energy drinks
© J.D. Simkins/Staff
A recent study found a significant association between energy drink use and mental health problems, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Getting adequate sleep is increasingly rare among the active duty military population, as frequent deviations from the body's natural circadian rhythms due to a demanding operational tempo pit personnel in an ongoing struggle against the ever-persistent sandman.

To combat the sleep deprivation unique to this demographic, service members often turn to energy drinks, a prominent component of combat deployments that has become as paramount to mission success as any piece of protective gear or weaponry.

The prevalence of energy drink use in these settings is extraordinary. The life blood is virtually everywhere - and tends to cost nothing - resulting in an environment in which nearly half of deployed troops down at least one readily available crack can per day.

But while consuming these drinks may not hurt service members in their wallets, excessive use may very well be contributing to long-term mental and physical ailments, a recent study in the Military Medicine journal observed.

The authors of the study surveyed over 600 male infantry soldiers during a post-deployment period after the brigade combat team returned from a 12-month combat deployment to Afghanistan. Questions were designed to examine the association of energy drink use with sleep deprivation or insomnia, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse, aggressive behaviors and fatigue.

What the authors found was that over the course of the month leading up to the survey, more than 75 percent of soldiers consumed energy drinks. More surprising, however, was that 16 percent "of soldiers in this study reported continuing to consume two or more energy drinks per day in the post-deployment period," the authors wrote.

High energy drink use, which was classified as consuming two or more drinks per day, was significantly associated with those survey respondents who reported mental health problems, anger-related behaviors and fatigue, the authors found.

Those consuming less than one energy drink per week reported these symptoms at a significantly lower rate.

Also of note is that energy drink use in this Army infantry sample was five times higher than previous studies that analyzed consuming patterns of airmen and the general population's youth.

Troubling patterns like this come as no surprise with the understanding of energy drink availability during deployments, a setting where drinks like Rip Its are practically the beverage of choice. Like other energy drinks, a Rip It, often referred to overseas as "crack," provides the immediate jolt service members look for to spike physical and cognitive performance.

More than a few pallets of Rip Its have mysteriously been acquired over the years by troops - "gear adrift..." - outside chow halls in Iraq and Afghanistan, oversupplying service members to the point in which many engage in excessively caffeinated drinking competitions.

Just ask Shane Snell. The results of such games aren't pretty.

As with any substance that increases health risk, "it is important that [service members] understand the risks associated with overuse," the authors say. "The message that moderation is critical needs to be conveyed."

While moderation may be key, educating troops about consuming in excess is a daunting task.

The energy drink industry pulls in approximately $21 billion annually in the U.S. alone, and with much of the industry's advertisements targeting young men in particular, the military population is "especially prone," the authors note.

Comment: Caffeine-related fatalities? America's love affair with the stimulant may have gone too far
Caffeine has long flown under the radar of the FDA's aggressive drug testing, in part because energy drinks are often sold as either beverages or dietary supplements, and in part because caffeine has become so ubiquitous in American society that it's considered an essential part of our 24-7 culture. The chemical's powers are so storied that some have even claimed it's the basis of the global capitalist structure and industrialized society itself. "The widespread use of caffeinated drinks - replacing the ubiquitous beer - facilitated the great transformation of human economic endeavor from the farm to the factory," asserted aNational Geographic cover story. Five-Hour Energy capitalized on this belief, marketing itself as a remedy for "hardworking adults who need an extra boost of energy."

But would Americans consume caffeine if they knew the drug's true effects? Chemically, caffeine mimics adenosine, a neurochemical that effectively acts as a time clock for your body's nervous system. Without caffeine, adenosine keeps track of the number of neurons that fire in your brain throughout the day until you've clocked so much activity that it's time for the precious reward of sleep. Caffeine, however, temporarily blocks the adenosine time clock, allowing your neurochemicals to fire like it's 1999 without causing you to pass out.

"But it's got what plants crave - it's got electrolytes," you might be saying to yourself.

Stop and put down the Brawndo.