Exams. Midterms. Essays. It's crunch time at university, and students all over the country are searching for the secret to instant knowledge. This is the time of year when the major libraries at college campuses are packed wall-to-wall with students busy scribbling notes, reciting lines from their slides, or hiding behind a mountain of books.
Studying -- we've all suffered through it. Whether it's an English test or Chemistry final, the process is all the same: try to cram in the information as quickly and efficiently as you can. And caffeine, a stimulant that arouses your central nervous system and improves your performance both physically and mentally, is usually a top study aid.
"Definitely black coffee; I was known to have a travel mug attached to my hand at all times," said recent graduate Robyn Walter. "I have always been a coffee drinker so it was natural for me to just increase the amount I drank."
A study published by the American Psychological Association gave 200mg of a caffeine-supplement, the equivalent to a 12 oz cup of joe, to a group of fatigued individuals. What they found is good news for university kids: subjects who had been given caffeine showed improved cognitive performance and reaction times, and their mood improved too.
But a string of recent articles have connected various energy drinks to cases of serious side-effects, including death, so why incorporate them into your an exam routine? Researchers at the East Carolina University stated "67 per cent of the respondents consumed energy drinks to prevent falling asleep, and 65 per cent to increase energy."
"Alternate coffee, tea and those b-12 energy drinks, in that order," said Elli Mckean, a first year law student at Louisiana State University.
Many energy drinks and other products feature very large amounts of caffeine -- approximately three times the amount found in a regular cup of coffee -- often along with other stimulants. The problem with consuming large amounts of caffeine is two-fold, explains K. Steven Whiting, Ph.D., of Phoenix Nutritionals in San Diego and author of "Healthy Living Made Easy". One, it targets the central nervous system directly. Two, it can lead to dehydration and loss of water-soluble nutrients that have a calming effect on the central nervous system. This combined effect can cause agitation and sleep problems and potentially lead to the development of long-term anxiety issues.
Caffeine may not be the only stimulant in your energy drink. Many of these products contain similar ingredients, from various forms of caffeine to guarana, acai berry, taurine, ginseng, arnitine, creatine, inositol and ginkgo biloba -- all of which have stimulating effects. "Taurine has been shown to improve athletic performance so this may be the reason why it is added to many of these drinks -- and mixing taurine with caffeine may increase mental performance, but this research remains inconclusive," says Amy Shapiro, R.D., C.D.N., of Real Nutrition in New York City.
Other dangers of energy drinks can be traced to the fact that they're also loaded with sugar, a particular health risk for children and people at risk for diabetes. Even for non-diabetics, all the sugar causes a crash a few hours later, leaving the drinker more exhausted than before they had the drink. Keep in mind that while sugar-free energy drinks may be a better option, sugar-free versions of Red Bull, Amp, Rockstar, NOS and Crunk still carry serious risks because of their high caffeine content and artificial ingredients, including artificial sweeteners like aspartame.
With endorsements from cartoon characters and famous athletes, many energy drinks are marketed directly to kids and teens. "Young people really need to be careful with these energy products because their central nervous system is not full developed and [the drinks] can lead to longer-term health problems," Whiting warns. Talk to your child's doctor about whether any amount of caffeine is acceptable, and make sure your teen knows the possible dangers of drinking these products. In the lawsuit against Monster, Fournier's mother says that the caffeine in energy drinks should be regulated, particularly because the drinks are heavily marketed to teens and children.
Some energy drinks not only contain high amounts of caffeine and sugar but also high amounts of alcohol and have been associated with serious side effects, including death. Some states, including New York, have banned drinks that combine alcohol and caffeine, but many people continue to mix them through Red Bull-vodka cocktails, among others. "The combination of alcohol and caffeine may lead to adverse effects, as the presence of caffeine increases the absorption of alcohol, which can increase intoxication," Shapiro says. Although many people may think that the caffeine in these drinks can prevent the drowsiness associated with drinking alcohol, it cannot prevent the effects that alcohol has on the brain.
Energy shots, including 5-Hour Energy and 6-Hour Energy, provide a burst of energy to help you get through the day and typically do not contain large amounts of sugar, but the amount of caffeine they contain is unclear. "The problem with these energy products is no one really knows how much is too much," says Whiting. "The manufacturers have not done any studies to determine the appropriate amount, as caffeine is an uncontrolled substance. They don't put any warnings or precautions on these products either."
Energy strips, including LeBron James's Caffeine Strips, are packaged like breath strips and are marketed to teens and tweens. They have the same dangers as energy drinks. "Energy strips are likely absorbed much quicker than other energy products as they are absorbed directly into the bloodstream through the tongue," Shapiro explains.
Caffeine or energy pills carry a greater risk for adverse effects when used in combination with other energy products. "The problem is that many people probably use more than one form of these products to stay awake," Whiting says. "They take an energy or caffeine pill in the morning, have a cup of coffee, and in the middle of the afternoon have an energy drink -- it can be very harmful to have this excess of caffeine."
Just last week, the New York Times wrote an article that connected the energy drink 5-hour Energy to 13 fatalities in the United States. These beverages can have anywhere from 50 to over 200 mg of caffeine -- that's like drinking four cans of cola in rapid succession! "Since 2009, 5-Hour Energy has been mentioned in some 90 filings with the F.D.A., including more than 30 that involved serious or life-threatening injuries like heart attacks, convulsions and, in one case, a spontaneous abortion," a summary of F.D.A. records reviewed by The New York Times showed.
This recent discovery comes only a few weeks after a mother in Maryland sued Monster Energy Drink after her daughter suffered a fatal heart attack after consuming two Monster beverages in less than 24 hours.
While Monster Drinks, Red Bull and other similar beverages give you a temporary burst of energy and sense of wakefulness, experts at Health Canada say the high dosage of caffeine is known to cause restlessness, anxiety, nervousness, insomnia, and irritability. These negative side-effects can actually negate the short-term benefits students think they're getting from the drinks. And users beware: just like a hangover, studies suggest you'll most likely be exhausted and experience daytime sleepiness the following day.
"It takes me a good two days to recover," said fourth-year university student Lydia Schultz. "The hangover the next day, after an exam, is worse than any I've had from drinking."
If you still want that caffeine kick, but without the potentially harmful jolt, try something more natural, like Ginseng, a fruit and vegetable smoothie, or sugar, in moderation of course. Dr. Nellie Perret, the head of University of Toronto's Academic Success Center, says she's heard a little chocolate can be beneficial. "Drinking a single cup of coffee or eating a single square of dark chocolate right before an exam can give students just a bit of a 'wake-up' rush to improve their performance."
Sugar, in the form of glucose, is one of your bodies preferred fuels. So if you're up late and need a last-minute buzz, try a glass of juice, an orange or another piece of fruit. The glucose will offer a short-term boost in thinking processes and memory. But skip the skittles, they'll pack on the pounds and actually make you tired. Students often turn to high caloric snacks to help keep them awake during the evening hours, but Dr. Perret says there are also other tricks to keep your studying on pace.
"If a student is getting sleepy when studying, I'll usually encourage him or her to have a small glass of fruit juice or to take a quick walk in the fresh air," she says. "Some students like doing a bit of yoga. Power-napping is great for some people."
Despite the research saying all-nighters are not beneficial to the learning process, it's a technique that can sometimes be a necessary evil especially for students who fail to prepare in advance.
"I always end up pulling all-nighters before my exams because I never seem to leave myself enough time to study all the material we are told to learn," said Lydia Shultz, fourth-year University of Toronto student. "I still get good grades after pulling them, even though I know how important sleep is, so it's a hard habit to break."
Dr. Perret says that although some students find the cram method effective, all-nighters are not productive. If you study for 10 hours, you're probably going to waste at least four hours.
"Staying up all night to study for an exam is not going to get the desired results. Our short-term memories can contain only a limited amount of material -- less than a night's worth of studying will 'hold.'"
And Learning Strategist Ioanna Agelothanasis at Ryerson University agrees. She says regardless of the subject matter or exam format, cramming is not recommended. For the most part, students who are pulling an all-nighter are learning material for the first time, and understanding it on a purely superficial level. And what's worse, we tend to forget about 60-80 per cent of what we learned within 24 hours.
So how can you best prepare for an exam?
"Space out your studying, giving yourself time to expand your learning and experiment with different techniques," says Agelothansis. She adds students actually stay more alert and retain more information when they study in blocks rather than in one giant chunk.
When asked if she pulled all-nighters, first-year law student Megan Clark said: "No, if I do not at least get a little bit of sleep I will be useless." Instead, she prepares her notes in advance, and keeps up on her readings.
If you have to cram, make sure you give yourself mental breaks from time-to-time and set goals for yourself. And drink less than 400 mg of caffeine per day, that's what Health Canada says the average individual can safely consume.
"I sometimes found all-nighters helpful, as long as they weren't the night before the exam," said Walter. "I would commit to finishing a draft of a paper by a certain date and would pull an all-nighter to make sure that I met that timeline." Walter said giving herself a goal and sticking to it gave her a sense of accomplishment and ultimately, more confidence going into the exam.
Some of the best forms of planned procrastination include: exercise, which releases endorphins and make you happy, a quick chat with a friend or family member, or watching a 10-minute chunk of your favorite television show. And remember to breathe, relax and be positive going into an exam.
"It is important to be confident," said Agelothansis. "Instead of saying 'I'm going to fail this, I only know a fraction of what I studied,' say 'I know at least a fraction of it.'"
To better prepare yourself for that killer final, make a detailed outline covering the major course concepts; think of possible exam questions, especially ones that link various ideas; create a mind map showing the connection between various subject matters; eat a healthy and balanced diet; and stay hydrated.
Follow Annie Claire Bergeron-Oliver on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@AnnieClaireBO