Young people don’t normally get heart disease, but Sage Weeber, a healthy 24-year-old, was diagnosed with angina, a crushing chest pain associated with clogged arteries.
“At the top of this year, I started experiencing really gnarly symptoms,” Weeber said. “I would start to get dizzy and faint as I was driving, and my arms would go numb.”
But it wasn’t until the professional drummer was performing a soundcheck for The Ellen DeGeneres Show in February when Weeber said he had his “this is it” moment. A massive spasm in his chest finally convinced him to see a doctor, who told him he has early-stage coronary artery disease, which led to his angina diagnosis.
The drummer’s health scare inspired him to briefly share his story on TikTok, where he revealed what might have been causing his pain: energy drinks. The video has been viewed more than 6.7 million times and stitched by many people who say they’ve had similar experiences.
Energy drinks are flavored beverages that contain varying amounts of caffeine as well as other undisclosed concentrations of additives, including vitamins, sugars, and herbal supplements. You’ll find messages like “essential energy,” “vitalizes body and mind,” and “fuel your destiny” on the cans of popular brands such as Celsius, Red Bull, and Bang. They may also be packaged as concentrated shots, like the 5-Hour Energy products.
Energy drinks have known health risks, particularly when consumed in large quantities or combined with alcohol. They’ve been linked to heart and blood vessel problems, like heart rhythm disturbances and increased heart rate and blood pressure. It’s less clear whether the drinks are linked to problems like coronary artery disease, which is generally due to a combination of genes and long-term lifestyle habits.
Because a lot of things can contribute to heart disease, it’s difficult to say energy drinks are the reason for someone’s diagnosis or medical event, according to Dr. Sanket Borgaonkar, a cardiologist with the Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center. But they could be a contributor, he said.
“Excessive consumption of these energy drinks is obviously going to lead people to have a higher risk of increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure,” Borgaonkar said. “Those things we know lead to the progression of heart disease, and that can be what’s driving some of this.”
Weeber told BuzzFeed News that his diagnosis came after two years of routinely downing caffeinated energy drinks like water. Long and sleepless nights touring across the US and Europe with artists like Landon Barker, Nessa Barrett, and Ty Dolla $ign made him crave an energy boost; without the drinks, he would suffer severe migraines and episodes of fatigue. At the peak of his caffeine addiction, he would drink about two Bangs and two Red Bulls every day, plus a coffee here and there.
That amounts to a daily intake of about 800 milligrams of caffeine or more. The threshold for safe caffeine consumption is 400 milligrams a day, by the way, according to the FDA, which is equal to about four to five cups of coffee. Research shows that 600 milligrams a day is the limit at which more serious events can occur, such as high blood pressure, increased heart rate, nausea, and gastrointestinal distress.
“I would have these weird jolts in my chest where I felt like someone had a voodoo doll and was pinning me,” Weeber told BuzzFeed News. “I would basically wake up in the middle of the night thinking I was getting stabbed.”
Energy drinks are promoted to enhance mental alertness and physical performance, which they may do, thanks to caffeine. However, researchers question whether these products offer all the benefits they claim. The experts we spoke to said the occasional energy drink is fine, but for more regular guzzlers it’s easy to fall into what Weeber calls a “very toxic consumption cycle.” Excessive intake can fuel the need to consume more caffeine to achieve the same effect. This higher tolerance over time and the consumption of larger quantities could eventually pose health threats.
While the experience was “terrifying,” Weeber made a “complete 180,” ditching energy drinks for good and switching to a healthier lifestyle. “I thought I was invincible, but I’m sure as hell not,” Weeber said. “It can happen to anyone.”
How energy drinks may affect your health
Several studies, including a 2014 paper on Red Bull, a 2016 meta-analysis, and a 2022 clinical trial in children and teens, found that energy drinks increase blood pressure and heart rate as long as four hours after consumption compared to noncaffeinated beverages.
A larger trial that included 34 healthy adults found that those who drank a 32-ounce energy drink containing about 300 milligrams of caffeine within an hour had higher blood pressure and signs of electrical disturbances in the heart known as QT prolongation compared to those who drank a noncaffeinated drink.
This means that energy drink consumers may be “more vulnerable to abnormal [heart] rhythms that can lead to sudden cardiac death,” Sachin Shah, the lead author of the study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, told BuzzFeed News.
A 2010 study suggested that energy drinks may contribute to conditions in blood vessels that lead to clots. But this hypothesis requires “more validation and exploration,” said Shah, a professor of pharmacy practice at the University of the Pacific.
Inspired by Weeber’s video, Emma Le posted her own TikTok about energy drinks, which she said contributed to her 46-year-old father’s fatal heart attack in 2011. Le told BuzzFeed news that he drank multiple Red Bulls every day for about two years before he died suddenly while sitting on his home’s front steps. Her father’s doctors also believed his energy drink consumption may have played a role in his death, Le said.
“We had noticed [his habit had] become excessive, and we definitely teased him about it,” Le, 31, said. “But nobody really tried to get him to stop. We just didn’t know how bad energy drinks were.”
However, it’s hard to attribute a heart attack to a single lifestyle factor or food, said Andrew Jagim, a sports medicine researcher with the Mayo Clinic who studies energy drinks. The problem is that “the ingredient profiles of these beverages are so vastly different,” so it’s difficult to study the effects of these drinks on a large-enough scale that would give us clearer answers.
The long-term risks of energy drink consumption are unknown
No studies to date have assessed the consequences of energy drink consumption over the long term. But, experts say, since one of the main ingredients is a stimulant, it’s probably not the best for your health.
Chugging high doses of caffeine daily throws your body into a constant fight-or-flight mode, Jagim said, which isn’t safe because the nervous system requires downtime to function properly. “That carries some definite long-term risks because it’s going to likely affect a lot of different systems within the body,” he added.
We do know, however, that these products can be dangerous — and deadly — under certain circumstances, most often due to caffeine toxicity.
The number of energy drink–related emergency department visits doubled from about 10,000 in 2007 to about 20,800 in 2011, according to a report from the Drug Abuse Warning Network. Incident reports submitted to the FDA for more than a dozen deaths have mentioned 5-Hour Energy and Monster Energy products, although that doesn’t prove that they were the cause of death.
Estimates show that about a third of people between 12 and 17 years old consume energy drinks on a regular basis; nearly 1,500 teens landed in the ER because of them in 2011 alone.
Young people are also more likely to mix energy drinks with alcohol, which can mask how intoxicated they are. The CDC says people who consume this cocktail are four times more likely to binge-drink “at high intensity” and to report unwanted or unprotected sex and driving drunk.
Overall, heavy and regular caffeine consumption could eventually cause issues like irritability, dizziness, anxiety, muscle tremors, ulcers, diarrhea, delirium, seizures, and osteoporosis, according to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation.
Energy drinks are also known to affect the nervous, gastrointestinal, and digestive systems, causing symptoms like fatigue, anxiety, headaches, stomachaches, and insomnia. Dr. Ellen Stein, a gastroenterologist and associate professor at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School of Rutgers University, said the high caffeine and sugar content in these drinks is likely to blame.
“Too much caffeine makes the gut irritable,” Stein told BuzzFeed News in an email. “Too much sugar has always caused a tummy ache, and fake sugars can contribute to small bowel bacterial disarray and gas.”
Caffeine may not be entirely to blame
Experts aren’t convinced that caffeine in energy drinks alone is the cause of negative health effects. In fact, sugar could be to blame, according to Walter Willett, an epidemiology professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“The most serious aspect of most energy drinks is that they’re loaded with sugar, and whether it’s high-fructose corn syrup or table sugar makes no difference,” Willett said in an email, adding that it’s known to increase risks of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. This means energy drinks are particularly dangerous for people with conditions that throw blood sugar levels out of whack, like diabetes.
A 16-ounce energy drink, for example, may carry up to 64 grams of added sugars, which exceeds the maximum daily amount recommended for adults (36 grams for men, 25 grams for women). It’s a problem that all sugar-sweetened beverages have, and could explain why some people develop addictions to them, said Shah, of the University of the Pacific.
Otherwise, researchers say it may be a combination of ingredients in energy drinks that’s responsible for adverse events.
A 2017 American Heart Association trial found that people experienced higher blood pressure four hours after consuming either an energy drink or caffeinated control drink. But only those who consumed the energy drink still had higher blood pressure six hours later, suggesting that ingredients other than caffeine in these products are playing a role.
One potential culprit is guarana, a plant product native to South America. It’s said that one gram of it is equal to 40 milligrams of caffeine, so it adds to the drink’s overall caffeine content with no indication on the label, according to a 2017 review of ingredients in energy drinks by Harvard researchers.
In another study, Jagim, of the Mayo Clinic, and colleagues analyzed the top 75 commercially available energy drinks and shots and found that vitamin B3 and B12 levels were “well above” the recommended daily values. (Most Americans already meet this recommended amount via their diet.) Too much of these vitamins can cause skin rashes, GI distress, insomnia, nausea, and tingling sensations in the hands and feet.
An amino acid called taurine is also plentiful in energy drinks, but little is known about how the body metabolizes it and how it behaves in combination with other energy drink ingredients. Taurine is associated with lowering blood pressure in high doses, so it might “[alter] the overall blood pressure response,” researchers say.
We still don’t really know what’s in energy drinks
Many energy drink companies, particularly those that market their products as dietary supplements, will not include the concentrations of these other ingredients on their labels, often masking them with vague terms like “proprietary blend”; some companies don’t even mention how much caffeine their products have because no rule exists that requires them to.
A 2012 review of the 27 top-selling energy drinks and shots at the time found that 16 of them provided caffeine concentrations; five of which had about 20% more, on average, than their labeled amount.
An FDA spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that “energy drinks” is a marketing term, so the federal agency doesn’t have a specific category or set of regulations for the products. Essentially, energy drink companies can sell their products without proving to the FDA that they are safe to consume. Therefore, the products aren’t bound to the premarket regulation process.
Regulation of these beverages operate more in a “postmarket fashion,” Jagim said — only until something bad happens does the FDA step in.
Energy drinks are often labeled as dietary supplements so they can avoid certain FDA and other food safety requirements, such as the caffeine limit set for sodas of 71 milligrams per 12 fluid ounces. (Some companies, such as Monster Energy, Red Bull, and Rockstar, have started marketing their products as “beverages” to address public concerns over labeling requirements.)
A spokesperson for the American Beverage Association, whose member companies represent 95% of all energy drinks sold in the US, told BuzzFeed News that “mainstream energy drink companies have taken proactive, voluntary steps to ensure their beverages are not marketed to children and we provide consumers with responsible labeling of our beverages.”
Should you avoid energy drinks? It depends
There are several things you want to consider before picking up your first or next energy drink, the primary one being the caffeine content.
The body typically takes about 45 minutes to fully absorb caffeine after ingestion, taking anywhere between 15 minutes and two hours to reach peak levels in the blood, according to a review article Willett coauthored and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
But how long you feel its effects runs on a different schedule. The half-life (the time it takes for your body to break down half of the total caffeine you consumed) of caffeine in adults is about two and a half to four and a half hours. In contrast, the half-life of caffeine in newborns is about 80 hours.
Still, this metabolic process can vary dramatically depending on a person’s activity levels, medical history, and tolerance to the stimulant. For example, adults who are more sedentary, have high blood pressure, are taking medications that already affect the heart, and have never had caffeine are more vulnerable to negative effects from caffeinated energy drinks.
Then there are activities like smoking, which accelerates caffeine metabolism, reducing its half-life by up to 50%. Birth control and pregnancy, on the other hand, slow it down, meaning caffeine’s effects are felt for much longer.
Genetics also play a role in how your body breaks caffeine down. Borgaonkar, the Houston-based cardiologist, said smaller studies have suggested that people who metabolize caffeine slower may face greater cardiovascular risks, but more research is needed to prove this.
How you react to energy drinks depends on how fast you consume them, too. If you chug it, like many people might to get a quick boost, you get a large dose of caffeine in a short amount of time. “You’re going to feel the effect of that much faster and maybe in a higher magnitude,” Jagim said.
Point is, consuming anything in excess, especially energy drinks, is never a good thing. You’re better off having a glass of water if you’re dehydrated, or a cup of coffee or tea if you want a boost in energy. Shah recommends coconut water because you get some natural sugars and electrolytes.
“People should make informed decisions about how much and which products they’re consuming,” Shah said. “Don’t just blindly follow the buzz.”
It’s a lesson Weeber has learned the hard way — but ever since cutting energy drinks from his diet, he’s been symptom-free and, ironically, feels much more alert.
“I feel like a superhero now,” he said. “I obviously cannot undo all the damage, but because I’m so young, I got very lucky.”