What happens when you combine alcohol (a central nervous system depressant) with caffeine (a central nervous system stimulant)? The manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages, or CABs, and the young consumers who drink them believe that this blend is safe, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) thinks otherwise. The FDA has issued warnings to four of companies that manufacture caffeinated alcoholic drinks, stating that caffeine is an unsafe additive when combined with alcohol.
But the FDA’s warning hasn’t stopped alcohol users from experimenting with beverages that contain a blend of caffeine, alcohol, and other stimulants. These premixed drinks are still widely available at liquor stores and at some convenience stores. Before you indulge in CABs with catchy names like Four Loko, Joose, or Core High Gravity, consider how this blend of chemicals affects your body and whether a caffeinated cocktail is worth the risks to your health.
The alcohol that enters your bloodstream through your digestive tract goes to your brain. Within as little as 10 minutes, alcohol affects several important functions:
- Motor coordination
What Happens When You Drink Alcohol?
When you drink an alcoholic beverage, a certain percentage of the ethanol — the active chemical in alcoholic drinks — is rapidly absorbed by your stomach and your small intestine. The rest of the alcohol is processed by your liver.
As a sedative drug, alcohol will eventually make you drowsy and may leave you unconscious if you consume too many drinks too quickly. Although you might feel a sense of energy and euphoria after your first drink, alcohol slows down vital functions like breathing and blood circulation. The more alcohol you consume at any given time, the more powerful the effects of this chemical will be.
If you drink more alcohol than your liver can effectively metabolize, the level of ethanol in your bloodstream will continue to rise, and you may be at risk for alcohol poisoning, a potentially fatal condition. There are four major red flags of alcohol poisoning:
- Very slow breathing
- Cold, damp, bluish skin
- Uncontrollable vomiting
Alcohol poisoning requires immediate medical attention. If you are with someone who develops these symptoms after drinking too much, call 911. Never leave an unconscious person alone to sleep off the effects of alcohol.
How Does Caffeine Affect You When You’re Drinking?
Caffeine is a stimulant, meaning that it activates the central nervous system rather than sedating it. Caffeine can make you feel more alert, accelerate your heartbeat and speed up your metabolism. If you’re feeling drowsy, drinking a caffeinated beverage may give you the impression that you’re more focused and awake. But if you’ve been drinking alcohol, drinking caffeine won’t overcome alcohol’s effects on your judgment or motor coordination.
Caffeinated alcoholic beverages appeal to drinkers who want to stay alert so they can party longer. But while the caffeine and herbal stimulants in these beverages may make you feel superficially more alert, they have no effect on your blood alcohol levels and do not make you any less drunk. In fact, the added caffeine simply makes drinkers less aware of their level of intoxication; that’s why these products have been declared unsafe.
Who Is Most at Risk?
Most CABs consist of malt liquor or distilled spirits, which have a higher concentration of alcohol than beer. They are packaged in colorful containers with trendy names that appeal to the manufacturers’ target market: young adults. The beverages are marketed online in forums that young people are likely to frequent and are associated with extreme sports, automobile racing and other high-risk activities.
What makes CABs so dangerous to young drinkers? Young adults have a natural inclination to act impulsively and to take risks — tendencies that are worsened by alcohol. Adding caffeine to the mix only makes the impulsive behavior worse.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Drinking alcohol combined with caffeinated energy drinks makes you three times more likely to binge drink (defined as consuming four or five alcoholic drinks within about an hour).
- People who consume caffeinated energy drinks are up to 50 percent more likely to get in the car with an intoxicated driver.
- People who drink CABs are about 50 percent more likely to have unwanted or unsafe sex.
- People who drink CABs are about twice as likely to force sexual attention on someone else.
CABs are popular at college parties, clubs and underground events that attract teenagers and young adults under the age of 25. For this age group, the risks of mixing alcohol and caffeine are especially severe.
Long-Term Consequences of Combining Alcohol and Caffeine
What happens to drinkers who regularly consume caffeinated alcoholic beverages? Because alcohol is highly addictive, alcohol abuse may lead to alcohol dependence and addiction. Caffeine can also produce tolerance if you consume too much of it. If you drink a lot of CABs at parties or clubs, you’ll find that you need more of these beverages to get the same energized buzz. And because the caffeine content of these beverages often isn’t indicated on the packaging, there may be no way to tell how much caffeine you’re getting with each drink. The Mayo Clinic warns that heavy caffeine consumption (more than 500 mg per day, about the equivalent of 5 or more cups of coffee) may cause the following side effects:
- Chronic sleeplessness
- Rapid heartbeat
In addition to caffeine, many CABs contain “natural” herbal stimulants, like guarana, as well as synthetic chemical stimulants. Excessive use of these substances may cause nervousness, nausea, tremors, sweating and heart problems. It’s important to know that “natural” is not the same as “safe” or “healthy”.
Long-term alcohol abuse can cause permanent changes in the structure and function of your brain. Heavy drinking can damage the frontal lobes of the brain, which are responsible for higher cognitive functions, and may actually cause the brain to shrink, according to the University of Washington. The adolescent brain is especially vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, as the capacity for judgment has not yet fully developed.
Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can damage many of the body’s vital organs, from the brain and heart, to the liver, stomach, intestinal tract and kidneys. Healthy drinkers under the age of 25 may not feel an immediate concern about the threats of chronic conditions like heart disease, liver disease or cancer. But they may be more conscious of the risks of drunk driving, unsafe sex and accidental self-injury, all of which can occur when you abuse alcohol.
Getting Help for Alcohol Abuse
Experimenting with the latest alcoholic products might seem like a rite of passage. While caffeinated alcoholic beverages may seem like a fun way to maintain a buzz, they’re actually very dangerous to your physical health and your emotional well-being. It’s easy to end up consuming more alcohol than your body can handle once you start drinking at a club or party where the liquor is flowing. If you’ve experienced any of these signs of alcohol abuse, you may be in danger of developing a dependence on alcohol:
- You can’t seem to stop drinking once you get started.
- You often feel guilty or sad about your drinking the next day.
- You’ve tried to quit on your own, but you always end up drinking again.
- You sometimes need a beer or shot to steady your nerves after a night out.
- You end up doing things that you regret or that get you in trouble when you’re drinking, yet you still can’t seem to stop getting drunk.
The Canyon’s alcohol treatment programs are designed to help you find purpose in a sober life and to get control over your future. Our confidential helpline is here to help you or your loved one find out how you can get a fresh start through our individualized recovery plans.