The Science Behind Every Sip: Energy and Sports Drinks

Anyone who’s watched television in the past few years has seen at least one advertisement for an energy or sports drink. These beverages have recently increased in popularity due to the performance-enhancing effects they provide. These effects can all be explained with the help of chemistry.


Energy drinks, as their name might suggest, have made their name by providing people with energy and a feeling of alertness. These effects are mainly a consequence of the high concentration of caffeine in the drinks. However, caffeine does not induce these effects by providing the body with energy, rather, caffeine prevents the body from feeling tired.



In order to fully understand how caffeine works, it is important to know what it inhibits. Adenosine (C5H13N5O4) is a molecule that serves a multitude of purposes in the body. As Adenosine diphosphate and Adenosine triphosphate, it plays a very important role in the transformation of energy in the body. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory agent. However, the property of adenosine related to caffeine is that it slows down cellular activity in the brain. Due to this property, adenosine is closely related to sleep and drowsiness. In addition, adenosine is also responsible for the dilation of blood vessels during sleep.


Caffeine has a chemical formula of C8H10N4O2. Note that this is very similar to the chemical formula of adenosine mentioned above. Because of this similarity, caffeine is able to bind with adenosine receptors, effectively blocking them from coming into contact with adenosine. This, in turn, prevents the inhibiting properties of adenosine and provides the body with a sense of alertness and a loss of drowsiness.

By blocking adenosine receptors, caffeine reduces effects such as sleepiness and keeps the body alert.



Taurine (C2H7NO3S) is another chemical found in energy drinks, primarily the energy drink Red Bull. It is an amino acid naturally found in the body. Taurine is a non-essential amino acid derived from numerous sources, including beef, fish, eggs, and dairy. Its effects are debatable, and there is no hard evidence for many of its claimed benefits, but it is known to lower blood pressure. As caffeine prevents the dilation of blood vessels associated with the presence of adenosine, it raises the blood pressure of a consumer, sometimes by a significant amount. The combination of caffeine and taurine is thought to counteract this.




Much more prominent than energy drinks in the athletic community are sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade. These drinks are more popular in sports due to their lack of harmful side effects. However, the benefit derived from these beverages is not related to energy. These drinks provide the body with electrolytes, which are essential for basic bodily functions.


Electrolytes are salts found in the body that serve a variety of purposes. Primarily, electrolytes aid the conduction of electricity through the body, which is very important for muscular movement and the speed of the nervous system. The four main electrolytes in the body: Sodium, Potassium, Chlorides, and Bicarbonates.


Sodium or Na+ is the major cation outside of the cells. Sodium enters the body from food. Excess sodium is excreted in urine. The function of sodium is to regulate the amount of water in the body as well as help generate electrical signals. These electrical signals allow parts of the body, such as muscles and the brain, to communicate with each other. A large increase in sodium (hypernatremia) or a large decrease (hyponatremia) can cause cells to malfunction and could lead to death.


While sodium is the major cation outside the cells, potassium (K+) is the major inside. Potassium’s function to the regulate heartbeats as well as control muscle function. Hyperkalemia, a major increase in potassium, and hypokalemia, a major decrease in potassium, can cause irregular heartbeats. Kidney failure can lead to hyperkalemia. Hypokalemia can be caused by a loss in potassium from kidney diseases to excessive sweating or vomiting. As a result of an imbalance in potassium, fatality could be a possibility.


Chlorides are big anions that are found in the fluids in the bloods and outside of cells. This negatively charged particle would be the chloride in table salt (NaCl).  Chloride is important because it has a very crucial role in maintaining homeostasis on a smaller level. Chloride helps maintain a normal balance of fluids by distributing fluids throughout the body. These fluids are distributed by the neutralization of ions in chemical reactions. The balance and concentration of chloride is closely regulated by the body and large increases and decreases can cause fatal casualties. For example, increased chloride in a body, hyperchloremia, can cause certain kidney diseases and overactivity in the parathyroid gland. Decreased chloride, hypochloremia, can be caused by dehydrations, since chloride exits the body in urine, sweat, and stomach movements. So, some consequences could be kidney disease and vomiting.


Bicarbonate is an ion found in the blood stream that maintains a balanced pH in the body with a serum range of mmol/L. It works as a buffer, by monitoring the body fluids. Food and medications have an impact in our pH, but healthy lungs and kidneys will also help to maintain a normal acidity level. Overuse of sport drinks, sodas, teas and coffee can lead to low bicarbonate levels, which affect respiratory functions as well as kidney diseases.


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