The holiday season is a time to mingle with family and friends, and not uncommonly, imbibe in a bit of liquid refreshment—sometimes to excess. A new study has found that a combination of alcohol and energy drinks, which often contain stimulants such as caffeine, increase the risk of drunk driving. The risk is greater than overindulging in alcohol alone. The result could be an automobile accident or celebrating an Un-merry Christmas in jail. The findings are currently available online and will appear in the January 2015 issue of the journal Substance Use & Misuse.
The researchers note that the combined-use of alcohol and energy drinks is an increasing public health issue. Therefore, they conducted a study to assess differences in drinking and driving behaviors among combined users and individuals who consumed alcohol-only The objectives were specifically designed to investigate potential differences in drinker’s perceptions of: (1) what it means to them to drive over the 0.08 Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) driving limit and (2) what it means to drive after knowing they have had too much to drink to drive safely.
The study group comprised 355 college students who were surveyed to examine differences in drinking and driving-related behaviors between those who consumed alcohol alone (174 students) and combined users (107 students) groups. The found that, compared to alcohol alone users, combined users were more likely to drive over the 0.08 BAC driving limit (53% vs. 38%) and after knowing they were too drunk to drive (57% vs. 44%). In addition, combined users were also more likely (56% vs. 35%) to ride with an intoxicated driver while knowing it was unsafe. The combined users also reported that, compared to alcohol alone users, they consumed some any alcohol on more days within the last month. They also got drunk more frequently and engaged in binge drinking more often.
Evidence exist that energy drinks cause changes in the brain chemistry, which could affect how an individual weighs risks and rewards. For example, the drinks may increase dopamine levels in the brain, making the individual feel that they are more capable of certain actions. In addition, alcohol alone is known to increase the release of dopamine and serotonin, which results in an improved mood and decreased inhibitions. However, unlike energy drinks, alcohol may also make a person feel less capable and more fatigued. Thus, they are less likely to get behind the wheel when drunk.
Caffeine levels in many energy drinks are significantly higher than an equivalent amount of coffee. In addition, the beverages contain other stimulants. For example, taurine is a common component of energy drinks; the substance can result in getting drunk faster if mixed with alcohol. Taurine has an anti-anxiety effect, and slows the heart rate.
The authors concluded that, compared to those who consume alcohol alone, combined users are more likely to drive after drinking, drive while knowingly drunk, and participate in other high-risk behaviors such as heavy drinking that increase the potential for injury. They recommended that public policy makers and healthcare professionals should focus prevention efforts to reduce high-risk combined-use behavior.
Take home message:
Not uncommonly, a host or hostess will serve coffee to a guest who has overindulged. The result is a wide-awake drunk who may feel that he or she is capable of driving home.