Wide awake on hazardous overdose of energy drinks
By Bahk Eun-ji, Jung Min-ho, Kim Bo-eun
At around 7:15 a.m. every school day, Kim Kyu-dong, a 17-year-old high school senior at Gyeonggi Province, drops by a convenience store to buy two tins of Hot 6, an energy drink with high amounts of caffeine and taurine. Kim drinks one of them right before the first class starts in order not to doze off.
At 12:45 p.m. after having lunch, Kim drinks the second tin. This keeps him from feeling drowsy after eating, and helps him concentrate during afternoon classes. As he can’t buy energy drinks at the school cafeteria, he buys them before school.
At 11:00 p.m. after school, Kim heads to a private study close to his home. He usually stays up until 1:00 a.m. studying before going home. It is hard to stay awake, so he gets another Hot 6 from the vending machine in the reading room’s lounge.
The strength of caffeine gets much higher, when midterm or final exams. He cooks a mixed drink, better known here as a “Boong-boong drink.” It is a cocktail mixed with one or two tins of energy drinks and sports drinks, and a little amount of powdered vitamin C. The cocktail energy drink has been popular among mid and high school students who want to stay up all night mainly for securing enough time for studying in the days before exams.
“Many of my friends drink these kinds of energy drinks as we need to be awake so as not to miss any classes and time for study.” Kim says.
Ahn Min-sub, a high school student living in Seoul, is among those who show signs of addiction to energy drinks.
“Sometimes I fell asleep during class or when studying. As soon as I wake up, I can see other classmates are concentrating on studying, and it really makes me feel anxious. I feel like being left behind while others are doing well,” Ahn said. “That is the main reason I drink energy drinks on a daily basis. My friends are not much different.”
Sacrificing for nothing
For many high school students in Korea, tasked to achieve high exam scores, there is a legitimate reason to pull an all-nighter at the expense of their health. Attaining academic success amid the cutthroat competition is obviously difficult but a must-do mission for them.
With that, the temptation of the magic drink, which keeps them awake for more time to study, is too enticing to refuse.
Lim Soo-jin, an English teacher at Seoul Ban-po high school, however, warned that drinking the energy beverage as well as the cocktail drink is not an effective way to achieve good grades.
“Many students are desperate to get good grades. And their parents’ expectations are apparently one of the major reasons for that grade-obsession in this society,” Lim said. “Although I understand how they feel about their grades as I went through the same when I was their age, I don’t think those drinks are helpful to them at all. Based on my observations as teacher, what determines good grades is how they do when they are awake instead of simply sleeping less.”
Lim pointed out that what really matters in terms of achieving academic success hinges on the quality of the time, not the quantity of it, saying that she did not stay up late when she was a student.
“Although I drank some coffee from time to time, I had never stayed up all night to study in high school. I think the kernel of the whole issue lies in the fact that students are just emotionally unstable under a tremendous pressure without knowing how to handle it,” Lim said. “So, I think, they just try to find something to depend on or to blame on to justify that they are doing their best. The fact is, however, they are not trying their best, they are simply sacrificing themselves for nothing.”
Korea is well known for its education fever in high school. Even the U.S. President Barack Obama has lauded Korea for its education zeal since he took office, referring to Korea’s high school teachers as “nation builders,” in his 2011 State of the Union speech. While some people maintain that the nation’s enthusiasm for education has made Korea what it is today, others point out that too-much competition leads students down the wrong path and even jeopardizes their health.
“It seems like going to a good college is everything for them in this country. Although public schools are trying many ways to alleviate the students’ burden, the fundamental problem is hard to be resolved,” Lim said. “The bottom line is, however, I wouldn’t let my daughter drink any kind of energy drinks, especially the cocktails. I’m sure other parents feel the same way.”
Lim said that students need to think about the motivation of drinking energy drinks.
“Is it really for improving your grades or making you feel better? Either way, students have to find healthy ways to do so,” Lim said. “If you really want to enhance your performance, start with making a plan. Everyone has 24 hours.”
Magic drink? Too hazardous
The amount of caffeine in a 250 milliliter can ranges from 60 to 86.4 milligrams. The recommended daily caffeine intake of adults set by the Korea Food and Drug Administration is 400 mg, so it may seem that the drinks are far from posing any danger.
However, the recommended intake for children under the age of 15 is much lower, at 75 mg. Middle school students who often consume these drinks fall into this age category.
But even for adults, there are tangible dangers.
A university student highly dependent on energy drinks underwent an evaluation of the quality of his sleep at the Seoul Sleep Center.
Tests were conducted on both conditions of having had consumed energy drinks and not.
Sleep without the consumption of the drink showed stability whereas the next day after having had the drink he was unable to fall asleep right away and continued to toss and turn, showing irregularities in his sleep.
Sleep efficiency for regular sleep was 96.4 percent, but for sleep after having had an energy drink plummeted to a mere 25.5 percent, displaying a significant difference.
“These energy drinks have high levels of caffeine in them, which prevent the flow of regular hormones in the brain,” said Han Jin-kyu, head of the center.
Caffeine prevents adenosine ― a neurotransmitter that plays a role in promoting sleep from being secreted ― which keeps a person awake.
“The natural biorhythm of humans is to be awake in the day and asleep at night,” said Han. “But when people continue to consume large amounts of these drinks that contain high levels of caffeine, the biorhythm loses its balance, like when you get jet lag.”
When such a state extends over a long period, regular functions that should be occurring during the night when one sleeps are not performed, leading to both physical and mental problems, he said.
“Eighty percent of growth hormones are released when a person sleeps,” Han said, pointing out the harm of growing teenagers reducing hours of sleep by drinking these beverages.
Insufficient sleep can also put a strain on the cardiovascular system as it is supposed to rest at night when one sleeps. It can influence the nervous system so that one becomes overly sensitive, said Han, adding at times that the effects can be deadly.
“A friend of mine had a stomachache right after drinking a tin of energy drink. It was the first time she tried it. She ended up taking medicine to ease the pain.” says Baek Song-e, a high school senior at Asan, a Southern Chungcheng.
“It might help staying up at night, but eventually ruins the day after, because no one can really stay up more than two days, right? Therefore, I don’t want to spoil my schedule and health by drinking it.” Baek says.