A small town in Western Australia temporarily banning teenagers from buying energy drinks is a "step in the right direction" according to experts who think it can help tackle the mental health crisis affecting young people.
The bold new plan has been introduced in Bridgetown, 250 kilometres south of Perth, and forms part of a four-month research trial aiming to improve mental health and decrease anti-social behaviour among teens.
Justine Howard, senior research officer at the Telethon Kids Institute, which aims to improve children's health, said a 500ml can of energy drink can contains the caffeine equivalent of two cups of coffee, and up to 21 teaspoons of sugar, depending on the brand. It can also contain "an entire day's salt intake for a child".
Energy drinks are shown to have a number of negative health effects including heart issues, difficulty concentrating and gut disturbance, she explained. But it also has equally concerning mental health effects including insomnia, agitation, anxiety, mood disorders, psychosis and hallucinations.
Caffeine 'particularly disruptive for growing teenagers'
Rachel Beard, Sleep Wellness Manager of A.H. Beard’s Sleep Wellness Centre says quality sleep helps hormone production, emotional regulation, memory consolidation, balancing our mood and stress – all essential for teenagers. But stimulants like caffeine can be "particularly disruptive for the growing teenage body" that typically requires 8-10 hours of sleep a night.
"Prolonged sleep loss will naturally increase exposure to negative feelings, we don’t want to exacerbate this if we can avoid it," Ms Beard told Yahoo News Australia. "If we can intervene and help create positive behaviours at a young age, we’re supporting healthy habits that last."
The trial, being led by researchers from the Telethon Kids Institute, will finish in May after starting earlier this month. Bridgetown GP Sarah Youngson who supports the ban said young people are more susceptible to the effects of caffeine — particularly energy drinks — as their brains have not yet fully developed.
"There were some issues around town with some antisocial behaviour, young people being a little bit impulsive and a bit erratic," she told the ABC.
In Bridgeton, a small town of fewer than 3,000 people, about eight local stores are on board with the voluntary ban. Staff will refuse to sell to minors under 18, and will be asking for ID — the same treatment as the sale of alcohol or cigarettes. Dr Youngson said the closest town is located 30km away, making it difficult for teens to find a store that sells them.
Poor sleep contributes to 'lower learning abilities'
Dr Youngson said sleep issues are common among her young patients who often report not being able to sleep until three in the morning.
"Then they are unable to get out of bed to go to school in the morning," she said. "They need another energy drink to just get through school but then that was leading to disengagement from school and perhaps some disruption in the classroom".
Ms Beard said poor sleep can lower learning ability by 40 per cent, recent studies proved. "So imagine what that would look like for a student that depends on retaining information?" she said.
Calls for legislative change to sale of energy drinks
Ms Howard said there's "no doubt" the mental health epidemic has many contributing factors, and that "energy drinks are only one part of this". "But energy drinks can contribute to a cycle of mental ill health as young people turn to them to give them a temporary lift in energy, without being aware of the negative health impacts," she told Yahoo News.
So far, Bridgetown retailers have been "very supportive" of this voluntary temporary ban on the sale of energy drinks to children, and a permanent ban would be the end goal, Ms Howard said.
"Restricting children’s ability to purchase energy drinks would significantly reduce the risk of adverse health effects associated with these drinks, and make a substantial contribution towards a shift in energy drink related norms, and ultimately legislative changes, leading to improved health and wellbeing in children at the population-level," she said.
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