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DR. DAVID WONG: The perils of sports/energy drinks

Energy drinks. (Wikimedia Commons)
Energy drinks. (Wikimedia Commons)

Dear Dr. Wong: We have two teenage boys, and both of them are hockey players. They and their teammates drink Gatorade at practice and at games.

Our older son is in Grade 11. He wants to buy his own car, so he got a job at our local supermarket, working two to three evenings a week. In order to keep up with homework in the evenings, he started using energy drinks. They keep him awake for homework, but he has trouble falling asleep. Getting him up in the morning is a nightmare for us; he is so tired and exhausted. He gets angry and frustrated very easily; he is not the nice boy that he used to be. Our younger son also wants these energy drinks to study before tests. Are they safe?


Answer: You have an interesting question. Both sports and energy drinks are very popular among teenagers and young adults.

Sports drinks like Gatorade contain electrolytes and glucose or other sugars. They are advertised to replenish fluid and electrolytes in the body from sweating; the sugar is there to boost athletic performance.

However, unless a person is doing very vigourous activities for a very long time, the amount of water and electrolyte loss from sweating is less than one per cent of the total body’s fluid. Drinking water is just as effective to replace water loss from sweating. Our body has enough electrolytes, and sweating won’t deplete them. Our kidneys regulate water and electrolyte balance constantly. Furthermore, extra sugar is naturally produced in our body during exercise to provide energy for active muscles and maintain normal blood sugar.

Therefore, young athletes don’t need sports drinks. However, there is a lot of peer pressure. So, how can you stop everyone from drinking Gatorade? You can talk to their coaches and give them the information here. It won’t be easy to change the team culture.

Energy drinks are different. They contain caffeine and related herbal ingredients with similar action. This is the same caffeine found in coffee and tea. Some of the energy drinks have huge amount of caffeine in them. Canada has stronger rules than the U.S. in regulating the amount of caffeine in these drinks. However, it is easy for young people to bring them across the border from United States.

Caffeine is a stimulant; it can boost energy, decrease fatigue and, to some extent, improve concentration. However, it doesn’t improve cognitive function: it won’t help a person to think more clearly or to make better decisions.

Using energy drinks to stay up at night to do homework may get it done, but the quality can suffer if your son is very tired. It can also affect sleep at night. Being tired in the morning will affect his attention and learning. Lack of sleep cannot be compensated by drinking coffee and getting more caffeine in the morning. Excessive caffeine intake can lead to an irregular heart beat and high blood pressure.

Research has shown that sleep is very important for memory. What a student has learned in school will go into long-term memory during sleep. Taking energy drinks to stay awake and study just before tests or exams is a bad idea. It is far better to start studying a few days earlier and get a good night sleep the night before exam.

If the part-time job is affecting his homework and sleep, he may have to reduce it or stop altogether. Buying his own car may not be the right priority at this stage. As parents, you need to sit down with him and discuss about the importance of adequate rest and sleep. Depending on energy drinks to keep him awake at night will catch up with him sooner or later.

Dr. David Wong is a consultant pediatrician in Summerside and recipient of 2012 Distinguished Community Paediatrician Award of Canadian Paediatric Society. His column will appear in the Guardian on the last Tuesday of every month. If you have a question for Dr. Wong, mail it to Prince County Hospital, 65 Roy Boates Ave, Summerside, P.E.I., C1N2A9.

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