his audience.

But when they're consumed in large quantities or mixed with other substances such as alcohol, "there are repercussions," he said. "When you dump anything inside yourself, it's going to have a systemic effect on you."

About 100 people attended Moldenhauer's afternoon presentation on "Energy Drinks: The Other Six-Pack." Another 65 came for an evening presentation on what has been an emerging concern among the health, addiction and law enforcement communities -- the increasing numbers of teens and young adults who are consuming energy drinks in ways that may put them at risk.

Both presentations were sponsored by the Kandiyohi County Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Coalition and the Region 5 Prevention Center in hopes of raising local awareness.

"The message I would put out is moderation. Be aware," Moldenhauer said. "The body can survive a lot of stuff, but it's got limits."

No one tracks energy drink consumption among American youths, but the sales of these highly caffeinated drinks have been on the rise. A 16-ounce can might contain as much as 2,500 milligrams of caffeine, almost 10 times the amount in a standard 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola.

"The volume of caffeine in these has been a selling point for a number of years," Moldenhauer said. "You can find these things everywhere. We live in a caffeinated world."

A growing body of research from the dietary science, addiction and emergency medicine fields is beginning to document the dark side of having so much caffeine readily available to buy and consume.

Caffeine is a stimulant, and when large amounts are consumed, it can lead to restlessness, twitching, insomnia and a rapid heartbeat, Moldenhauer said. It's possible to overdose on caffeine, sometimes with fatal results.

"It's not hard to figure out when you drink numbers of these, you're going to have problems," Moldenhauer said.

The medical community is starting to see cases of young people developing ulcers, erosive esophagitis and reflux disease linked to the high acid content of caffeine-containing drinks.

Energy drinks often contain a significant amount of high-fructose corn syrup as well, which can promote tooth decay and may eventually lead to diabetes or exacerbate existing diabetes.

What has observers especially worried is the growing trend of combining energy drinks with other substances -- what Moldenhauer calls "mixing and matching."

When energy drinks, a stimulant, are mixed with alcohol, a depressant, it temporarily overrides the effects of the alcohol, allowing people to drink even more or to get behind the wheel and drive. These situations can be especially challenging for law enforcement because these drivers might not display typical signs of being impaired, Moldenhauer said.

Among some young people, energy drinks are combined with large amounts of cough syrup, which can cause hallucinations severe enough to require sedation in an emergency room.

Adolescents tend to be more willing to experiment, hence are more vulnerable to misusing energy drinks, Moldenhauer said.

"With kids you have a mindset that if some is good, more is better. It doesn't always work out that way," he said. "Just be aware of what you're putting in yourself."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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