No, Energy Drinks Don’t Cause ADHD

You may have seen some headlines recently making bold claims about the link between energy drinks and ADHD. As is often the case with scientific reporting, the actual research is more nuanced than the headlines suggest.

Let’s take a moment to address these claims and discuss some limitations in the underlying research on which they’re based.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read the original article here. It’s a very good cross-sectional study examining sugary drink consumption and behavior, controlling for socioeconomics, gender, race, and household makeup.

It’s important to note that the attention/hyperactivity data collected consisted of a simple self-report questionnaire (from the paper):

1) You are restless, you cannot stay still for long;

2) You are constantly fidgeting or squirming;

3) You are easily distracted and you find it difficult to concentrate;

4) You finish the work you are doing; your attention is good; and

5) You think before you do things.

For each item, respondents select an answer: not true, somewhat true, or certainly true. These were scored as 0, 1, and 2, respectively for the first 3 items and reverse coded for the last 2 items, so that higher scores reflect worsening symptoms. Scores between 0 and 5 were considered in the normal range, 6 was considered borderline, and scores between 7 and 10 were considered abnormal. Borderline and abnormal categories were combined into an at-risk category.

In addition to the questionnaire, participants were asked to list the amount and type of sugary drinks (flavored milk, sports drinks, soda, energy drinks, etc.) they consumed the previous day. The study concluded that children consuming energy drinks were 66% more likely to exhibit “at-risk” behaviors (score of 6 or higher on the above test).

While certainly interesting, does this really mean that energy drinks are causing ADHD symptoms? Not really.

First, understand that the only thing that separates energy drinks from other sugary beverages is the exceptionally high caffeine content, which may have a disproportionate effect on children due to their smaller size. And according to the FDA, side effects of caffeine include:

  • Making you jittery and shaky
  • Making it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get a good night’s sleep
  • Making your heart beat faster
  • Causing an uneven heart rhythm
  • Raising your blood pressure
  • Causing headaches, nervousness, and/or dizziness

Now let’s take another look at the questionnaire given to children:

1) You are restless, you cannot stay still for long;

2) You are constantly fidgeting or squirming;

3) You are easily distracted and you find it difficult to concentrate;

4) You finish the work you are doing; your attention is good; and

5) You think before you do things.

Answering “True” (for the first 3) or “Not True” (for the last 2) to just 3 of these would put you in the “At-risk” category in the study.

So no, energy drinks don’t cause ADHD. Rather,  kids drinking energy drinks simply exhibit natural and expected reactions to the high caffeine content.

By no means does that mean energy drinks are necessarily safe or healthy for children to consume. Many of these products contain extremely high sugar levels and potentially unsafe levels of caffeine for younger children.

But it’s important for us to not get carried away and blame energy drinks for ADHD behavior. ADHD is a complex set of struggles relating to inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity and (unfortunately) can’t be explained away with an easy scapegoat like Red Bull.

Instead of playing the blame game, we should focus our energy on interventions to help children and adults address their attention difficulties, regardless of their cause.