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The underlying problems of energy drinks

Mike McInnes, author of Honey Sapiens

The latest research on the toxicity of caffeinated energy drinks in youth, highlighted by Kate Pickles in the Daily Mail, and focusing on sleep impairment, is most welcome. However, it does not uncover the full neuropathological damage to these young brains. Shocking though this is to acknowledge, these drinks are degrading human cognition at breakneck speed.

Damage caused by consuming high levels of refined sugar

As I explain in much more detail in my recent book, Honey Sapiens, high levels of glucose in the human circulation actually starve the brain of the fuel it needs rather than providing this. The mechanism for this is that the body turns refined sugar (with energy drinks being a major source) into a massive hit of glucose that then degrades an essential enzyme as a result of oxidative stress. That enzyme is called glutamine synthetase; it is not widely known but it is the human brain’s fuel pump and consequently the enzyme of cognition, communication and language. This enzyme’s roles include the conversion of a neurotoxic substance that our bodies produce as part of the energy cycle – glutamate – into the beneficial amino acid glutamine; each turn of the energy cycle that the enzyme enables pumps energy in the form of glucose into the brain. Failure to complete the energy cycle and make this conversion as a result of oxidative damage to the enzyme results in two disastrous events – the brain is deprived of the energy it needs and the build up of neurotoxic glutamate destroys the brain’s nerve cells (neurones) via calcium overload[1].

Worse still, the build-up of toxic glutamate causes an inflammatory conflagration in the brain that cooks and digests neurones. This is a disaster for any brain, but especially for a growing brain.

What of caffeine?

Caffeine doubles the massive insult from refined sugar. It does this by increasing the concentration of neurotoxic glutamate in the brain, adding to the inflammatory tsunami and devouring neurones – in other words, causing an autoimmune fire storm[2]. The brain literally shrinks.

Combining caffeine with the known neurotoxicity of refined sugars is not radically different to adding petroleum to a house fire. Although coffee contains some neuroprotective principles, caffeine alone is now being increasingly recognised as neurotoxic[3][4].

The poisonous effects of glutamate

Excess neurotoxic glutamate in the human brain is the underlying pathology in all the modern human metabolic (energy dysregulation) diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and autism spectrum disorders. From the 1970s, when refined sugars began to be included in processed foods in large quanitites, these conditions have increased exponentially.

Alzheimer’s disease is increasingly recognised as a refined-sugar-induced condition, sometimes called ‘type 3 diabetes’, and is directly linked to excess glutamate in the brain. If this is the kind of neuropathology that refined sugars can inflict on the fully formed adult brain, what might be the effect on the developing brain in childhood?

If the current rate of increase in these metabolic, brain-destroying diseases is not halted, Homo sapiens will no longer be a cognitively competent species by the end of the 21st Century.

There is a healthy alternative

Is it possible to sweeten energy drinks without causing neurological and cognitive damage? Yes, it seems it is. From around the early 2000s, studies have been being published that show honey is the most antidiabetic and neuroprotective brain fuel known to humankind. These studies have largely been from non-western universities, but published in western peer-reviewed journals and then ignored – perhaps a mixture of western scientific arrogance, paternalism and racism?

Very excitingly, in March 2023 a seminal study was published in the journal Nutrients by a group of researchers at the Medical Research University in Malaysia. (Malaysia is the leading country in honey scientific research globally.) This study focused on the potential role of honey to avert neurodegenerative diseases and what the properties were that gave it this power[5]. To quote the authors:  ‘…the neuroprotective properties of honey are primarily attributed to its high polyphenol content, with quercetin and gallic acid being the most prominent. This review compiled considerable evidence of the anti-neurodegenerative properties of honey….’

At last, the news is out – honey is supercharged with neuroprotective bioflavonoids and polyphenols which enhance human cognition. Anybody producing or consuming energy drinks should take note!

© Mike McInnes 25th January 2024.


  1. Rorbach-Dolota A, Piwowar A. Neurometabolic Evidence Supporting the Hypothesis of Increased Incidence of Type 3 Diabetes Mellitus in the 21st Biomedical Research International Journal 2019; 2019:1435276. DOI: 10.1155/2019/1435276 PMID: 31428627
  2. John J, Kodama T, Siegel JM. Caffeine promotes glutamate and histamine release in the posterior hypothalamus. American Journal of Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology 2014; 307(6): R704-R710 DOI: 10.1152/ajpregu.001142014 PMID: 25031227
  3. Gorecki M, Hallmann E. The Antioxidant Content of Coffee and Its In Vitro Activity as an Effect of Its Production Method and Roasting and Brewing Time. Antioxidants (Basel) 2020; 9(4): 308. DOI: 10.3390/antiox9040308
  4. Schreiner TG, Popescu BO. Impact of Caffeine on Alzheimer’s Disease Pathogenesis – Protective or risk Factor? MDPI Journal Life (Basel) 2022; 12(3): 330. DOI: 10.3390/life12030330 PMID: 35330081
  5. Fadzil MAM, Mustra S, Rashed AA. The Potential Use of Honey as a Neuroprotective Agent for the Management of Neurodegenerative Diseases. Nutrients 2023; 15(7):1558. DOI: 10.3390/nu15071558 PMID: 37049399


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