Need a boost? Rest is best

Carnegie Mellon students need potent fuel for their hard-working brains, but the recent upswing in the availability and consumption of energy drinks such as Jolt, Full Throttle, Bawls, Rip It, Rockstar, and SoBe No Fear might be more harmful than beneficial. Students should strive for the energy of a healthful lifestyle fueled by balanced nutrition rather than depend on the temporary kick of sugary, hyper-caffeinated beverages.

Caffeine has been around for centuries. Incans chewed coca leaves to keep their minds sharp during work hours. Many historians credit Europe’s tea consumption with vastly increasing economic productivity during the industrial revolution. In modern times, we have the ubiquitous Starbucks.

Caffeine works by blocking adenosine in the brain, a chemical which slows down nerve impulses and causes drowsiness. It also increases the brain’s levels of dopamine, which causes a feeling of general well-being. In short, moderate consumption of caffeine is a useful and perfectly safe way to stay alert.

The problem is that the caffeine levels in so-called “energy drinks” are hardly moderate, and many students consume energy drinks in excess. For instance, one can of Full Throttle (a Coca-Cola product) contains a hefty 142 milligrams of caffeine (more than four times the caffeine of Coca-Cola Classic), a pancreas-torturing 58 grams of sugar, and 200 useless calories. The nutritional content for other popular drinks such as Rockstar and Rip It is similar.

Many students consume more than one of these drinks per day, and those excess calories and sugars can wreak havoc on the body, causing weight gain, mood swings, headaches, and a decline in overall health.

Interestingly, too much caffeine can decrease the duration and efficacy of sleep, which leads to fatigue and the need for — what else — more caffeine.

While poor decision-making is mostly to blame, Housing and Dining must accept some of the responsibility for this harmful habit. On the meal plan, soft drinks run like water, whereas juice, milk, and in some cases water itself are more difficult to come by.

By contrast, coffee, while high in caffeine, contains no calories. Adding two packets of granulated sugar boosts it to a negligible 32 calories. And recent studies have shown that regular coffee consumption can actually have health benefits. Harvard Medical School reports that coffee is anti-carcinogenic, possibly lowering the risk of breast and colon cancer. It also helps ward off diabetes by increasing resting metabolism rates, and may even prevent Parkinson’s disease in men.

Bear in mind that while a healthier option, coffee is high in caffeine. Taken in excess, it can have all the same harmful effects as energy drinks, such as disrupted sleep patterns and the jitters.

At Carnegie Mellon, we sometimes burn the midnight oil by dinnertime. And when eyes droop while deadlines approach, we need a little pick-me-up. When a boost is absolutely necessary, students should eschew syrupy energy drinks in favor of more traditional coffee or tea.

Remember, though: There will never be a substitute for the energy and productivity afforded by a nutritious diet and adequate sleep.