Once upon a time—July—I could sink easily and immediately into eight hours of sleep. I listened smugly as friends and co-workers complained of their Tylenol-PM addictions. Then I moved from a quiet, tucked-away corner of New York City—yes, such a place exists—to a street-level apartment not far from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. I developed an irrational fear of bedbugs, began fretting more about work, and passed a birthday that seemed to mark the expiration date for my once-reliable ability to fall asleep shortly after guzzling coffee. Traditional sleeping pills seemed too extreme, even the over-the-counter kind; I just needed to calm down a bit. So when I heard about a new category of drinks called “relaxation beverages”—essentially, the inverse of Red Bull—I decided to test out a few. I even saw some romance in the idea—after all, Rip van Winkle didn’t drowse off after an Ambien or two. Medea didn’t lug a really excellent SoundSpa relaxation machine with her when she and Jason were going after that golden fleece. Harry Potter didn’t nosh on a tryptophan-heavy meal after he saw Lord Voldemort. A sleeping potion, as I began to think of these liquids, seemed the way to fix my problem with panache.
My experiment wasn’t scientifically rigorous (pretty sure I laid the groundwork for that disclaimer the moment I dropped the phrase “sleeping potion”), but it was, at least, consistent. I tried each beverage once at the same time of night (about an hour before my 11:30 bedtime), got a similar amount of exercise each day, and set my alarm for the same time the next morning—the stuff of fairy tales.
First I tried a control, of sorts, the classic warm-milk-and-honey sleep aid. I hadn’t sampled the combination in years—still delicious, though a little too sweet—and it sat heavily in my stomach. I did feel a little calmer, and ended up falling asleep not long after my head hit the pillow. But it wasn’t a clean KO; I woke up around 1 a.m. for a 20-minute bout of fretting. Slightly better than usual, but not exactly the promised land.
Then I began the experiment in earnest. Some of you higher-minded Slate readers will be familiar with “purple drank,” a homemade beverage of codeine-based cough syrup, sweet soda, and Jolly Ranchers that looms large in the mythology of Southern rap; bards sing its praises at every chance. Drank was conceived as a completely legal, risk-free version of the homemade beverage. It’s marketed to the hip-hop sympathetic (its slogan: “Slow your roll“), and comes in a purple ombre tallboy can that’s 220 calories’ worth of relaxation. The soda is made mostly of corn syrup, with active ingredients valerian root, rose hip, and melatonin. Valerian, a common herbal remedy for anxiety and depression, is often listed as the key element in relaxation beverages. * It’s generally thought to be safe, and while its efficacy hasn’t been fully established, the American Academy of Family Physicians says it’s probably more useful in moderating sleep if used regularly to help establish patterns rather than as a one-off.
Melatonin is a different story. I chatted with Charles Czeisler, director of the Division of Sleep at Harvard Medical School, who explained that melatonin is key to the natural sleep cycle—it’s what cues your body to stay up or shut down. The amounts in popular relaxation beverages (1 milligram in the case of Drank) are many times greater than what occurs in biology. Not only will a melatonin injection interrupt and alter your body’s natural cycle, but if you slow your roll (not Czeisler’s precise words, I’ll admit) at midday, you could easily get into an accident, since the soporific effect is quite strong. Czeisler also cautioned against the practice of putting melatonin in beverages: It tricks consumers into thinking they’re using something fundamentally different from a sleeping pill, which isn’t necessarily true. And since the drug division of the FDA doesn’t regulate beverages, there’s no ready way to know whether there’s really 1 mg, 0 mg, or a dangerous amount of melatonin in your drink. Czeisler also mentioned a frightening study involving the sterilizing effects of melatonin on hamsters—the kind of stuff that keeps you up at night.
Still, when I drank Drank, I slept the happy sleep of the corn-syrup-coma’d, the melatonin-addled. Not only did I nod off almost immediately; I also missed my alarm by a whole hour the next morning. But even if Drank succeeded in getting me to conk out, I didn’t exactly feel relaxed in the lead-up to bedtime—more like dulled and a little queasy. The gustatory experience wasn’t exactly a pleasurable one, either. Drank was, frankly, foul—think even-sweeter-than-normal grape soda.
The nextbeverage I tried, iChill, is marketed as a zero-calorie “shot,” and comes in a bottle that looks an awful lot like Five-Hour Energy’s, only blue. I’ve racked my brain fruitlessly trying to think of a brand name that is more smarmily of our era than iChill, which conjures Steve Jobs and Jack Johnson hanging out on some Jersey beach together. I ended up taking iChill twice under more prosaic circumstances, once in the afternoon after a box of it arrived for me in my office and my cubicle-mates peer-pressured me into sampling it, and again before bedtime to “unwind from the grind,” per its slogan.
Downing a shot of something stiffer would have been less debilitating to my work than that afternoon iChill; within an hour, I was utterly drained and ineffective. Coffee did nothing—it couldn’t wake me up, or counteract iChill’s disgusting “blissful berry flavor”. At night, on the other hand, iChill had no discernible effect. Perhaps that makes sense: iChill contains a whopping 5 mg of melatonin, hundreds of times the natural dose, and as Dr. Czeisler pointed out, supplemental melatonin is far more likely to be effective if it’s taken at a time when your body isn’t already producing the substance—the afternoon—than at bedtime.
The anti-Red Bull, Slow Cow, also calorie-free, has the aforementioned valerian (75 mg of it) in addition to a grab-bag of wholesome sounding ingredients: chamomile, passiflore, hops, and linden. I expected something creamy, given the dairy reference, but instead, I got the now-familiar soda/medicine mash-up. Slow Cow tastes like carbonated strawberry bubble gum or, as that taste is also known, “impending tooth decay.” While feeling anxious about future dental bills, I did a few chores, replied to e-mails, Googled bedbugs versus lint, and fell asleep no more quickly or slowly than usual; I suppose the beverage didn’t underdeliver on its promise for a slow evening.
Next was Mary Jane’s, a cola-esque soda that comes in a stylish bottle winkingly inviting you to “enjoy a euphoric relaxation that’s all natural, plain and simple.” Unlike other beverages in this category, it doesn’t explicitly mention sleep in its marketing materials but, rather, advertises itself for stressful yet functionality-requiring situations that run the gamut from public speaking, first dates, and job interviews to more endemic stressors such as deadbeat boyfriends and lousy girlfriends. (“How being semi-comatose will improve your relationship and help you fulfill all your ambitions” seems poised to be its next ad campaign.) The promo copy also notes helpfully that “Some have also compared the effects to marijuana (hence the name, Mary Jane) however, there are no side-effects such as laziness, 2 am pizza runs, black light posters, or handcuffs.” The beverage features herbal extracts that actually have nothing to do with the name, including passionflower and kava—a rather mysterious plant that’s used as a traditional ceremonial beverage in the Pacific Islands and is said to produce feelings of bliss. (Slate shopper emeritus Seth Stevenson once tested kava alongside other over-the-counter mood-enhancers.)
I blazed my way through the bottle, the taste of which wasn’t totally disgusting, and I did feel a little tipsy, if not quite high or blissful. (I did start the paranoidish undertaking of logging every yawn. 10:33, 10:46, 10:51 …) After 30 minutes or so my fog lifted and I fell asleep—though far later than I’d hoped. Mary Jane’s claims seem to be mostly puff or fluff. Pass.
I doubt I’ll try any of these beverages again. (If I were in desperate need of a quick sleep at an unusual time, I might reach for iChill, but I wouldn’t feel good about it.) The whole situation—drinking a beverage I didn’t enjoy that became the whole focus of my night, constantly monitoring myself for any signs of a change in wakefulness or mood—reminded me of nothing so much as my first forays into booze via Mike’s Hard Lemonade on long ago unenchanted evenings.
I probably did sleep more readily than usual throughout the whole test, but I’m convinced that’s perhaps 10 percent the beverages, 30 percent the placebo effect, and 60 percent because this experiment forced me into a routine—something sleep experts always recommend. The real problem with these beverages is that they’re unregulated by the FDA, which makes me uneasy—and anxiety is the very reason I reached for “relaxation drinks” in the first place.
Correction, Nov. 2, 2010: This article originally referred to valerian as a homeopathic remedy. Return to the corrected sentence.