Gut Instincts: Investigating the Impact of Energy Drinks on Digestion
Article

Gut Instincts: Investigating the Impact of Energy Drinks on Digestion

Published on Thursday, May 23, 2024
by
Alexander Koch

Health & Wellness

Beyond the Buzz: The Hidden Gut Health Costs of Energy Drink Consumption

People love energy drinks! They are hugely popular, with 2023 US sales estimated at $18.51 billion, a 67% increase from 2017 numbers. Energy drinks are often lumped in with pre-workout supplements, but there is a distinction: energy drinks are solely designed to provide a quick boost in alertness, while pre-workouts also typically include ingredients to boost muscular performance (see my series on pre-workout supplements here). 

Energy drinks do have some tangible benefits, and their ability to enhance alertness is well-documented. In this article, I will focus specifically on the potential of energy drinks to impact gut health.

Understanding the Gut Impact of Energy Drinks

Energy drinks come in many flavors from a host of manufacturers. Consequently, there are many differences in the formulae. However, pretty much all of them contain sugar and caffeine, and most of them are carbonated. And guess what? Sugar, caffeine, and carbonation can all increase the risk of GI upset.

The Sugar-Sweetened Story: How High Doses Disrupt Digestion

High doses of sugar from sources, including energy drinks, can cause acute stomach upset.  This is because sugars must be absorbed in the intestine through a finite series of transporter proteins. High doses of sugar can temporarily overload these proteins, leading the intestine to absorb more water, resulting in bloating and diarrhea. Chronic ingestion of sugar-containing beverages (including energy drinks) has also been linked to unhealthy alterations in plasma markers of the gut microbiome. Specifically, these changes in the microbiota were linked to poorer metabolic health and the development of obesity.

Navigating Sugar Substitutes: A Short-Term Solution with Long-Term Implications

Energy drinks might offer low-sugar but tasty alternatives flavored with artificial sweeteners to reduce sugar content. However, many artificial sweeteners, such as sugar alcohols, are high in FODMAPs and can potentially increase acute GI distress (see more on FODMAPs here). Happily, chronic consumption of sugar substitutes does not appear to cause significant disruptions in the gut microbiome.     

Caffeine's Double-Edged Sword: Mental Alertness vs. Digestive Disturbance

Caffeine is the key ingredient that boosts mental alertness, and decades of solid research backs the effectiveness of caffeine for this purpose. However, caffeine may have some negative effects on gut health, particularly at high (>400mg) doses. Caffeine ingestion has been associated with a higher incidence of irritable bowel syndrome. Caffeine ingestion has traditionally been linked to acid reflux; however, data backing that presumption is not definitive. There is some evidence that caffeine inhibits the growth of E. coli in the gut.   

Many energy drinks are carbonated. Unfortunately, carbonation has long been identified as a trigger for exacerbating acid reflux.   

Embracing Moderation: Strategies for Gut-Friendly Consumption

Moderation is a keystone to many facets of health. Avoiding overconsumption can greatly reduce the risks of GI distress with energy drinks. So, what does moderation look like? I suggest viewing energy drink consumption with a similar mindset to alcohol intake. The best strategy is occasional consumption and then limiting the intake to one, at most, two drinks in a day. 

Alternative Energies: Healthy Substitutes for Gut-Friendly Alertness

Marketed energy drinks are popular, but their chief ingredients are caffeine and sugar, which can be obtained from various sources. Non-carbonated beverages such as coffee and tea can provide a pick-me-up without carbonation, lessening the risk of acid reflux. If coffee triggers reflux, you may find suitable options in this article. Stevia is a Low FODMAP sugar substitute that can enhance flavor while minimizing the risk of stomach upset. Personally, I enjoy green tea with lemon juice and stevia.


  1. Ahmad, S. Y., Friel, J., & Mackay, D. (2020). The Effects of Non-Nutritive Artificial Sweeteners, Aspartame and Sucralose, on the Gut Microbiome in Healthy Adults: Secondary Outcomes of a Randomized Double-Blinded Crossover Clinical Trial. Nutrients, 12(11), 3408. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12113408 
  2. Jagim, A. R., Harty, P. S., Tinsley, G. M., Kerksick, C. M., Gonzalez, A. M., Kreider, R. B., Arent, S. M., Jager, R., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Stout, J. R., Campbell, B. I., VanDusseldorp, T., & Antonio, J. (2023). International society of sports nutrition position stand: energy drinks and energy shots. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 20(1), 2171314. https://doi.org/10.1080/15502783.2023.2171314 
  3. Koochakpoor, G., Salari-Moghaddam, A., Keshteli, A. H., Esmaillzadeh, A., & Adibi, P. (2021). Association of Coffee and Caffeine Intake With Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Adults. Frontiers in nutrition, 8, 632469. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2021.632469 
  4. McConnell, M. N., & Bakermans, C. (2023). Nutrients mediate caffeine inhibition of Escherichia coli. Environmental microbiology reports, 15(5), 422–425. https://doi.org/10.1111/1758-2229.13165 
  5. Riddler, M. (2023, December 4). Energy drink sales in the U.S. 2023. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/558022/us-energy-drink-sales/ 
  6. Taraszewska A. (2021). Risk factors for gastroesophageal reflux disease symptoms related to lifestyle and diet. Roczniki Panstwowego Zakladu Higieny, 72(1), 21–28. https://doi.org/10.32394/rpzh.2021.0145 
  7. Trinidade, A., Robinson, T., & Phillips, J. S. (2014). The role of caffeine in otorhinolaryngology: guilty as charged?. European archives of oto-rhino-laryngology : official journal of the European Federation of Oto-Rhino-Laryngological Societies (EUFOS) : affiliated with the German Society for Oto-Rhino-Laryngology - Head and Neck Surgery, 271(8), 2097–2102. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00405-013-2648-0 
  8. Yan, T., Shi, L., Xu, K., Bai, J., Wen, R., Liao, X., Dai, X., Wu, Q., Zeng, L., Peng, W., Wang, Y., Yan, H., Dang, S., & Liu, X. (2023). Habitual intakes of sugar-sweetened beverages associated with gut microbiota-related metabolites and metabolic health outcomes in young Chinese adults. Nutrition, metabolism, and cardiovascular diseases : NMCD, 33(2), 359–368. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.numecd.2022.10.016 

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