Why Do We Have Relaxation Drinks?
Americans are pretty wired up these days, and getting enough sleep is tough. Close to 40% complain of insomnia making them too tired to fully function, perhaps 5-10% of the population is presently suffering significant depression, and many millions more complain of high levels of anxiety -- all of which notoriously worsens rest. When you're getting emails from your boss through the night or your girlfriend keeps texting in the wee hours, sleep in a can with names like iChill and Dreamwater looks pretty attractive.
How Big Are Relaxation Drinks?
Economically big -- and growing. Fast company lists 350 different varieties, and estimates national sales as about $500 million. And Americans are not the only wired up population -- there are plenty of opportunities overseas -- at least where the drinks' ingredients are not banned outright.
What's Inside Relaxation Drinks?
A mix of herbals, flavors and drugs, though most of the time you can't really know. Many manufacturers list some of the ingredients, whether it's passion flavor, kava, tryptophan, and valerian, but there are also "natural flavors" and the amounts, purity, and source for most of the active ingredients are simply left out. The main exception to this is melatonin, where the doses are often specified, varying from 1 mg to 5 mg or more.
Do They Work?
Actual evidence for effectiveness is scant. There are reports that kava will work, or valerian, or that chamomile sort of works -- valerian was the preferred calmer of the Roman aristocracy, as we can witness through movies like Gladiator -- but what these drugs do when put together as ensembles is is anybody's guess. The big exception to this lack of evidence is melatonin.
Why Is Melatonin So Controversial?
Because it's a systemic hormone that's the main active ingredient of herbal drinks that are marketed as foods. When I asked melatonin researchers at the June Association of Professional Sleep Society Meetings if they were aware of the widespread use of melatonin based drinks and foods, many were incredulous, particularly since melatonin, the hormone of darkness, has effects that vary so much with time of day and dose.
The University of Oregon group including Al Lewy and Jonathan Emens reported that melatonin could both be used to reset biological clocks and as an antidepressant -- but only if the doses were kept low, generally less than .5 mg, and at the right biological clock times. That's because melatonin and light are the main ways used to change human body clocks -- as millions of those who do shift work and experience jet lag know well. Melatonin in higher doses may have paradoxical effects, including headaches and not working at all. Since melatonin sets reproductive time in most mammals, it was once even tried as a contraceptive. More and more, changing biological clocks is felt to affect or exacerbate many different illnesses including heart disease and cancer.
Melatonin is a drug with very sophisticated use, time, and purity issues, why most developed countries regulate it as a drug.
What Are the Public Health Risks of Relaxation Drinks?
Mainly two -- first, they're drugs with unknown or unstated ingredients with unknown effects, and second, though defined in many cases as adult only, they're marketed to teens and kids. The cross marketing is often complex -- on the website for "Lazy Cakes", melatonin and valerian based brownies that are theoretically adults only, an ad for "How Do You Stop a Raging Bull" containing a can of energy beverage Red Bull brings you immediately to another ad for relaxation drink "Unwind." The implication is that the already deeply rest deprived teenage population who use caffeine to keep themselves going can rapidly "come down" through relaxation drinks. That this "up down trap" soon leads to simultaneously wired and sleepy youngsters who won't learn well and more quickly get fat is just beginning the rounds of public consciousness. Perhaps renaming energy beverages as "Anti-Relaxation drinks" and relaxation beverages as "Anti-Energy drinks" might help people see what they actually provide.
Will There Be Moves to Regulate Relaxation Drinks?
Despite the fears of scientists and clinicians, the companies profess little concern -- the legal loophole of "herbals" allowing drugs to be marketed as safe foods is presently big enough for an Imperial Roman Army all carrying valerian to march right through. Unless court cases explode and bodies counts tote up, don't expect many attempts to control relaxation drinks -- though listing precisely everything that's in them would be very helpful -- people need to know what they put in their mouths. And though many taste pleasant, they are expensive, costing two to four dollars for pennies worth of ingredients.
What Are Alternatives to Relaxation Drinks?
The active ingredients that may work -- like valerian or tryptophan or melatonin -- are available for those who want them over the counter at far cheapter rates than these "anti-energy" drinks.
And fortunately there are thousands of natural ways to relax that are free, effective, and available right now. One of my favorites is paradoxical relaxation.
Try this -- focus on a muscle in your head or neck that feels more tight than the one next to it. Don't relax that muscle, don't tighten it, just feel it -- notice it, sense it, and pay total attention to it for 10-30 seconds. Put all your attention to feeling the difference in muscle tension between one muscle and the one next to it.
Next -- repeat with another muscle group anywhere in your body.
Paradoxical relation does take practice but once up and running, you can use it anytime and anywhere -- on lunchlines, standing before a TSA employee at your favorite airport, or when taking an exam. It's quick, doesn't cost anything except attention, and you forgo finding an aluminum recycling bin for that four dollar can of "relaxation."
So pat yourself on the back -- you'll go green and relax at the same time -- for free.
Follow Matthew Edlund, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/therestdoctor