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When he started having trouble sleeping a few months ago, Airman 1st Class Micah Harlow decided to cut back on his caffeine intake.

It wasn’t cups of coffee he was concerned about, but the energy drinks he consumed while at work at Yokota Air Base, Japan, and the supplements he took at the gym.

“NO-Xplode gives you crazy energy,” he said of the creatine supplement. “If you don’t work out that day, you’re bouncing off the walls.”

Airman Stephen Cooper stays away from supplements altogether when working out.

“I think they (supplements) are unhealthy and that you should stay natural when it comes to improving your body,” he said.

But Cooper, also of Yokota, admits he will “have an energy drink every now and then to wake up some.”

From energy drinks loaded with caffeine to powders packed with protein, servicemembers at Pacific bases use a variety of dietary supplements, athletic aids and energy drinks, many of which are available at local exchanges and commissaries or on the Internet.

All promise results, whether it’s a boost of energy, bigger muscles or a speedier metabolism.

But military health officials warn that there are no quick fixes and that these products may be bad for your health.

Large amounts

“If it sounds too good to be true, then it is,” said Capt. Jennifer Bradley, 35th Medical Group Health Promotion Flight commander at Misawa Air Base, Japan.

Bradley says people can better reach their goals with healthy eating, exercise and adequate sleep.

A registered dietitian, Bradley recently launched an informational campaign about energy drinks for the Health and Wellness Center at Misawa.

“There was a concern that people were taking energy drinks and not being safe about it,” she said. “I don’t recommend any energy drinks.”

Energy drinks — not to be confused with sports drinks, such as Gatorade — are beverages such as Red Bull and Rock Star, often containing large amounts of caffeine, sugar and other legal stimulants, including ephedrine, guarana and ginseng. They claim to combat mental and physical fatigue.

Many contain as much as 80 milligrams of caffeine, the equivalent of a cup of coffee and more than twice the caffeine found in a Mountain Dew or a regular Coke. Some contain as much as 300 mg of caffeine in a single serving.

Energy drinks in small doses are nothing more than “an expensive cup of coffee” with sugar, said Lt. Col. Deborah De Pastina, the 18th Medical Command nutritionist consultant for the U.S. Army in South Korea.

While caffeine can enhance performance — it’s been shown to reduce the perceived amount of exertion in some athletes — it’s also known for its adverse effects as a stimulant, De Pastina said.

It can increase blood pressure, cause dehydration and alter one’s heart rate, all of which can be especially serious for those with underlying health conditions, according to military health officials.

Caffeine can also be addictive, says Lt. Cmdr. Kim Zuzelski, a registered dietitian from U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa, with “major headaches” being one symptom of withdrawal.

Reasons vary

At Misawa, Bradley has observed that people tend to use energy drinks to stay awake during shift work, or to stay alert throughout the day when they’re short on sleep. She’s talked with airmen who consume three to four energy drinks a day and have experienced heart palpitations.

Dietary supplements — which include vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids and enzymes — are also popular for weight loss and building muscle, according to Bradley.

“You typically see it in first-term airmen who just came out of high school and want to bulk up,” Bradley said.

But servicemembers and civilians in Japan say they take supplements for many reasons. Some worry about what they’re putting into their body; others don’t give it much thought.

Ron Riehn, a civilian employee with the 5th Air Force at Yokota, said he uses supplements when he works out, taking creatine before workouts for added energy and protein supplements afterward to help rebuild muscle faster. He said that the supplements have been helpful in the recovery process after a recent surgery.

“I really notice it when I don’t take them,” he said.

Riehn also said that he pays attention to exactly what he is putting in his body.

“I read up on it and try to make the best decisions on what to take,” he said. “And if I have any questions I don’t take it.”

Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Perrin said he uses muscle-building and fat-burning supplements and sometimes energy drinks such as Red Bull in his workout schedule.

Supplements can be dangerous if misused, especially to the kidneys, said Perrin, who is stationed at Sasebo Naval Base, Japan.

“I use [dietary supplements] right before I workout and I’m not worried about them. I look at the stuff I take before I take it,” he said. “[BUT] any kind of caffeine supplements, if you over-use it, that could definitely hurt you.”

Nitric oxide stimulators, a popular bodybuilding supplement taken as pills or powder, can provide an added edge when lifting weights, Perrin said.

“It just helps me to get a little extended muscle pump,” he said.

Seaman Denise Bacarais of Sasebo Naval Base said she takes several doses a day of Hydroxycut, a supplement that claims to increase energy and reduce body fat.

It’s because I’m tired all the time … I don’t sleep very well at night,” Bacarais said. “It decreases your appetite and gives you an extreme amount of energy.”

She said she knows the supplement could be unhealthy.

“I don’t really pay attention to it now. I’m too young for that,” Bacarais said.

Petty Officer 1st Class Tom Nickson said he took bodybuilding supplements when he was younger but now avoids them due to health concerns.

“They make too much stress on your body,” Nickson said. “When you’re getting older you can’t risk it.”

Now, he said he uses an occasional energy drink instead of coffee to stay alert while working at night and isn’t worried that it will affect his health.

“I just drink it to wake me up and then I’m good for the next 12 hours,” Nickson said.

Education Is The Key

One problem with supplements is the industry isn’t regulated, Zuzelski said.

“Manufacturers don’t have to prove something is safe before selling it,” she said. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does have to prove it’s dangerous before banning it, she added. The timeline in between can be long and “a lot of people can have some serious consequences in the meantime.”

And “just because a little is good, doesn’t mean that more gives you better results,” Zuzelski said. “A lot of energy drinks contain guarana. The active ingredient in guarana is caffeine. So you could also be taking a supplement with guarana and not realizing that’s caffeine as well.”

Her advice: “Be educated about what you’re taking and why. Taking something just because someone else in the gym is taking it isn’t very wise. Get information from credible references.”

De Pastina, the Army nutritionist consultant, said basic common sense is the best approach.

“There’s no miracle. You’ve got to work out and eat right to get results,” she said. “There’s no magic pill I can take and tomorrow I’ve got muscles or I’m skinny.”

Stars and Stripes reporters Bryce Dubee and Travis Tritten contributed to this story.

Energy cocktails can raise safety risks

Energy drinks have found a niche in the bar scene as popular mixers with alcohol. The caffeine and herbal stimulants in energy drinks can counter the depressant effects of alcohol, allowing party-goers to maintain that “feel good” buzz longer, experts say.

But military health officials warn mixing the two is a bad idea.

“You don’t realize how intoxicated you are,” said Capt. Jennifer Bradley, 35th Medical Group Health Promotion Flight commander at Misawa Air Base, Japan. “You think you have more energy and that you can keep drinking.”

Studies have found that drinking an energy drink cocktail may predispose people to abuse alcohol, as they perceive themselves to be less impaired than they really are.

In a study last year from Wake Forest University School of Medicine, college students who drank alcohol mixed with energy drinks were found to be at a much higher risk for injury and twice as likely to require medical attention or ride with an intoxicated driver compared with students who imbibe without energy drinks, according to a November 2007 report in Science Daily.

They were also more than twice as likely to take advantage of someone else sexually and almost twice as likely to be taken advantage of sexually, according to the study.

“Students whose motor skills, visual reaction times, and judgment are impaired by alcohol may not perceive that they are intoxicated as readily when they’re also ingesting a stimulant,” Dr. Mary Claire O’Brien, associate professor of emergency medicine and public health sciences and lead researcher on the study, was quoted in Science Daily. “Only the symptoms of drunkenness are reduced — but not the drunkenness. They can’t tell if they’re drunk; they can’t tell if someone else is drunk. So they get hurt, or they hurt someone else.”

— Jennifer H. Svan

Getting the facts

Navy Environmental Health Center Sports Nutrition ResourcesPeak Performance Nutrition and Exercise ManualHooah for Health- Army Fitness and NutritionThe Gatorade Sports Science Center: Nutrition and performance library of articles, frequently asked questions, and round table discussionsOffice of Dietary SupplementsDietary Supplements (Food and Drug Administration)National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (National Institutes of Health)— Courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Kim Zuzelski, U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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