Energy drinks continue to remain very popular in the U.S. Drinks like Red Bull and Monster gross billions of dollars every year. And while their effects on health are in question, energy drinks are especially dangerous when combined with alcohol. Mixing stimulants with alcohol creates a state some call “wide awake drunk.” Many people who mix alcohol and energy drinks underestimate how intoxicated they are. The stimulants in energy drinks mask the sedative effects of alcohol leading people to stay up later, drink more, and engaging in risky behavior. 

A Dangerous Combination

All studies done on the combination of alcohol and energy drinks see it as dangerous. The CDC reports that drinkers age 15-23 that combine energy drinks and alcohol are 4 times more likely to binge drink at a high intensity. College students who mix the two are at a much greater risk of developing an alcohol addiction. A study at the University of Florida found that college students who mix energy drinks and alcohol are 4 times more likely to drive drunk.

A 2011 study found that half of all emergency room visits related to energy drinks involved mixing them with alcohol. The CDC found that drinkers who mix alcohol with energy drinks are more likely than drinkers who do not mix alcohol with energy drinks to report unwanted or unprotected sex, driving drunk or riding with a driver who was intoxicated, or sustaining alcohol-related injuries

Drinks like Four Loko caused many dangerous outcomes after its market release. The drink was a combination of malt liquor and caffeine, masked by a fruit flavoring.  It is nicknamed “blackout in a can.” One can is the equivalent of 4 beers and 2 cans of Red Bull (12% abv compared to 4-5% in a can of beer). Following multiple deaths caused by alcoholic drinks combined with stimulants, there was a public outcry. The FDA stepped in and required that drinks like Four Loko remove stimulants from its recipe. 

The ban stopped the sale of premixed alcohol-caffeine cocktails, but many are still popular. Drinks like Jaeger-bombs and the all-too-popular Redbull-vodka continue to be bestsellers at the bar. 

Effects on Brain Chemistry

Some research suggests that the combination of energy drinks and alcohol on the adolescent brain mimics the effects of cocaine. Energy drinks contain ingredients like guarna, ginseng, and taurine. These plant-based stimulants all affect the central nervous system. A study done on adolescent mice found that a certain protein was elevated in those given caffeinated alcohol. DeltaFosB is a protein associated with substance abuse. It is known as a molecular switch for addiction because it is elevated in those abusing drugs like cocaine or morphine. 

It seems the two substances together push them over a limit that causes changes in their behavior and changes the neurochemistry in their brains, We’re clearly seeing effects of the combined drinks that we would not see if drinking one or the other.” Dr. Richard van Rijn, Purdue University 

CDC Warnings

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has many warnings against mixing alcohol and caffeine. They report that excessive alcohol use is responsible for about 88,000 deaths in the United States and $249 billion in economic costs in 2010. Binge drinking (consuming 4 or more drinks per occasion for women or 5 or more drinks per occasion for men) is responsible for more than half of these deaths and three quarters of economic costs. Binge drinking is also associated with many health and social problems, including alcohol-impaired driving, violence, risky sexual activity, and unintended pregnancy. Most people younger than age 21 who drink report binge drinking, usually on multiple occasions when combining alcohol and a stimulant.

Next Steps

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, help is available. Rock Recovery Center in West Palm Beach, Florida can help with advice on next steps. Call our 24-hour helpline or chat live with us now.

Additional Resources

What happens when you mix energy drinks and alcohol?

NCBI Study: What are the Risks?