Energy for sale

Caffeine and other stimulants can mask fatigue for a limited time, but cannot take the place of sleep. Experts caution not to rely on them too much.

To fight fatigue on I-95, Jack Spore Jr. chats on his CB radio with other truckers who know him as Gator – and drinks 5-Hour Energy.

The 40-year-old Sebastian, Fla., resident says the stimulant, sold in 2-ounce shots, helps him drive a Kenworth T2000 safely.

“When you have something valued at $5 million, you don’t fool around,” says Spore, who hauls jet boats for the U.S. Military Support Group, a racing team raising money for the National Veterans Foundation. “You’re watching over everybody else on the highway. If you’re not alert, you may have just taken their life or yours.”

Truckers can choose among an increasing number of over-the-counter stimulants in the form of drinks, pills and coffee supplements, widely found not just at truck stops but also at drug, grocery and convenience stores, and marketed with high-testosterone names such as Bolt and Red Bull.

Married and a father of five, Spore says staying healthy is important, so he skips soft drinks to avoid the jitters and other ill effects of too much sugar and caffeine. He often tries new energy boosters, though he’s mindful of the ingredients. He was especially wary of products containing ephedrine, which was banned in 2005 after being linked to fatalities.

Doctors, fatigue experts and veteran drivers urge truckers to use common sense in their consumption of any over-the-counter stimulant. In particular, people with heart problems or diabetes should avoid these products or use them only in consultation with their doctors. Some products are not recommended for children, pregnant women or people sensitive to caffeine.

Most energy boosters have mixtures of B vitamins – found in foods such as bananas, liver, potatoes, tuna, turkey and even brewer’s yeast – and organic compounds that occur naturally in the human body, notably amino acids and metabolites. Some of those compounds, such as carnitine and glucuronolactone, reportedly produce a sense of well-being as well as alertness.

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“We were trying to focus on feeling sharp, alert and focused,” says Carl Sperber, marketing director of Living Essentials in Navi, Mich., which markets 5-Hour Energy as a vitamin supplement. “The drink works on amino acids, which wake up your brain.”

The B-vitamin complex in 5-Hour Energy also temporarily opens capillaries, a response that can lead to “niacin flush,” which is a redness and warmth similar to blushing, Sperber says.

Other products rely mainly on caffeine. White Wave Foods in Broomfield, Colo., introduced the coffee supplement STOK to convenience stores in May and plans to bring it to groceries in February.

Each container, the same as the peel-top coffee creamers common in restaurants, bears a warning that it contains 40 milligrams of caffeine. That’s the equivalent of one shot of espresso, says Jarod Ballentine, STOK spokesman. A cup of coffee has about 100 milligrams of caffeine, but that amount varies widely depending on the strength and type of coffee beverage.

“It’s quick on the go,” Ballentine says of STOK. “We wanted to make sure to flag its caffeine content for those parts of the general public that are most likely to be sensitive to caffeine.”

Among truckers, some of the most popular newer products are ones that have little or no sugar. “That’s the first question truckers ask,” Sperber says. “When they find out it has no sugar, they go for it.”

Top-selling energy drinks such as Full Throttle, Monster Energy and Red Bull, however, have plenty of sugar and caffeine. That mix of sugar, caffeine and amino acids, in particular, may be more harmful than helpful for drivers with high blood pressure or heart disease, researchers say.

The side effects of energy drinks was the subject of a study conducted by Dr. James Kalus of Henry Ford Hospital with Wayne State University scientists. He presented the results Nov. 6 at the American Heart Association’s annual conference.

Kalus’ team found that 15 healthy college students who drank two cans of a popular energy drink for seven days had higher blood pressure and heart rates even though they were at rest when the tests were performed.

“The most important message of this study is that people with diagnosed high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease should avoid these drinks,” says Kalus, who also notes that it’s not unusual for people to be unaware that they have cardiovascular disease. “People drinking these drinks on a regular basis should ask their doctor about it.”

A spokeswoman for Monster Beverage declined to comment on the company’s products, and Coca-Cola media contacts did not return phone calls regarding the company’s Full Throttle.

Most energy drinks contain the amino acid taurine, found naturally in beef and fish but linked in past research with higher blood pressure and heart rates, especially when combined with caffeine. More research is needed, Kalus says.

Also wary of energy drinks and supplements is Dr. John McElligott, founder of Professional Drivers Medical Depots, based in Knoxville, Tenn.”The risk for taking stuff like that is increased blood pressure, risk of strokes and heart attacks,” McElligott says. “We see them come off the road to our clinic, and they have to go straight to the hospital. Depending on the amount of the energy drinks they’ve had, it can run their blood pressure up 30 to 40 points higher than it should be.”

Caffeine is an especially big culprit in truckers’ health problems and worsens sleep apnea, a condition more common in truckers than the general public, McElli-gott says. Also, drinking too much of an energy beverage can cause dehydration, says Dr. Acacia Aguirre, medical director at Circadian International, a consulting firm in Stoneham, Mass., that specializes in shift work and extended work scheduling.

The hours-of-service rule, with its restrictive split sleeper berth provisions, makes coping with fatigue especially challenging, McElligott says. “To be a successful, healthy driver, you have to be an expert in time management.”

Energy stimulants don’t eliminate fatigue, says sleep expert Dr. Martin Moore-Ede of Circadian. “They can be useful for short-term effects, but they cannot compensate for lack of sleep,” he says. “If you use too much of them without getting enough sleep, you can run into trouble.”

Truckers share tips on staying alert
Many truckers say they avoid the new crop of over-the-counter energy products, preferring more traditional – and sometimes even less healthy – options for fighting fatigue.

In some cases, they get stimulation the old-fashioned way that Lefty Frizzell sang about in “Cigarettes and Coffee Blues.”

Karen Syverson, 61, of Anniston, Ala., drinks four cups of coffee a day, smokes cigarettes and makes sure she gets a good night’s sleep.

“If I’m tired, it must be time for me to stop,” says Syverson, who drives a 40-foot end dump. “The big problem now is that there is no time for a nap.”

Syverson started driving for C&W Logistics 10 years ago upon her retirement from the U.S. Army. To stay active, she frequently climbs to the top of her rig to check loads, stops and walks a few minutes whenever she is weary, and parks far from truck stop entrances to ensure she’ll get some good walks.

She says she knows her limits, “but I think a lot of our younger drivers do not. Don’t get me wrong. They are out there trying to make a living. I just think you have to get somewhere above the age of 30 to lose that feeling of invulnerability.”

Veteran drivers Mike Morey and Mike Hughes say they also stick with coffee and cigarettes.

Morey, 54, of San Angelo, Texas, pulls reefers for Rivera Livestock and has seen traffic increase dramatically during his 34 years on the road. “Nowadays, it’s too dangerous to be taking any kind of stimulant,” Morey says as he sets aside a cup of coffee after dinner at the TA Travel Plaza on I-20/59 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

He urges drivers to stop when they are tired: “If you get out, the fresh air will help you. You’ll eventually get to where you’re going.”

Morey also listens to audio books to stay alert. “Having hobbies keeps your mind occupied, too. If your mind’s working, it keeps your body in good shape.” He enjoys restoring old cars, his favorite of four being a 1955 Chevrolet pickup.

Hughes, 60, of Deer Park, Texas, has driven commercially for 21 years. He has the same advice for younger drivers as he did when he was a driving instructor.

“I told them common sense pretty much rules this business,” says Hughes. “I don’t think the dangerous stimulants are as prevalent as 15 to 20 years ago. As a whole, the trucking industry is downright professional.”

Even without stimulants, truckers can help each other stay alert by talking on the CB, says Florida driver Jack Spore Jr.

“We need to start looking out for each other again,” he says. “It helps you stay awake to talk on the radio. There’s no freight out there that’s worth your life.”

Popular over-the-counter stimulants
Monster Energy
Form: Canned soft drink
Key ingredients: L-carnitine, glucose, caffeine, guarana, inositol, glucuronolactone, maltodextrin, vitamin B complex, ginseng
Possible side effects: Dehydration and increased heart rate and blood pressure. Insomnia with overuse

Form: Coffee shot
Key ingredients: Caffeine
Possible side effects: Caffeine-related effects*

5-hour Energy
Form: 2-ounce flavored drink
Key ingredients: Citicoline, glucuronolactone, tyrosine, phenylalanine, taurine, malic acid, caffeine, vitamin B complex, folic acid
Possible side effects: Niacin flush, nervousness, insomnia or rapid heartbeat

Red Bull
Form: Canned soft drink
Key ingredients: Glucose, taurine, glucuronolactone, caffeine, inositol
Possible side effects: Dehydration and increased heart rate and blood pressure. Insomnia with overuse

Form: Hot drink
Key ingredients: Caffeine
Possible side effects: Caffeine-related effects*
* Caffeine can increase heart rate, respiratory rate and metabolic rate. Excess amounts may cause nervousness, sweating, anxiety, insomnia and dehydration.