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Relaxation drinks edge into an amped-up beverage market

By Sarah B. Weir 

(Photo: amanaimagesRF/Getty Images)

(Photo: amanaimagesRF/Getty Images)

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What goes up, must come down. After the multi-billion dollar success of energy drinks such as Red Bull and Rockstar, it was inevitable someone would try to carve out a mellow new corner of the "functional beverage" market (which also includes sports drinks, vitamin supplement waters and juices, and ready-to-drink teas).

Non-alcoholic drinks that supposedly promote relaxation are sometimes called "downer drinks" by fans. Critics say that some of these products are promoted as if they mimic the effects of illegal drugs. With names like "Mary Jane" (a winking reference to marijuana) and "Drank," which is suspiciously close to "Purple Drank," slang for a street mix of codeine cough syrup, hard candies, and soda, it's hard to disagree. Milder brand names include Dream Water and the Canadian brand, Slow Cow (which has consciously positioned itself as an antidote to Red Bull).

Branding aside, do relaxation drinks even take the edge off? And, if so, are the ingredients safe for general consumption?

The main active ingredients in relaxation drinks are herbal supplements, amino acids, and hormones. The U.S. National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health offers the following information on the most common ingredients:

Kava root

There is some scientific evidence that kava, a plant that comes from islands in the South Pacific, has an anti-anxiety effect. However, it is banned in a number of countries because it has been linked to serious liver problems and even death.


Some research has shown valerian, an herb, to be a useful and safe sleep aid when taken in the correct dose over the short term. It has not been proven to be an effective anti-anxiety supplement.


Extract of passionflower, a plant originally discovered in Peru, is considered safe taken in small doses over the short term. It is not recommended for long-term use and can have some unpleasant side effects such as dizziness and vomiting. There is some evidence to show it is effective in countering anxiety.


Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep and is used in treating sleep disorders and jet lag. While unregulated by the FDA, it is a powerful substance and should only be taken with the guidance of a health care professional.


This amino acid is derived from green tea. Some research shows that it has a calming effect and also shortens the duration it takes to fall asleep. It is considered safe for adult consumption.

Use relaxation drinks with caution

Although most of these substances are considered generally safe for consumption, companies producing relaxation drinks are unregulated and may not be using appropriate doses or standards.

As with energy drinks, by classifying their products as "dietary supplements," relaxation beverage makers avoid the restrictions placed on soda and medicine — both of which are regulated by the FDA. It is nearly impossible to determine if a serving is providing a safe and/or effective amount of an active ingredient that, despite being "natural," can operate like a drug in the body.

While some of these drinks may indeed have a calming or tranquillizing effect, there are a lot of unknowns, and consumers should be aware of possible health risks — especially if combined with medications or other mood altering beverages such as energy drinks or alcohol. The Mayo Clinic recommends that pregnant women and children should not consume them at all.


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