If our nation had an anger meter (and it pisses me off that it doesn't!), it would show that America has become an increasingly antagonistic and hostile place. And between the histrionics of the Tea Party, two and a half wars, consistently bad employment news, continued Wall Street malfeasance, ever-increasing traffic congestion, and the unmitigated unfairness of American Idol, it's hardly surprising that so many of us are perpetually peeved.
But maybe there's another explanation for all this rage. Look no further than the refrigerated section of your local convenience store. Beverages like Red Bull and Rockstar contain colossal quantities of sugar, caffeine, and taurine. You're undoubtedly already aware that the first two substances can cause the jitters, and studies have shown that the third—an amino acid found naturally in meat, fish, and breast milk—also affects mood and behavior.
And more and more people are swilling the stuff. According to Beverage Digest, energy-drink consumption grew 13.3 percent last year and the industry's total sales are soon expected to exceed $7 billion. Red Bull alone sells more than 4 billion cans a year. And whether they're trying to power through a 12-hour day at the office or party till dawn, guys are particularly fond of these beverages: Male energy drinkers outnumber females by nearly two to one.
Now some men are claiming that the volatile mix of ingredients contained in these drinks has turned them into killers. Remember the "Twinkie defense," used to explain Dan White's murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone in 1979? Welcome to today's version: the Red Bull defense. At trial earlier this year, the lawyers for Stephen Coffeen claimed that drinking Red Bull drove him to smother his elderly father to death with a pillow. Last year a Kentucky man, Woody Will Smith, pleaded that "caffeine insanity," brought on by a mix of energy drinks and diet pills, led him to strangle his wife with an extension cord.
Sound like a bunch of Red Bullshit? Consider this: Unlike sodas, which can contain no more than 71 milligrams of caffeine per 12 ounces, energy drinks are unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Some contain as much as 500 milligrams of caffeine—200 more than what the American Psychiatric Association defines as an overdose. Imagine what that kind of intake can do to a hyperactive adolescent. Think energy drinks don't have something to do with the recent rise in school bullying?
Roland R. Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University, says that doses over 200 milligrams can trigger a condition called "caffeine intoxication," which is marked by increased anxiety and panic attacks. That's just a couple of gulps while waiting for the yellow school bus that's coming to take you to Aggression High. Even scarier, some energy drinks contain ingredients such as cocoa and guarana that increase the amount of caffeine beyond what's listed on the label. Each gram of guarana can contain as much as 80 milligrams. Other stimulants like ginseng can further enhance the effects of caffeine.
It's an issue the health-care industry is becoming increasingly concerned about. According to Dr. Steven Lipshultz, a professor and chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, "There have been papers in medical literature looking and finding an association between increased energy-drink consumption and risk-taking behavior"—which means that everything from road rage to robbery could be the result of one too many Monsters or Full Throttles. Energy drinks "can amplify what might be a normal emotional chatter and take it to another level," explains Dr. Steve R. Wolf, a Los Angeles clinical psychologist who teaches a program called Taming Your Anger.
Bottom line: You think it's tense out there now? Well, if the FDA doesn't regulate these drinks, yelling will soon become the new talking, strangling the new hugging, and bar brawls the new workout craze.
And if you don't agree with me, I'll be right over to bash your face in.
Brian Frazer's one-man show, "Hyper-Chondriac: One Man's Quest to Hurry Up and Calm Down" opens in Los Angeles on October 1st and runs through November 6th. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.plays411.com/hyperchondriac.