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Masking drunkenness

Energy drink conceals some effects of alcoholic drinks and amplifies others

MIGUEL BOYAYANTwo shots of whisky and a can full of an energy drink leave the most timid frequenter of bars and discos euphoric and talkative to pass the night like a card carrying Bohemian. The problem comes at the time to return home. Anyone who has drunk an energy drink based on caffeine and taurine in the hope of cutting down on the effect of alcohol could well feel in condition to take the wheel, when, in reality, that is not the case – and thus they run the same risk of causing an accident as the person who only consumed whisky or beer during the night out.

Experiments carried out at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) have proven that the energy drinks produce a double effect upon the central nervous system: on the one hand they increase the sensation of pleasure brought about by the alcohol, and on the other diminish the perception about the state of inebriation. For this reason, it is imagined that the frequent consumption of energy drinks mixed with alcoholic drinks could increase the risk of an abusive use and eventual dependency on alcohol, which involves 12 million adults in the country.

Interested to know how and why people consume energy drinks – a drink invented in 1987 by the Austrian Dietrich Mateschitz starting from popular compounds in Asia –, Sionaldo Eduardo Ferreira, from UNIFESP, had to stretch out his working hours some days and look for the users of the mixture of energy and alcohol drinks where they are generally found: in bars, discos and gyms, as well as, clearly, at the university itself.

In 2000 Ferreira interviewed 136 men and women who had at least once consumed energy drinks together with whisky, vodka, beer or another type of alcoholic drink. In general the people had drunk the energy drink believing that it reduced sleepiness and tiredness caused by the alcohol, an effect called psychomotor depression. One in every four interviewed affirmed that the energy drink added to the alcohol had improved their physical vigor, when compared with the exclusive consumption of alcohol. In the opinion of 40%, the energy drink had made them happier, while 30% stated that their euphoria has increased and 27% had thrown off their inhibition. Only 14% said that the energy drink had not modified the effects of the alcohol.

On returning to the laboratory, Ferreira found different results. He and other members of the team led by professor Maria Lúcia Formigoni invited 26 young adults to take three batteries of tests with energy and alcoholic drinks, with the objective of verifying whether or not the energy drinks in fact modified the factor of the effects of alcohol, as many believed. Before each battery of tests, the volunteers received doses of vodka with a yellow coloring that imitated the flavor of the energy drink, or of the pure energy drink or of energy and vodka mixed – none of the times did the volunteers know what they had been drinking. The evaluation made with a breath analyzer showed that the level of alcohol in the blood after drinking alcohol and the energy drink was similar to that observed after the consumption of alcohol. “This is a sign that the energy drink doesn’t interfere in the metabolizing of the alcohol”, explains Maria Lúcia.

Blood exams detected similar levels of sugar (glucose) and of various hormones in the organism after the ingesting of the alcoholic drink or the energy / alcohol mixture. Attention tests also proved that the visual reaction time and motor coordination were equally impaired in both cases. The performance in physical activity on a stationary bicycle was practically the same, as attested the study published in April of this year in the magazine, Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research. “The only important difference”, says Maria Lúcia, “was observed on the day when the people drank the energy drink with alcohol: they had the subjective sensation of maintaining good motor coordination and of being less drunk”.

This false notion of sobriety associated to the consumption of energy drinks was identified in 1996 by a German team. In an article published in Blutalkohol, the research group related that the combination of alcohol and energy drinks could lead the young to an erroneous evaluation of their ability to drive. “By not having an idea of their state of drunkenness, it’s very possible that the user drinks a lot more”, comments Ferreira. As well as this, the energy drink disguises the taste, which is not always agreeable, of distilled drinks, making them more palatable.

It’s too soon to affirm that the energy drinks induce a greater consumption of alcohol. But researcher Ferreira has indications that this could occur. As it would not be ethical to submit volunteers to the consumption of more elevated doses of alcohol and for prolonged periods, it was necessary to move on to tests with rodents. During three weeks Ferreira daily gave alcohol to mice, before having tested them in acrylic boxes with photosensitive cells that register the animal’s movement. The first time that the rodents received alcohol, half of them initially became agitated and quickly became sleepy, while the other half remained restless for more time. During the other times in which the experiment was repeated, researcher Ferreira observed that three out of every four mice exhibited the alcohol stimulant effect in a highly accentuated manner.

When he mixed the energy drink in, however, all of the rodents became restless, moving rapidly from one side of the box to the other. “If this result were to be valid for human beings, a person who initially was a little stimulated on taking an alcoholic drink could become more and more sensitive to this stimulating effect, presenting euphoria and more intense and prolonged agitation”, advised professor Maria Lúcia. “It’s exactly this effect that the majority looks for in drug abuse.” The UNIFESP team imagines that the sensibility caused by continued consumption of alcohol – and augmented by the energy drink – could influence the unchaining of its abusive use. Perhaps it is not by chance that in the nightclubs visited by researcher Ferreira the mixture of alcohol and an energy drink is already quoted on the drinks list. “The managers of these establishments must have noted that the client who drinks a mixture consumes more alcohol during the evening”, evaluates Maria Lúcia.

Currently Gabriela Naomi Fujisaka, a biomedical sciences student at UNIFESP and a member of professor Maria Lúcia’s team, is analyzing how the components of energy drinks act separately upon the organism. While the effects of these components are not better known, these drinks continue to be sold under the vague classification of liquid compounds ready to be consumed.