Energy Drinks & Alcohol: L-Carnitine
by Darcy O'Neil on February 2011
In the first article on energy drinks I looked at the effects of sugar and caffeine when combined with alcohol. This time I'm going to take a look at the role of an amino acid called L-Carnitine, which is in many of the energy drinks. It is usually in the amount of 250 mg per serving. The reason this ingredient peeked my interest is that in the United States, L-Carnitine is a supplement, which is available to anyone and in Canada it is a drug which requires a doctors prescription to obtain. So the question is; what effect does L-Carnitine have when consumed with alcohol?
When I take a look at edible chemicals I usually refer to PubMed, which is an online database of medical and clinical research. This is a vast resource for medical research and often there is some valuable research that I can quote. In the case of L-Carnitine and alcohol, there are a number of good papers that will shed some light on this substance.
Here's some basic information. First, L-Carnitine is an essential amino acid that the body uses to shuffle fatty acids into the cell's mitochondria, which is the cells power plant. It can be synthesized within the body from the amino acids lysine or methionine with a little help from Vitamin C. It is essential to help convert food into energy, hence the reason it is included in many energy drinks. L-Carnitine also has beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system and helps improve resistance to muscle fatigue.
Now, when you combine an energy drink, with alcohol, what effect does it have? First I discovered that there are no known side effects between L-Carnitine and alcohol (ethanol) .This is a good thing since there popularity of energy drinks in bars is increasing. There were also some other papers that reported that L-Carnitine alleviates alcohol induced liver damage and it inhibits gastric mucosal injury, i.e. it can prevent alcohol induced ulcers.
Another study showed that L-Carnitine prevented alcohol induced brain cell alterations indicative of human fetal alcohol syndrome. Basically this means that there are some possible brain cell protecting benefits from L-Carnitine. I'm sure that will make a lot of people happy to know. This study is interesting because it would indicate that L-Carnitine has some protective activity against alcohol. Another studied showed a protective effect on prenatal ethanol damage to the brain. As a final addition to these findings of great therapeutic interest, oral administration of Acetyl-L-Carnitine was shown to improve the cognitive impairments of 55 chronic alcoholics. So, it seems that L-Carnitine has neuro-protective benefits, specific to the brain.
Other studies have shown that L-Carnitine may alleviate symptoms of alcohol withdrawal at 200 mg/kg. That is a significant amount. For example if you weight 75kg (165 lbs) you will need 15 grams of L-Carnitine per day to see the desired effect. Also, for any hyperactive people out there, present data suggest that Acetyl-L-Carnitine, a drug devoid of psychostimulant properties, may have some beneficial effects in the treatment of ADHD children. So, for all the skater kids on Ritalin, those energy drinks just might be helpful, again don't quote me on that.
The last study is that energy drinks may improve alertness in an alcohol induced state. However, the same study indicated that motor function was still impaired. For example, the drunks who drank an energy drink we still be as goofy and uncoordinated as the drunks who didn't have an energy drink. Their perception however is that they don't feel as drunk. This is one of the dangerous things, because it may give you the false impression that you are not drunk, when in fact you are. So, if you are drinking Red Bull and vodka, the Red Bull doesn't give you any benefits to resisting impairment, you are still inebriated.
To date this research has caused me to think differently about combining energy drinks and alcohol. The substances in the drinks don't seem to have any dangerous physiological effects, like liver damage, except that people may feel more alert and not realize they are intoxicated. However, this isn't something new, just think about all those old movies where someone comes in drunk and their friends say "we need to get you some coffee to sober you up, pal". The guy is still drunk, now he's just more awake.