Relaxation drinks review

Our tests of iChill, Relax Drank, Dream Water, and other products suggest that many don't contain all that they claim

Consumer Reports magazine: May 2013

Illustration: William Rieser

Beverages to help you chill out are popping up in supermarkets, drugstores, and even gas stations. But labels we examined didn't usually list the amounts of their de-stressing agents. And our analysis of eight widely sold drinks showed that many didn’t have enough of those ingredients purported to help you unwind.

What we found

Among the tested products, only the iChill Relaxation Shot, Relax Drank Extreme Relaxation Shot, and ViB (Vacation in a Bottle) products showed the amounts of their relaxation ingredients; the rest just named them or listed a blend. For each product in our tests, we took samples from three batches. Results are from 2012, when we tested; some drinks have since been reformulated.

Three drinks listed GABA, a chemical that may help regulate stress and anxiety, but even at their maximum recommended daily doses, two—Dream Water 0-Calorie Sleep and Relaxation Shot and RelaxZen Night—contained far lower amounts than the daily dose of GABA used in a published study. The third drink, RelaxZen Day, had far higher amounts.

When we tested, labels for Dream Water, Marley’s Mellow Mood, and RelaxZen Night listed unspecified amounts of melatonin, a hormone that has had mixed results in treating insomnia. All three contained lower amounts than the typical 0.3-milligram to 5-milligram dose used in clinical trials to treat insomnia. Relax Drank and iChill listed amounts per serving (1 milligram and 5 milligrams, respectively), but both averaged far less than claimed (0.02 milligrams and 0.3 milligrams).

Our tests found that iChill and Relax Drank had less melatonin than their labels claimed.

Four products—Just Chill, RelaxZen Day, RelaxZen Night, and ViB—listed L-theanine, an amino acid in green-tea leaves that some evidence shows might help with relaxation and sleep. All of the products except for Just Chill listed L-threonine, an amino acid in proteins, but we found no evidence that the ingredient aids mental relaxation. Of the four, only ViB specified the amounts of both amino acids on its label, and its levels of both varied widely.

Dream Water listed 5-hydroxytryptophan, a chemical that might help raise levels of the brain chemical serotonin and have a positive effect on anxiety and sleep. But the levels averaged much lower than those used to treat sleep disorders in published studies.

Five products listed one or more botanicals, including chamomile, passion flower, and valerian. RelaxZen Day had significant levels of a compound that indicated the presence of passion-flower extract; levels of compounds in the rest suggest low or trace amounts of the claimed botanicals.

Health concerns

Some labels of tested products noted that the drink might cause drowsiness and shouldn’t be used when driving. Many indicated that the drink should be avoided by pregnant or nursing women and by children. Yet our mystery shoppers sometimes found relaxation drinks in refrigerator cases near sodas and juices. That children may have easy access to these products concerns Sylvie Stacy, M.D., whose review of the safety and efficacy of ingredients in relaxation drinks appeared in the December 2011 issue of the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology.

Our mystery shoppers found relaxation drinks near sodas and juices, even though labels often said children should avoid the drinks.

“Although moderate consumption of these beverages by healthy individuals is likely safe,” she wrote, “an objective reduction in stress is improbable and associated adverse effects are possible.” Stacy, a resident in preventive medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said she began examining safety concerns involving relaxation drinks because of recent reports of risks possibly associated with highly caffeinated energy drinks. The Food and Drug Administration has said it would conduct a safety review of energy drinks. The FDA is considering requiring that labels disclose the amount of caffeine those products pack, limitations on use, and warnings about possible adverse effects. That makes sense, because our recent investigation found that energy drinks sometimes have more caffeine than their manufacturers claim.

Our investigation into relaxation drinks has found little evidence that these products have been associated with harmful reactions. A spokesman for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said that relaxation drinks “do not contribute to emergency-department visits” or that the visits are so rare that they could not be counted.

The Food and Drug Administration said in response to our Freedom of Information Act request that it has received six adverse-event reports. (By themselves, such reports don’t prove that a product or its ingredients caused a problem.) According to the reports, a 12-year old boy became ill on Nov. 30, 2012, after drinking Marley’s Mellow Mood. He was “shaking and twitching,” but symptoms abated, according to the reports. Five other children complained of vomiting, headache, nausea, chills, and fatigue, according to the reports.

We asked a Marley’s spokesman to comment and received e-mail messages stating that the “packaging clearly states that Marley’s Mellow Mood is not intended for consumption by children,” that the company “cooperated fully with the FDA” and that Marley’s own investigation found “no issues with product quality or package integrity.” An FDA spokeswoman said the reports were still being investigated.

Bottom line

An occasional relaxation drink is probably fine for most healthy adults, but read the labels for warnings and maximum daily servings. It’s sensible for people taking supplements or medications to first consult their health-care provider about possible interactions. Then check our chart for container size, price, calories, and sugars per container, which vary widely.

Drinks we tested

We bought most of the drinks online or in stores in the New York tri-state area, Pennsylvania, and Ohio between October 2011 and August 2012 and tested at least one sample from each of three batches of a product, choosing one flavor (usually fruit).

Product Can/bottle size (fl. oz.)
Cost Calories Sugars (grams)
Dream Water 0-Calorie Sleep and Relaxation Shot
2.5  $3.00 0 0
iChill Relaxation Shot 2.0 2.25 0 0
Just Chill 8.4 2.00 50 12
Marley’s Mellow Mood* 12.0 1.75 173 44
Relax Drank Extreme Relaxation 16.0 2.25 220 54
RelaxZen Day Formula* 2.5 2.50 0 0
RelaxZen Night* 2.5 2.50 0 0
ViB (Vacation in a Bottle)
12.0 2.00 60 15
*Now sold under new names and/or formulations, or other label info has changed.

Beverage vs. supplement

Seven of the eight drinks we tested were labeled dietary supplements. The exception, ViB, bore a nutrition-facts label indicating that it was a conventional beverage. (The new Marley’s label bears a nutrition-facts label, but the samples we tested were labeled dietary supplements.) Dietary ingredients in supplements require no FDA preapproval; in conventional beverages, the same ingredients must be FDA-approved as food additives or termed “generally recognized as safe.”

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