Boosting concentration


As the lead up to exam time is upon us, Aoife Valentine considers whether science really backs up the boost energy drinks claim they’ll give you

The energy drink business is a billion euro industry across the world each year, increasing in popularity in the last decade, particularly since the launch of Red Bull in 1997. Since then, there have been infinite versions of the energy drink introduced, and numerous variations on it developed such as energy drink shots. The prime market for these drinks is children and young adults, and there’s no doubting that college students make up a large portion of that bracket, especially around this time of year.

The marketing teams at these drinks companies are fully aware of this and sell their products with the consumer’s desires in mind, promising increased concentration levels, alertness, focus and a boost in energy levels. With long nights in the library stretching ahead of most students during the exam period, turning to energy drinks is an understandable move. To what extent do these companies deliver on these promises, though?

Caffeine has been proven to increase wakefulness, concentration and focus. Caffeine, as a stimulant, promotes increased activity in the anterior cingulated and anterior cingulated gyrus areas in the prefrontal lobe of the brain. This part of your brain is associated with attention, concentration and planning, and because of this caffeine helps most in tasks requiring speed rather than original thought or actual brainpower. Whether it is actually a ‘boost’ being provided is arguable however, once you look at how caffeine acts in the brain.

Caffeine works by blocking the effects of a chemical in the brain related to sleep called adenosine. Adenosine levels are actively monitored in the brain by receptors, and once the levels of adenosine in the brain reach a certain point, it begins to push the body towards sleep, or at the very least, relaxation. Caffeine acts quite similarly to adenosine in the brain and it fools the receptors by binding to them; but rather than activating the receptors, it merely plugs them up. Once these receptors have been blocked, it causes neurons in the brain to fire, activating the body’s fight or flight response, causing your eyes to dilate and your heart to beat faster. This combined with the effect caffeine has on the body’s dopamine levels causes the body to feel boosted. However, what the caffeine has essentially done is halt sleepiness, rather than actually boost your energy levels.

However, almost all studies suggest that how long these effects last varies from person to person depending on their own tolerance, but they are usually pretty short-lived. This is combined with the effects the sheer amount of sugar in these drinks, that causes a rise in blood sugar levels, which creates an energised feeling, and you’ll find your mood slightly elevated. However, as soon as these levels begin to return to normal, you will feel fatigued, grumpy, and more often than not, completely unable to concentrate. A study by Loughborough University found that after an hour, a person who drank energy drinks showed much slower reactions, and far more lapses in concentration, when compared with someone who hadn’t had any energy drinks at all.

While caffeine and sugar are the main ingredients in these drinks, manufacturers have begun adding numerous other supposedly nutritionally beneficial supplements. The main additives touted by the companies as healthy additions are B vitamins, Guarana and Taurine, however these have no real health benefits when used as they are in energy drinks. According to a study in the Journal of American Pharmacists Association, these are added in too low quantities to actually provide the benefits as they are marketed to.

In the case of B vitamins, they are proven to help extract energy from food. However energy drinks such as the Five Hour Energy Shot exploit their proven health benefits, packing them full of thousands of times the recommended daily allowance of any combination of the eight B vitamins. Having this amount actually doesn’t help you at all however, as your body can only use a certain amount of any vitamin and then it just excretes the rest as waste.

Guarana is a herbal product that contains some caffeine as well as other stimulants such as theophylline and theobromine, which are said to boost energy and concentration levels. However even if a sufficient quantity of guarana was present in energy drinks to make a difference, it remains unproven whether or not it actually has these effects in the first place. This is particularly relevant when you consider many of the decaf versions of energy drinks use guarana as a caffeine replacement.

Taurine is a naturally occurring amino acid, which helps to produce energy. However, it becomes problematic when ingested in high concentrations, causing anxiety and irritability. While it is added in high quantities to energy drinks, these are side effects you may never feel as according to a study done by Dr Neil Harrison, a Pharmacology Professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, Taurine is unable to pass through the membranes that protect the brain. However, a study in the same college was performed on rodents and showed that if the taurine does in fact reach the brain it would imitate a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid, which actually slows down brain activity, causing a sedative effect as it works in regulatory area of the thalamus.

Manufacturers claim that energy drinks boost your endurance and performance, concentration and energy levels because of how they combine numerous brainpower-enhancing ingredients. In fact, any ‘boost’ you get from drinking them is likely to solely come from the high concentrations of caffeine and sugar and not much else, which isn’t surprising as energy drinks contain often as much as three times the caffeine and sugar found in a normal soft drink. However, even these boosts are exaggerated compared with how they actually work, and in many cases, energy drinks have been proven not to have any direct effect on the amount of time a person will spend studying. With this in mind, before you reach for the four-pack of Red Bull this exam-time, perhaps it is worth considering whether or not the restlessness, headaches and poor concentration caused by over-use of energy drinks are really worth enduring for the sake of a short-lived buzz and a rather medicinal taste.