By Dr. Tasneem Bhatia Integrative Health Expert Medical Director, Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine Author, What Doctors Eat Contributing Editor, Prevention
We are an anxious society. In my busy practice, many of the complaints from my patients are ultimately rooted in stress, hectic lifestyles, and limited time for relaxation. I am often asked for a prescription or supplement or any other quick remedy to help with anxiety and relaxation. The increasing popularity of relaxation drinks are a sign of this trend. Emerging on the market just a few years ago, sales of relaxation drinks are now a $100 million industry.
Relaxation drinks or "anti-energy drinks,” are drinks containing a blend of many herbs, supplements, botanicals and amino acids that have been previously used individually as calming agents. Relaxation drinks are a first attempt to blend these ingredients in a liquid form and then both package and market these drinks as "on-the-go" stress solutions.
The idea of drinking away your stress is not new. The most well-known relaxation drink may be alcohol, with many stressed professionals looking forward to the daily nightcap or wine with dinner. If we look further back in history, the revered tradition of drinking tea, or teatime, was an opportunity for relaxation. This tradition dates back thousands of years in East Asia, copied and brought to the West by the British Empire. We know now that tea contains theanine, an anti-anxiety ingredient.
The relaxation drinks currently on the market contain a variety of ingredients. The five most common ingredients are valerian root, theanine, GABA, 5-HTP and melatonin. Each of these has been used in anxiety management and some are even used to aid sleep. Valerian root, for example, is an herb that has been used to correct insomnia. It also reduces nervousness and anxiety. Theanine, as mentioned, is found naturally in black tea, and helps produce relaxing brain waves to relieve anxiety. GABA is a neurotransmitter and increases tranquility. Finally, melatonin has been widely used to help patients fall asleep and improve REM sleep.
The controversy over relaxation drinks stems from really not knowing how well these drinks work to induce relaxation. There are no formal studies detailing their efficacy, but anecdotally, patients and consumers report that they do notice feeling more "relaxed" or calm. Relaxation is subjective, but objective measurements would include a lowered heart rate, lower respiratory rate and decreased blood pressure. Relaxation drinks have been shown to induce this response within 30 minutes to an hour of ingestion. The effect may last a few hours.
Many also question whether the ingredients in relaxation drinks can work in a liquid and blended form. The amino acid 5-HTP, for example, may decompose in a liquid. There is concern that the amount of the ingredients touted for relaxation may not be sufficient. A popular relaxation drink contained only 0.7 mg of theanine; theanine is typically effective in doses of 200 mg or higher. There may also be too much of a particular ingredient. Melatonin doses should begin at 1 mg for most people, while many of these drinks can contain 3 to 5 mg of melatonin.
As with other older relaxation drinks (alcohol and tea), dependency is another concern. There are some reports that consumers are starting to use these drinks to get a "buzz" or temporary high. In an age where everyone seems to want to take something, are relaxation drinks going to serve as the next gateway for taking other medications and supplements?
Given the controversy, there are ways to use relaxation drinks safely and effectively.
Step 1: Check the Label
Learning to read and decipher labels is an important skill when buying any product, especially relaxation drinks. On the label, the ingredients should be listed. The amounts of each particular ingredient should also be listed. Failure to see this information is a red flag. Pay attention to the serving size listed on the bottle. The drink may have multiple servings, which means it may be easy to overdose if you drink the entire bottle. Also check the label for sugar content. Picking drinks with less sugar lessens the caloric load and prevents the interactions of excess sugar with ingredients meant for relaxation.
Step 2: Don't Drink and Drive
Relaxation drinks should not be taken while driving or operating complicated machinery. Since it is difficult for the consumer to know the exact effects that each ingredient may have physiologically, it is best to avoid these drinks when doing anything that takes concentration and focus.
Step 3: Don't Be a Mixer
Many of these drinks have ingredients in addition to those listed on the bottle. Herbs and supplements can interact with medications, so check with your doctor to make sure that there will be no negative interactions. Do not mix your relaxation drink with alcohol; we don't know how this will affect each person individually.
The advantages of these drinks are that they are now widely available online and in health food stores, grocery stores and gas stations. There are approximately 300 different flavors and sizes. The drinks are convenient and inexpensive.
As with anything that is new to the market, trying a relaxation drink may be a safe and effective way to "relax" if certain precautions are followed. Relaxation drinks may be able to offer that first step in slowing down our racing minds. True healing and health, however, comes when there are blocked and scheduled times for recovery from stress. Find your relaxation strategy as a step toward better health.