Bright red energy drink in a hand

Can energy drinks cause anxiety and poor mental health?

Posted by for Nutrition

The link between caffeinated drinks and mental health is complicated, so we asked the experts whether energy drinks really can cause anxiety. 

Energy drinks have been under fire for a while. It started in 2018 when the government announced plans to ban sales to children for reasons including that they are “damaging to their health”.

Then, in February, a report in the British Medical Journal found that up to a third of children in the UK are drinking caffeinated energy drinks weekly, despite the fact that consuming five drinks a week has been associated with some health and behaviour problems including headaches, sleep problems, alcohol use, smoking, irritability and school exclusion. 

Anecdotally, many people report feelings of anxiety or mood swings when drinking these types of fizzy, luminous-coloured drinks. But are they really that bad for our mental health? 

Does caffeine impact your mental health?

Energy drinks absolutely impact our brain, and one of the main reasons for that is that they contain caffeine. “Caffeine is a natural chemical with stimulant effects on the central nervous system, heart, muscles and the centres that control blood pressure,” says Sas Parsad, founder of nutrition brand The Gut Co.

That is why caffeine is one of the world’s most-used substances – it makes us feel more alert and energised to get through our workday and is actually one of the few recognised sport-enhancing supplements. “In small doses, caffeine can be a positive as it can increase alertness, athletic performance, memory and reduce tension headaches,” says Parsad.

“Unfortunately, however, an energy drink can contain anywhere from 80 to 300mg of caffeine in each can, and when used over prolonged periods or in doses over 400mg a day, it can cause insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, nausea and an increased heart rate.”

This over-stimulation is what can lead to anxiety, says dietitian Sophie Medlin. “Caffeine and other stimulants cause anxiety by mimicking our natural symptoms of anxiety, such as a fast heartbeat, racing thoughts and poor focus. If you’re someone who already has anxious tendencies, these symptoms can be exacerbated by caffeine. Caffeine also disrupts sleep and anyone who has struggled with anxiety will know that sleep deprivation makes it much worse,” she says.

She also points to a 2015 study that suggests many adults consuming high levels of caffeine suffered from anxiety and mood disorders. And although it’s impossible to claim cause and effect, she says that “if my patients struggle with anxiety, I will advise them to switch to decaf”. 

Woman on a running track holding a blue energy drink
Caffeine can improve athletic performance, but intake of energy drinks should be limited for mental health

What other ingredients are in energy drinks?

If it’s all down to the caffeine, why do energy drinks have a worse reputation than coffee or tea – drinks we consume in meetings or at breakfast without judgment? Most likely, it’s due to the added ingredients in the canned beverages.

“Some energy drinks contain up to 62g of sugar – over double the recommended daily sugar intake,” says Parsad. While some evidence suggests combining sugar and caffeine increases mental focus, that’s not enough to outweigh the negative physical impact of overconsuming sugar. Even sugar-free energy drinks have been shown to raise blood glucose and insulin levels by up to 30%, with chronically raised levels associated with illness and disease. 

That’s not the only other ingredient that is a cause for concern, says Medlin. “Ginseng, guarana, taurine and L-carnitine are all also used as stimulants in energy drinks,” she explains. The literature around these ingredients is complex and unclear – while some studies suggest that ginseng, in particular, is actually useful for reducing mental health issues, Medlin points out that “all stimulants have the potential to make anxiety worse.” 

The fact that many of these stimulants are combined just adds to the risk factor. While doses of each of them may be low, piling stimulants on top of each other may increase the anxious side effects.

As with all supplements, you should take caution when drinking energy drinks, but that’s particularly true if you already suffer from low mood disorders, says Medlin. “Anyone who experiences anxiety should be wary of stimulants in my opinion. They can have a profound impact on our physical and mental health. Some people are much more sensitive than others and our caffeine and stimulant tolerance is genetically determined so it’s important to know your personal limit.

“If you know you’re having a stressful day or you’re in an anxious period, definitely avoid energy drinks and caffeine. You may think that a cup of coffee will help to power you through a difficult day but with anxiety being so crippling for concentration and focus, there is a strong chance it will make it all worse.”

Sign up for workouts, nutritious recipes and expert tips, plus our Strong Women magazine with expert advice on building strength & resilience sent to your inbox.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: Pexels/Getty

Share this article

Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).