In the vein of Blunt Object’s post on irrational articles about diet and health that focus on macronutrients as though they were inherently bad or good for you without considering that what makes for a “healthy meal” is largely contextual, here we have an article about somebody who managed to overdose on 5-hour Energy displaying the same kind of fundamental issue.
What’s really striking about the article is that it focuses on the fact that 5-hour Energy has caffeine in it and gives the story a frame of caffeine addicts looking for their next hit, including a quote from a nutritionist saying that the energy in energy drinks comes from caffeine, with the B-complex vitamin cocktail being “purely for glitz”.
This would not be remarkable if it had been the caffeine that put the subject of the story in the hospital, but it wasn’t- it was the niacin, also known as vitamin B3. Normally it’s very difficult to overdose on B vitamins because they’re water-soluble and leave with urine, but front-load enough niacin by main-lining energy drinks as though they were coffee and you’ll box your liver good and hard, as this woman did. The article acknowledges that her actual problem was niacin overdose, which makes the overall caffeine-junkies message of the article as strange as it is.
The underlying reason both for why it would pass as normal to be written that way, and for the woman in question to think it would be okay to knock back that much “energy drink”, is the same issue as Blunt is talking about in talking about fat or sugar as though they were evil; caffeine is a thing that is “bad for us”, and vitamins are “good for us”, regardless of whether the caffeine is in high enough doses to actually hurt us or if vitamins can kill us in their overdose as well as their lack. We need vitamin A for proper vision and gene transcription, among other things, but in excess it will break your bones and is a teratogen for developing fetuses*. Selenium is an essential trace element, but ingesting it in milligrams rather than micrograms will kill you very dead.
The more you examine the pattern, the less sense it makes. Sodium is an essential substances for nerve transmission we need plenty of and will die without, but it’s on the “bad for you” list in media narrative. Potassium is involved in exactly the same biochemical process as sodium is and will shut down your kidneys and potentially stop your heart in excess, but it’s on the blanket “good for you” list and the possibility and dangers of hyperkalemia are rarely mentioned if you’re not a medical student. This particular example has a simple enough explanation- we use sodium chloride to flavor our food, not potassium chloride, so it’s much easier to ingest in amounts exceeding “enough”- but it still doesn’t really explain why either substance is normally discussed and thought about as entirely bad for you or entirely good for you, especially as the effects of not enough sodium can be felt by anyone who spends several hours working outside in the heat with water alone to sustain them- not exactly a rare scenario. One man invented an industry on the problem by putting lemon juice and sugar in what was essentially a bottle of Ringer’s solution, a lightly modified version of which you will find hanging from IV stands in hospitals, used for rehydration.
Perhaps the only real take-home message here, besides “healthy is contextual, not an innate quality”: if you’re a caffeine addict needing more, stick with coffee. They put all kinds of other crap in energy drinks your body isn’t as able to cope with in excess, like vitamins.
*Vitamin A toxicity is more hazardous because it’s fat-soluble. Researchers attempted to solve this problem by making a water-soluble version, which suffered from the drawback of being ten times more toxic in that form.