For soldiers on the front lines, the allure of energy drinks is obvious — even the faintest slip in alertness can be costly. But this habit takes a toll. Once the tour ends and the stakes are lower, recent research suggests that constant caffeine-powered consciousness might exact a longer, more sinister cost.
Research published in the journal Military Medicine shows that energy drinks are a typical part of life for soldiers, and some are provided free of charge to help soldiers shoulder the burden of constant alertness, despite the Army’s own official materials advising troops to exercise caution with them. But as most caffeine lovers know, it’s hard to leave that habit behind.
“Hell fucking yeah,” commented on veteran on Reddit about Rip It energy drink. “Now that I’m out, I still get them because they are dirt cheap in the states. My local dollar tree sells them for a $1. Sometimes they temporarily mark them down to 50 cents.”
“Not the best tasting energy drink, but damn did it help me get through to deployments. I feel obligated to keep supporting them. I write in their paper a letter of thanks to them a few months ago and they it me coupons to get free Rip Its!”
Energy Drinks and Sleep Loss
This Millitary Medicine paper, led by Commander Robin Toblin, Ph.D., M.P.H., a clinical psychologist with the U.S. Public Health Service, surveyed 627 male soldiers after they arrived home. The authors report that 75 percent of those soldiers still consumed one energy drink per day and a total of 16.1 percent consumed two or more a day. In that latter group, they found higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and sleep problems.
“A key finding was that mental health problems (i.e., depression, anxiety, PTSD, and alcohol misuse) were strongly associated with high levels of energy drink use,” the authors write in their paper. “Previously, it was unclear whether a link existed between energy drink use and mental health problems; the present study provides more evidence for an association of high energy drink use and greater mental health problems.”
This is just a survey, though, and many of the soldiers were already dealing with these psychological issues — there’s no clear evidence that energy drinks cause them. But this study provides early evidence that consuming energy drinks may have lasting implications beyond the quick caffeine jolt that makes them so desirable. The authors particularly noticed this when they looked at instances of fatigue, which is also a symptom of some of these conditions, like depression.
The authors report a strong correlation — the strongest in the study, statistically speaking — between energy drink usage and fatigue. Importantly, this has also been replicated in larger studies on US Soldiers. In 2012, the CDC released a report showing that military servicemembers who drank more than three energy drinks per day were more likely to report sleeping less than four hours per night. The authors of this current study took their results in tandem with this past research to show that energy drink usage might help curb fatigue in the short run but have the opposite effect in the long run:
“Interestingly, energy drink use was associated with fatigue. This relationship suggests that energy drink use may potentially exacerbate, rather than alleviate, fatigue,” they write.
The caveat here is that we’re just not sure which way these effects go. It’s possible that energy drink use is simply another manifestation of the psychological symptoms with which this population is grappling — which is why the authors call for further study. The purpose of this survey really can serve is to highlight that there may be long-term effects of energy drink use, effects that reach beyond their short periods of effectiveness.
Introduction: Energy drink use has become widespread, particularly by service members, but its association with mental health problems and other behavioral and health problems such as aggression and fatigue is unclear. The present study examines the association between energy drink use and mental health problems, aggressive behaviors, and fatigue in a military population.
Materials and Methods: At 7 months following a combat deployment, 627 male infantry soldiers were surveyed. Prevalence rates were examined for the frequency (defined as the number of energy drinks consumed per day) and volume of energy drink use (defined as the number of ounces of energy drink consumed per day). Regression models examined the associations between energy drink use and mental health problems (i.e., sleep problems, depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, alcohol misuse), aggressive behaviors, and fatigue. This study was approved by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research Institutional Review Board.
Results: Past month energy drink use was reported by 75.7% of soldiers with 16.1% consuming high levels (2+ energy drinks/day). High energy drink use, when examined by frequency, was associated with mental health problems (adjusted odds ratios from 2.0 to 2.7), aggressive behaviors (adjusted odds ratios from 2.3 to 3.5), and fatigue (β = 0.143, p = <0.001) relative to those drinking none or less than one per week. These patterns were consistent when examining volume of energy drink consumption (high levels = 24 ounces or more/day).
Conclusion: High energy drink use was reported by one in six soldiers and was significantly related to mental health problems, aggressive behaviors, and fatigue in a military population following a combat deployment. Messaging regarding energy drinks should encourage moderation and highlight the association with negative health outcomes and paradoxical association with fatigue. Future studies should examine these relationships in a longitudinal design to understand how high energy drink use may impact or be impacted by these health-related variables.