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Even just one energy drink can harm your blood vessels, study suggests

Years of research have identified a variety of serious health risks associated with downing a couple of energy drinks, such as liver damage, increased blood pressure, tooth erosion and more.

» RELATED: How dangerous are energy drinks, really? Study finds link to serious heart problems

Despite the warnings, energy drinks are still among the most commonly used dietary supplements in the United States. In fact, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, “almost one-third of teens between 12 and 17 years drink them regularly.”

Now, new research to be presented at the American Heart Association’s summit in Chicago next week suggests consuming just one drink can lead to negative effects on blood vessel function.

For the study, scientists at the McGovern Medical School in Houston examined 44 nonsmoking young and healthy medical students in their 20s. They tested baseline endothelial function (or blood vessel function) and then tested it again 90 minutes after the participants consumed one 24-ounce energy drink.  Endothelial function is a powerful indicator of cardiovascular risk.

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The researchers also recorded artery flow-mediated dilation using an ultrasound that reveals overall blood vessel health before and after the 90-minute mark.

What they found was an acute impairment in vascular function after just one drink. At baseline, vessel dilation was, on average, 5.1 percent in diameter. After 90 minutes and one drink later, vessel dilation fell to 2.8 percent in diameter. 

According to lead researcher John Higgins, that reduction can restrict blood flow and oxygen delivery.

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“It's more work for the heart and less oxygen supply for the heart. This could explain why there have been cases where kids have had a cardiac arrest after an energy drink,” he told HealthDay.

The reduction’s effects can ultimately lead to an increased risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke or rheumatic heart disease, in addition to other vascular diseases.

While the study is small and only examines the acute effects of energy drinks, Higgins and his colleagues believe the combination of caffeine, taurine, sugar and other ingredients are responsible for any negative effects.

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As the American Heart Association has previously noted, "added sugars contribute zero nutrients but many added calories that can lead to extra pounds or even obesity, thereby reducing heart health."

And while caffeine has also been linked to health benefits, the recommended daily limit is 400 milligrams for adults. But some energy drinks contain more than 200 milligrams per ounce, including the concentrated so-called “energy shots.” 

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Still, industry groups argue their drinks are safe.

“Mainstream energy drinks contain about half the caffeine of a similarly sized cup of coffeehouse coffee, and have been extensively studied and confirmed safe for consumption by government safety authorities worldwide," William Dermody, spokesman for the American Beverage Association, said in response to the study. “Nothing in this preliminary research counters this well-established fact.”

The researchers are scheduled to present their findings, considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal, on Monday, Nov. 12.

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