Hey, soldier, you might want to cut that caffeine

Hey, soldier, you might want to cut that caffeine

by Tobin Harshaw
Bloomberg View

As if the threats of terrorist ambushes, booby traps and truck bombs weren’t enough, one military expert thinks U.S. troops abroad are facing another potent risk — one that comes in 8-ounce cans.

In a post published by the Army War Institute at West Point, Sgt. Eddie Jackson warned that energy drinks such as Rip It, which has become ubiquitous at U.S. military sites in the Middle East and Afghanistan, “have caused more physiological damage to soldiers than actual combat.”

As anybody who’s chugged can after can of Red Bull for an overnight drive or cram session knows, energy drinks loaded with caffeine and sugar can help stave off sleep and keep one’s focus. A study published by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization found that “during periods of unavoidable sleep loss, the use of caffeine can extend the period of operational effectiveness during the conduct of military operations.”

Thus it would seem to make sense that the Pentagon cut a deal in 2004 with the makers of Rip It to ship a seemingly endless supply of the stuff to combat zones. “It’s paramount to survival, not only for yourself, but for your peers,” a former infantry officer told Van Winkle’s, a website about the science of sleep. “People would count ammo, how many bottles of water and how many Rip Its they got.” A 2010 study by the Walter Reed Army institute of Research found that almost half the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq drank an energy drink every day, and 14 percent consumed three or more.

Over time, Jackson wrote, the drinks can mess with soldiers’ fight-or-flight mechanisms, putting their bodies “on a constant roller-coaster of chemical highs and increasingly longer and deeper lows.” For example, he said, after a firefight, the body needs to transition into a relaxed state and release the adrenaline stored in muscles, but energy-drink ingredients get in the way of this decompression process and the “combat switch won’t turn off.”

For science, Jackson’s argument leans heavily on the work of the physiologist Walter Cannon, who came up with the “fight or flight” theory in the 1920s — not exactly cutting edge. But in December there was a post on the Defense Department’s science blog warning troops of “drastic side effects” from too many energy drinks.

In addition to as much as 422 milligrams of caffeine in a single serving — the equivalent of four cups of coffee — the drinks often contain taurine, a naturally occurring amino acid that many imbibers feel detoxifies the body and mitigates anxiety. But researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center point out that there’s little scientific information on its neuroendocrine effects. Since energy drinks can be marketed as dietary supplements, they don’t need to go through the Food and Drug Administration’s safety and efficacy review. (Some Rip It products, including the 8-ounce energy drinks, are labeled as conventional foods; others as supplements.)

In any case, the deal with the Pentagon and a marketing campaign heavy on American flags and patriotic themes — Tribute Cherry Lime flavor “Tastes Like America” — have done wonders for National Beverage Corp., which also produces La Croix sparkling waters and Shasta sodas. Rip It, once an obscure brand, was by 2014 the No. 9 seller among energy drinks in the U.S. with $22 million in sales. (It is dwarfed by Red Bull and Monster, with revenue of $4.5 billion and $3.7 billion, respectively.) National Beverage’s stock value has nearly quadrupled in the last three years.

The question is whether that partnership is really in the best interest of the troops. The military has a troubled history when it comes to pharmacology. According to his biographer Peter Guralnick, Elvis Presley’s lethal addiction to amphetamines started during his Army years in Germany. A congressional investigation found that from 1966 to 1969, the armed forces had given troops more than 225 million tablets of stimulants. According to the Atlantic, “3.2 percent of soldiers arriving in Vietnam were heavy amphetamine users; however, after one year of deployment, this rate rose to 5.2 percent.”

Jackson, an instructor at West Point with four deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq behind him, sees a similar pattern today. “As soon as these soldiers consume these drinks, it triggers the same chemical responses and physiological changes they experienced downrange in combat,” he wrote. “It contributes to a range of symptoms soldiers often experience when they redeploy — insomnia, depression, hypertension, and anxiety among them.”

Given the lack of science on the issue, it’s impossible to know if he’s correct. But his call for the military to at least do a better job educating troops of potential harmful effects, and perhaps to stop handing out so much free Rip It, is something the Pentagon brass owes those on the front lines.

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View.

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