Triple Threat

Now I know what you’re thinking, and no, we’re not talking about singing, dancing, and acting. What we’re talking about is the danger of energy drinks in addition to sauna or steam room use before physical activity. Some believe the use of a sauna or steam room prior to a physical fitness test can help them drop a few inches in order to receive max points or make the cutoff on the fitness scale.

Using the sauna or steam room actually puts your body through its own workout, increasing your body’s heart rate between 100-160 beats per minute.  Your body works to cool itself down by sweating; this causes your body to lose essential electrolytes, like potassium and water which the body uses to power through a fitness test. These essential losses need to be replenished.  Dr. Susan Lewis, an orthopedic surgeon at the Center for Sports Medicine in San Francisco noted, “At first, blood pressure and heart rate go up slightly, as blood is pumped to the skin to vent fluids. . . As muscles relax, blood pressure begins to drop. At this point the heart is working harder but receiving less blood flow” which could result in detrimental heart issues. Water loss in the sauna is just that, water loss. The reduction in inches isn’t a reduction from fat loss

A recent article in the L.A. Times noted sauna or steam room treatment should not exceed 5-10 minutes and preferably not immediately prior to or after exercise. Rehydration should come immediately after treatment with 16-32 ounces of water. If you ignore recommended use, problems may arise including an increase in internal core temperature, heat exhaustion, dizziness, lightheadedness, headache, and dehydration. Imagine adding the effects of caffeine from an energy drink to this scenario; the heart is double tasked.

A team of cardiovascular researchers from the Mayo Clinic claim regular consumption of energy drinks may greatly increase your risk of heart problems by increasing blood pressure stimulated by caffeine.  In the article, “Researchers detail what an energy drink does to your body,” researchers performed a study using 25 participants, 14 men and 11 women. Each participant received both the energy drink and the placebo on different days. After receiving the energy drink the average blood pressure rose by 6 percent systolic and 7 percent diastolic.  Yet after consuming the placebo the average systolic blood pressure rose 3 percent with no rise in the diastolic blood pressure. Both drinks caused a slight increase in heart rate but the most noted change was an increase in norepinephrine, a precursor of epinephrine. Norepinephrine blood levels rose higher when energy drinks were consumed compared to no significant rise in the placebo.  Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that is important for attentiveness, emotions, sleeping, dreaming, and learning. It is also released as a hormone into the blood, where it causes blood vessels to contract and heart rate to increase. Significant amounts of caffeine from energy drinks affect norepinephrine levels by increasing blood pressure putting you at risk for heart problems.

Caffeine comes in all forms, shapes and sizes exceeding limits cleverly placed in nutrition labels. Research has shown caffeine in small doses of 3-6 milligrams per kilograms body weight can improve one’s mental and physical performance but the danger lies in excessive consumption of energy drinks. Many energy drinks have 2-2.5 servings of caffeine per can; this is where reading the label becomes crucial.  Caffeine acts as a diuretic, which, in conjunction with a sauna or steam room session significantly dehydrates individuals. Additionally, many individuals indulge in pre-workout supplements or powders containing anhydrous powdered caffeine and other natural caffeine sources prior to exercise at 100-300mg caffeine per scoop.

Sweating in a sauna or steam room combined with caffeine depletes potassium in the body. Low potassium (hypokalemia) causes weakness, fatigue, muscle cramps, constipation and problems with heart rhythm (arrhythmia). These symptoms aren’t advantageous for passing the fitness test. One recent case highlighted a 28 year old man who had consumed four cans of an energy drink in a three hour period to prepare for a 19 hour drive. The excess caffeine reduced his potassium to a dangerously low level, causing a 48 hour IV drip and hospital stay to replace potassium. Because there were no other substances or conditions identified in this case the high consumption of energy drinks and caffeine was the most likely cause of hypokalemia.

Passing your fitness test is important but not at the cost of offsetting your most vital organ; your heart. Be well informed on how much caffeine you are ingesting and whether or not you are dehydrating your body.  Ensure you are well hydrated prior to and after any sort of physical activity and minimize environments that purposefully dehydrate you. Lastly, caffeine can have appreciable amounts of potassium at 116 milligrams per 8 ounce serving in the form of coffee or tea. For more information please contact the Health and Wellness Center located next to Arthur J. Benko Fitness Center.

Cindy Davis, 355th Medical Group, contributed to this report

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