Energy drinks linked to PTSD, depression, aggression in military

Elizabeth Howe
November 01, 2018 - 2:52 pm

Photo by Lance Cpl. Heather Johnson

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What’s the one beverage you remember drinking most on active duty? Other than alcohol.

Energy drinks — but a recent study by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research shows that energy drinks might be exacerbating  mental health issues like aggression and fatigue for veterans.

The study looked specifically at male infantry members seven months after a combat deployment. The 627 participants were examined for energy drink frequency (how often) and volume (how many). And regression models revealed associations between energy drinks and certain behaviors (i.e., sleep problems, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol misuse).

Of those surveyed, 75 percent used energy drinks and 16 percent consumed them at “high levels.” Compared to service members drinking no energy drinks or less than one per week, energy drink consumers showed higher levels of mental health problems, aggression and fatigue.

Similar studies have been conducted in the past, but results have always been unclear. This is the first study to show a clear link between energy drink consumption and certain well-being factors.

Photo by Sgt. Kimberly Trumbull

“This is the first time we've surveyed soldiers about how much they use energy drinks while they are back in garrison and linked those answers to how they are doing in terms of their mental health, aggression and fatigue,” said Dr. Amy Adler, one of the researchers on the team. “We also not only asked about the number of energy drinks they drank per day but also about the size of a typical energy drink that the soldier consumed. That way, we could be more thorough in describing energy drink consumption and make sure we weren't missing an important point when we were estimating how much soldiers consumed energy drinks.”

One of the more surprising results of the study was, of course, that energy drinks do the opposite of what they’re supposed to do — cause fatigue.

“We were surprised that using energy drinks was correlated with fatigue -- in other words, instead of finding that drinking at least 2 energy drinks per day was associated with someone feeling like they had more energy, we found the opposite,” Adler said. “It's important to note that these data are correlational. Still, we controlled for rank and sleep problems in the analysis, and found that there is a link with fatigue levels. So any general assumption that energy drinks are associated with high energy might need to be reexamined.”

Dr. Adler and her team recognized that energy drinks are pretty crucial to military readiness, but also found results that suggested the military might need to pay attention to just how much their troops are drinking.

“The military asks a lot of soldiers, and sometimes this means soldiers go extended hours without sleep. So there is a place for energy boosters like caffeine and energy drinks to help soldiers perform at their best,” Dr. Adler added. “Yet our findings also show that in a normal, garrison setting, more than 16% of soldiers in our sample reported high levels of energy drink consumption on a regular basis.”

The research team suggested that the military might want to do a couple of things to make sure energy drinks aren’t causing more harm than good. First, they should make sure that service members are aware of the dangers associated with energy drink consumption — especially at high levels. And second, if a service member is exhibiting high levels of aggression or mental health problems, it might be worthwhile to ask how many energy drinks he or she consumes per day.