The Truth About 'Relaxation' Drinks

PHOTO: Unwind beverages are the ultimate relaxation aid.
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To unwind, perchance to sleep... In our frazzled world, these seem to be elusive goals. Now manufacturers are trying to cash in on our need to relax, and the market is anything but sluggish. More than 350 varieties of so-called relaxation drinks have hit the shelves, with revenues expected to reach $73 million this year.

But do they work? Prevention investigated and found some unpleasant surprises with these "serenity sips." Because they're not FDA regulated and many labels cite a proprietary blend, a buyer has no idea how much of each active ingredient--melatonin, valerian, L-theanine, and others--is actually captured in the can or bottle. There's also limited research on how these relaxants interact with one another. Nor are they all shelf stable: Some of these compounds degrade in liquid.

We sent five popular brands (two samples of each) to chemistry professor Joe Vinson, PhD, at the University of Scranton for analysis. He found that the amounts of active ingredients often differed from batch to batch. Even more shocking: In testing, some of the ingredients were barely present. Our advice? Save yourself the $3 (the average price per bottle).

Unwind

"Ultimate Relaxation"

Our testing detected about half of the listed 3 mg of melatonin. (The hormone degrades up to 30% a month in liquids.) Even that much may be overdoing it. Dr. Weil says that 0.25 to 0.3 mg may produce a more natural sleep cycle.

MiniChill

"Dr. formulated to make you feel calm, focused, and happy"

The lab tests showed that this drink had only 0.7 mg of L-theanine, nowhere near the 200 mg dose that's proven effective. Instead, try gyokoru green tea for your L-theanine fix.

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RelaxZen

"Promotes sleep, wake refreshed, reduce stress"

This "sleepy" blend claims to include valerian, but we couldn't detect any of the active acid compound. That may be a good thing: Dr. Weil doesn't recommend taking it regularly, as it can cause dependency.

Dream Water

"Drink to dream"

This 2.5-ounce shot touts 5-HTP on the label. The amino acid decomposes in liquid, so it's not surprising we didn't detect any in our samples. As for the neurotransmitter GABA, we found only 0.3 mg in a serving--insufficient for any relaxing effects.

Mary Jane's Relaxing Soda

"Enjoy euphoric relaxation that's all natural, plain and simple"

Kava, the only relaxant in this cola, is controversial: The FDA warns of potential liver damage from kava products. Dr. Weil recommends avoiding the herb in any form if you have liver problems, drink alcohol regularly, or just took acetaminophen (Tylenol).

Bliss In A Bottle?

We asked Dr. Andrew Weil director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, to help explain the effects of the relaxing ingredients found in some of these beverages.

MELATONIN is a naturally occurring hormone that helps regulate your sleep cycle by sending the message to your brain that it's time for bed.

VALERIAN ROOT has been used throughout history as a sleep aid, but some research suggests that its ability to calm may be chalked up to a placebo effect.

L-THEANINE, an amino acid, has been shown in studies to produce relaxing alpha waves in the brain.

KAVA, an herb, has been used as a ceremonial drink in the Pacific Islands for centuries because of its mellowing effect on mood.

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