Caffeine implicated in deaths of energy drink consumers

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Can caffeine kill?

This is the title from an article in the Nov. 5 issue of Newsweek magazine. Four paragraphs later the article says, “Indeed it can.” Of course you are wondering what this is all about.

Why would Newsweek choose to publish this information now? The answer is as follows:

Many articles in the medical journals have pointed out that caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug on the planet. But the problem is it is not regulated in the U.S.

Because of five deaths possibly related to the caffeine in energy drinks, the FDA is going to investigate and may want to regulate the ED industry. Currently those folks are not required to tell how much caffeine is in their EDs.

Part of the problem is that we are all wired differently.

Some individuals, even young people, may have underlying heart problems such that the extra caffeine in the ED could spark a fatal irregular heart beat or arrhythmia.

Or they may have liver problems or be taking other substances including illicit drugs or prescription medications that can alter how the body handles caffeine. I had a patient aobut 10 years ago who developed a non-fatal arrhythmia after adding a caffeinated drink to other medications.

Six or seven years ago because of my work correlating the effect of caffeine and poor diet to the use of alcohol before moving to the Walla Walla Valley I fortuitously developed a contact with a man in eastern Canada whose 16-year-old son dropped dead not long after drinking an ED.

His son had no prior history of heart trouble, although an autopsy was not done to try to determine the cause of death the father was convinced the ED was the probable cause of this tragedy. This started him on a crusade against EDs.

In an email of Nov.1, he told me how he had collected 17 adverse reactions to the use of EDs from individuals such as parents or people who themselves had the reactions. He had also had five TV/newspaper interviews as a result of a woman suing the Monster Energy Drink company.

It has been shown that caffeine can be a reinforcer for the use of other drugs. In other words, it may induce people to use alcohol or other drugs.

This certainly raises the question of how much of the problems we have with people using illicit drugs or prescription drugs are due to the use of caffeinated beverages including but not limited to EDs. To my knowledge no one has done those studies. They ought to be done.

As a final note two papers were presented to the American Glaucoma Society meeting on March 3 talking about how caffeine could affect the pressure in the eye — what is called the intraocular pressure. The first one showed that 500 mg of caffeine — 3 or more cups of coffee — per day caused an increase in pressure in the eye. The second showed that even one cup of coffee could increase the pressure temporarily.

Both of these papers made it clear that these were preliminary findings and that no changes needed to be made in the consumption of coffee until stronger associations could be proven.

I have to admit that if it were my eyes, given the fact that caffeine has not been proven to be a necessity for survival, I would choose not to use caffeinated beverages.

Dr. Don Casebolt of College Place is a retired physician who is passionate about preventive medicine. He spent four years as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy, the last 21/2 years as a flight surgeon. He also worked on the Navajo Reservation for 22 years.

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