A mother who drank up to 20 cans of Red Bull a day for four years damaged her liver so badly doctors were convinced she was an alcoholic.
Mary Allwood was consuming the equivalent of 17 Mars bars of sugar and 16 cups of coffee of caffeine.
The 26-year-old would stash the cans all over the house -spending more than £2,300 a year on the drinks.
But last November she was rushed to hospital in an ambulance due to severe pain in her side, and an MRI scan revealed her liver was twice the size it should be.
Doctors were convinced she was an alcoholic until she said she was teetotal but addicted to energy drinks.
The high sugar content in the drinks can lead to fat being deposited in the liver – causing scarring.
Five months ago Ms Allwood went ‘cold turkey’. A test last week revealed her liver is now back to normal.
The full-time mother from Brixham, Devon, said: ‘I needed it and I didn’t care at the time what damage it was doing to me.
‘If I didn’t get my fix I would be miserable and grumpy and it just wasn’t an option – I would make sure I got it.
‘At first I would feel as if it would give me a buzz and energy, but eventually it wouldn’t give me energy – I just needed it.
‘I needed the taste and fizziness. It was my heroin. I would feel awful if I didn’t have it.
‘Now the thought that anyone can go to the shops and buy it makes me so worried. I think it should be treated as if it is alcohol and cigarettes.’
Ms Allwood – who is mother to three-year-old daughter Berivan – tried the caffeine drink for the first time was she was aged 22 in a bid to give her a bit more energy.
Initially it worked, but within just four months she was drinking up to 20 cans a day, necking at least two as soon as she woke up at around 8am.
‘If I didn’t have any in the fridge I would walk to the shop and get two,’ she said.
‘I’d drink the first one in three sips, and then try and make the second one last longer.
‘I would go to the supermarket and get ten multipacks at a time.
‘I’d tell the person at the till that I had a restaurant and I was buying them for that reason.’
Her weight shot up from a size 16 to a size 24, and she wasn’t drinking any other fluid apart from Red Bull.
Even an episode of heart palpitations a year after her habit began didn’t halt her drinking.
But in November 2015, she had extreme pain in her side and she was rushed to hospital in an ambulance.
An MRI scan revealed her liver was twice the size it should be and two fibrous lumps – the size of a grape and a satsuma – had formed on it.
Prolonged intake of excessive alcohol can cause inflammation of the liver and may contribute to fibrosis, leading to cirrhosis (liver damage).
But a diet laden with sugar can lead to build-up in the liver, which can cause it to become dramatically inflamed and develop scarring and lumps.
‘They kept talking about alcohol and asking how much I drank,’ Ms Allwood said.
‘They said my liver looked the same as someone who was an alcoholic and that’s when I said I drank at least 12 Red Bulls a day.
‘They looked at me in disgust.’
It was the shock Ms Allwood needed, and she went on a meal-replacement diet, swapping her Red Bull for six and a half litres of water a day.
She experienced withdrawal symptoms for around a month – mood swings and shakes – but now no longer craves the drinks.
‘It was really hard and there were times when I bought one, opened it, but I never drank it,’ she said.
‘I tried a drop on my tongue and it tasted like pure sugar. I’ll never go back to how I was now.
‘Now I think the rules should be changed and it should be treated in a similar way to cigarettes, with the blank packaging.’
MailOnline has contacted Red Bull for a response.
HOW EATING TOO MUCH SUGAR CAN DAMAGE THE LIVER
Even though people think of liver disease as a drinker’s complaint, at least one in five people in the UK has some form of liver disease simply because of eating too much.
Liver disease starts when fat is deposited in the liver – usually either as a result of excessive drinking or eating.
This can damage liver cells, but at this stage it’s often symptomless.
But if this process continues over years, the repeated damage to cells can lead to scar tissue – severe scarring is known as liver cirrhosis.
The scar tissue makes the liver hard and lumpy and as a result it becomes unable to function properly.
A 2006 study published in the journal Hepatology found that nearly half of people who had fatty liver developed moderate to severe scarring within 14 years.
Being overweight encourages the progression of liver disease, as high levels of visceral fat – stored around the abdominal organs – release fatty acids and other inflammatory substances that further damage liver cells, says Professor Massimo Pinzani, a liver specialist and director of the Institute for Liver and Digestive Health at University College London.
The problem is that liver disease is difficult to spot before it is very advanced.
As Andrew Langford, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, explains: ‘There are very few symptoms. The liver doesn’t have any nerve endings – so when it’s damaged, you don’t always feel it.’
Extreme fatigue, dark urine and pale stools are the first signs, as well as jaundice. This is caused by a build-up of the waste product bilirubin, which the malfunctioning liver can no longer remove.
Liver disease is the fifth biggest killer in the UK, and the number of deaths has soared by 25 per cent in a decade – in part because of heavy drinking, but also due to our expanding waistlines.