Military research links drinking energy drinks on deployment to mental issues

Caffeinated energy drinks might be on their way out with the military, following research conducted by psychologists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

An in-depth study -which followed over 600 combat military personnel for seven months upon their return home- concluded that drinking two or more energy drinks a day “was significantly related to mental health problems, aggressive behaviors, and fatigue in a military population following a combat deployment.”

WRIR senior psychologist Dr. Amy Adler, who was the lead author of the report, noted that military personnel are not the only ones who are likely at risk.

“There may be other high-risk groups out there like police, firefighters, emergency responders, or other groups this may apply to- or not,” Adler told ABC11. “These groups are groups we want to pay attention to because there might be a way to mitigate the mental health problems out there.”

In the 21st Century -and the Global War on Terror that helped define a generation- the energy drink is ubiquitous in military circles. From Rip-It energy drink cans being shipped to troops overseas to stateside troops blowing through a pack of Red Bulls on staff duty, the high doses of sugar, caffeine and other ingredients has become part of a Soldier’s “survival kit.”

“They were rampant,” said Greg Gebhardt, an Iraq veteran who now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. “It was almost like a lifestyle. The soldiers used to joke as long as we have an armed forces in the United States, the tobacco industry and energy drink industry will be just fine.”

The energy drinks often contain three times the amount of caffeine as regular soda and were used to keep troops focused in the field.

“I think it served a purpose to give it that extra boost, to push them a little further, to keep their cognitive functions about them for that 16th or 18th hour of a long day in 120-degree heat,” Gebhardt said.

While Dr. Adler said her team was not initially tasked with investigating energy drinks, they began noticing them being consumed by the personnel they would interview as they returned home.

“Everyone can drink coffee and everyone can have tea or a soda- something with caffeine,” Adler asserts. “But we wondered about the sheer prevalence of (caffeinated energy drinks) because the Soldiers are pretty young. For us, we’re behavioral health researchers, so we’re always looking for risk factors or potential moderators of mental health outcomes.”

After surveying around 600 Soldiers returning from one year in Afghanistan, it was revealed around 75% of them regularly drank energy drinks, with around sixteen percent having more than two per day.

Putting the pieces together, they discovered that regular consumers of energy drinks were more prone to mental health issues.

“Depression and sleep problems, increased aggression, anxiety, substance abuse, things like that,” Dr. Adler said. All of those are risk factors and many of these were associated with drinking excessive amounts of energy drinks.”

To be clear, Adler’s team doesn’t believe energy drinks cause PTSD. However, the usage serves as a “clue” in terms of context and treatment.

“What we’re interested in doing is identifying anything that might be something they could engage in activities that could make them feel better,” Adler explains. “It is something that soldiers can manage themselves, it is something that a family can pay attention to or a leader can pay attention to. It gives them a tool of something they can do to help manage some of the symptoms when they get back.”

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