Herbal 'Relaxation' Drinks Make Suspect Claims

Originally published on June 6, 2011 3:36 pm

Caffeine-laden drinks and herbal pick-me-ups now keep many of us going through the day and well into the night. But what happens when it's time to relax, unwind and even go to sleep? Older insomniacs may reach for a glass of wine, warm milk or some chamomile tea. But the new relaxation rage is soda and brownies.

"Relaxation drinks are sort of the initial backlash to the energy drink craze. If I'm nervous or if I am having a bad day, I can just crack open a Mary Jane's instead," says Eric Shogren.

Shogren is the man behind the California-based Relaxing Company, maker of Mary Jane's relaxing soda. The soda is one of a handful of new herbal products aimed at chilling out today's stressed-out consumer. If you're hyped up on too much caffeine, jet-lagged, or work has you tense and anxious, manufacturers claim their drinks can calm you down or help you fall asleep.

Herbs That Aim To 'Take The Edge Off'

The name Mary Jane's, he explains, is a playful nod toward marijuana, but the soda actually contains passion flower extract and kava-kava — two legal herbal products the company claims have been shown to relax people and reduce anxiety.

"Our products aren't meant to make people tired or sleepy, it just kind of takes the edge off a little bit if you're nervous or stressed out," says Shogren.

Soft drinks, waters and brownies containing herbal supplements like passion flower, kava, valerian root, rose hips, melatonin, and GABA are hitting shelves across the country.

With catchy phrases like "unwind from the grind," "slow your roll," and "tired of being wired?" these products claim to be the perfect antidote to a hectic lifestyle. In the words of one advertisement it's "safer than a glass of warm milk and more effective than counting sheep."

Taking Straight Herbs Vs. Drinking Products With Herbs

And with cool names like iChill, Dream Water and Lazy Cakes they are becoming increasingly popular — especially among teens and young adults.

The research on most of these herbal supplements is spotty and inconclusive, explains Brent Bauer of the Mayo Clinic's Complementary and Integrative Medicine program. Since herbs can't be patented, and the FDA doesn't require companies to prove their claims with research or even standardize their ingredients, there is no financial or legal incentive for them to do extensive science on their products.

But even where there is good evidence the herbs themselves do what the companies claim, such as in the case of kava, explains Bauer, that's not necessarily the case once they have been baked or added to a soda.

"So there is no question kava as a drink by itself can work — the question is can we take that information and then take a very small amount of that, put it into a drink and see the same benefits. And I think this is where the science gets a little thin," Bauer says.

There is no definitive scientific evidence that any of the products on the market create relaxation or induce sleep, but there's no evidence they don't either. And what works for one person may not work for another — or be safe.

"When you look at it very simplistically and think we can just dump things in a drink and then give it to many, many different people without respect to their personal condition, their own health issues, what medications they are taking, I think we've made a dangerous jump," says Bauer.

What is perhaps more worrisome than an ineffective product, say experts, is an effective one. It's important that consumers realize any substance powerful enough to have real effects also carries real risks.

Caution Around Melatonin

Because they are packaged like food, some worry that consumers are more likely to treat them like food — not medicine. Ziad Shaman of Metro Health Medical Center in Cleveland says that's certainly the case for melatonin, a hormone produced naturally in the body.

"It is a drug — and I am repeating this — it is a drug. Just because it looks like a brownie doesn't mean it's just a brownie," says Shaman.

Shaman prescribes melatonin to patients in his sleep clinic, and says it can be very effective. But he also cautions that it can have a host of side effects, shouldn't be used while driving, and can even be dangerous in children. Most experts say children should not consume these products unless a doctor approves them.

But melatonin and other herbal supplements have been available in pill form for decades, so why is adding them to food and drinks suddenly all the rage? Shaman says putting the herbs in sodas and brownies automatically targets them at teens and young adults, who are more likely to be up late and have poor sleeping habits. Bauer says marketing them as natural and healthful alternatives to other drugs adds to the appeal.

"I think there is always this societal interest in trying to find something where we can get it for free. In other words, we want to find that nice herb that gives us an altered sense of reality but has no consequences and so I think that's where some of this advertising is coming from," says Bauer.

Experts argue that although the drinks may be cool, when it comes to your health, good nutrition, exercise, proper sleep habits and stress management techniques are going to be more effective and have longer lasting results than herbal supplements in any form.

And as for that cup of chamomile tea? Feel free to indulge. It's perfectly safe says Shaman, who admits he occasionally enjoys a cup himself. But there's no scientific evidence it will make you sleepy either.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

OK, if you're amped up on too much caffeine, awake after working the night shift, or just a little anxious, there's a whole slew of new products aimed at you - new foods and beverages that are claiming to help people relax. Reporter Gretchen Cuda-Kroen takes a look at what these foods and what the experts think they do to us.

GRETCHEN CUDA: Caffeine-laden drinks and herbal pick-me-ups now keep many of us going throughout the day and well into the night. But what happens when it's time to relax, unwind, and even go to sleep? More mature insomniacs may reach for a glass of wine or some chamomile tea. But that's not the choice of the teen to 25 crowd. For them the new rage is soft drinks.

MONTAGNE: Relaxation drinks are kind of the initial backlash to the energy drink craze. If I'm nervous or if I've been having a bad day, I can just crack open a Mary Jane's instead.

CUDA: That's Eric Shogren. He's the man behind the California-based Relaxing Company, maker of Mary Jane's relaxing soda. The soda is one of a handful of new herbal products aimed at the stressed-out consumer. The name, he says, is a playful nod toward marijuana, but the soda actually contains passion flower extract and kava-kava - two legal herbal products he says have been shown to relax people and reduce anxiety.

MONTAGNE: Our products aren't meant to make people tired or sleepy, it just kind of takes the edge off a little bit. If you're nervous or stressed out, you know, it'll just kind of take that edge off.

CUDA: But the research on most of these herbal supplements is spotty, explains Brent Bauer of the Mayo Clinic's Complementary and Integrative Medicine program. And even where there is good evidence that the herbs themselves do what the companies claim, once they've been baked or added to a soda, it's not clear what effect they have.

CUDA: So there is no question kava as a drink by itself can work - the question is can we take that information and then take a very small amount of that, put it in a drink and see the same benefits. And I think this is where the science gets a little thin.

CUDA: Ziad Shaman of MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland says that's certainly the case for melatonin.

CUDA: It is a drug - and I am repeating this - it is a drug. And just because it looks like a brownie doesn't mean it's just a brownie.

CUDA: Shaman prescribes melatonin to patients in his sleep clinic, and says it can be very effective. But he also cautions that it can have a host of side effects and shouldn't be used while driving. And most experts say not to use these products with children without a doctor's approval. But melatonin and other herbal supplements have been available in pill form for decades, so why is adding them to food and drinks suddenly all the rage? Dr. Shaman says putting the herbs in sodas and brownies automatically targets them at teens and young adults, who are more likely to be up late and have poor sleeping habits. And Mayo's Brent Bauer says marketing them as natural alternatives to medicines adds to the appeal.

CUDA: I think there's always this societal interest in trying to find something where we can get it for free. You know, in other words, we want to find that nice herb that gives us an altered sense of reality but has no consequences, and so I think that's where some of this advertising is coming at.

CUDA: For NPR News, I'm Gretchen Cuda-Kroen in Cleveland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.