Taking a dip in the new business of relaxation
After a long day, we all want to slow our heart rate and breathing, loosen our muscles, and lower our blood pressure. We want to calm the mind and body, decreasing tension. We want to interrupt our stress hormonal cascade, ultimately reducing our own hostility. We want to kick back and activate our parasympathetic nervous system.
You know, relax.
That might mean yoga or a massage. Maybe we turn on gentle classical music or looping rainfall through our speakers. Maybe we take slow breaths or turn our fingers to prunes in the bath. But if some entrepreneurs have their way, it’ll mean cracking open a can.
These relaxation drinks aren’t uniform in form or taste, but they all make promises. Some offer sleep, others promote better focus and creativity. They are healthy and calming, at least according to their marketing.
The idea seems to be that there’s plenty of stress that doesn’t quite hit the psychiatric level — and so these drinks exist for your subclinical anxiety needs. It seems like big business, given the rather crowded marketplace, which includes such brands as Tranquini, Just Chill, Drank, and Marley’s Mellow Mood. Pepsi will be getting into the market shortly, with its Driftwell beverage, which became available online in December.
So I decided to make a journey to the heart of relaxation. I wanted to see if I could overdose on it.
I’m not going to tell you these drinks work because there’s no evidence they do. I’m also not going to tell you they’re bullshit because there’s no evidence there either. Most of these products incorporate multiple ingredients that have more evidence when studied alone — but like, not enough.
Pepsi, like most major corporations, doesn’t take big risks, so I figured the components of its Driftwell beverage would be a good place to start. Pepsi chose to use l-theanine, a workhorse ingredient in relaxation drinks. Some small studies found that l-theanine may reduce stress, induce relaxation, and make it easier for people to get to sleep. Chanaka Kahathuduwa, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University, is responsible for several studies on the amino acid, both alone and combined with caffeine. Kahathuduwa found that l-theanine had an effect, though it appeared to be subtle. “I don’t think it’s equivalent to the current medications in use,” he tells me.
Another common ingredient, also found in Driftwell, is magnesium. While some studies suggest that magnesium may help people with anxiety, the quality of evidence is poor, according to a recent review article.
For the companies that are more adventurous than Pepsi, there are other ingredients, like melatonin and CBD. Melatonin, which you’ve probably heard of, is a version of a hormone we all naturally make. It’s a widely used sleep aid, even though its uses are limited, and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine doesn’t recommend it as a treatment for insomnia. It shows up in Som Sleep, Dream Water, and Kin Dream Light.
And then there’s CBD, arguably the bad-boy ingredient. There are a few early studies that show it may be useful for anxiety. However, it’s not, strictly speaking, legal to sell CBD as a dietary supplement, per the Food and Drug Administration. It’s also not legal to sell foods or drinks to which CBD has been added. Given the number of these beverages on the market, though, I suspect this prohibition is not being heavily enforced.
There’s one other thing that isn’t really listed on any of these labels. All of these concoctions are meant to make you relaxed or sleepy, which are subjective responses. That means we have the good ol’ placebo effect in play; on some level, these drinks don’t actually need to do anything because if you anticipate them making you relax, you might just relax anyway. And the stronger your anticipation is, the stronger the placebo effect will be.
So in some sense, a key ingredient for all of these drinks is marketing.
Faced with relatively scant scientific literature, I decide to self-experiment. Like pretty much everyone else who will show up in this story, I can charitably be described as “tightly wound.” Part of the reason relaxation drinks appeal to me is because, at the best of times, I’m wired and tense, and these are not the best of times. Plus, I already self-medicate with beverages — what else would coffee be for?
So I drop about $100 on drinks that promise to unwind me. Most of them have a distinct GNC vibe. For instance, Neuro Bliss’ packaging kind of looks enough like a bottle of water to fool people; it contains 200mg of l-theanine. I get it in the white raspberry flavor, which immediately takes me back to blue-flavored ICEEs at my hometown Kum and Go. It is, by far, my favorite flavor of all the drinks I sample.
In fact, I like the flavor so much that I wind up drinking them a couple times a day. This is definitely more than the dosage I’ve seen in any controlled study, but whatever. If I drink two in a row, I begin to feel like my brain has been wrapped in fleece. It’s not quite the same as feeling relaxed, but I do notice I’m less likely to lose my temper.
I also seem to accomplish less. In fact, one of the things I come to muzzily realize while my brain is wearing its LL Bean Wicked Good slippers is that my capacity for work is directly tied to my ability to be focused but not relaxed.
This doesn’t stop me from moving on to Zenify — which contains 350 mg of l-theanine and GABA as well as 350mg of glycine, another amino acid. The drink kind of looks like bizarro Red Bull. I am trying to think of how to describe its taste, but besides “sweetened chemicals,” I’m drawing a blank. Because I don’t much care for the flavor, I wind up gulping down Zenify pretty quickly, which results in some genuinely monstrous burps.
As part of my self-experiment, I decide to watch one of the 2020 presidential debates. I wind up knocking back three Zenifies, two Neuro Blisses, and a Som Sleep. This does not make the debate any less excruciating, unfortunately; so when moderator Kristen Welker brings up the question of “the talk” Black families give their kids about police officers, I find I am wringing my hands — unsure what President Donald Trump will specifically respond, but after his response to Charlottesville, pretty clear on the generalities. I pound the Zenify and crack another.
By the end of the debate, I have only a dim impression of what happened and a stomachache. The stomachache lasts into the next day.
Relaxation isn’t really about the ingredients in the drink, says Benjamin Witte, the founder and CEO of Recess. I had called to ask about the science behind his product, but he brushes my questions aside. Have I seen Recess’ Instagram page, he wants to know. “Recess’s Instagram is Recess you consume with your mind,” he tells me.
The Recess you consume with your mouth contains CBD, American ginseng, l-theanine, and lemon balm. But that’s not really important. See, the ingredients I just listed are commoditized functional ingredients, Witte explains. For instance, no one markets the “caffeine category” — they’re marketing how it makes you feel. Energy drinks.
Recess’ marketing campaign, accordingly, is about feelings. Literally. “We canned a feeling,” the marketing copy reads. “Not tired, not wired. Just calm, and focused.” The cans are packaged in what appear to be jewel tones run through a pastel filter.
Witte, whose previous experience was at an early stage startup, AdRoll, has always been a stressed-out, anxious millennial, he tells me. And so he’d experimented with CBD and so-called adaptogens, which are typically plant-based and promise to help people deal with stress. (Whether they actually do that is something of an open question.) Eventually, Witte came across a combination that helped him feel more productive, more creative, less stressed out, and less anxious.
Witte knew he wasn’t the only stressed-out millennial in search of the promised calm; he also knew that the CBD he used — a grassy oil placed under the tongue — is not the best user experience. And so he came up with Recess, a line that contains millennial-approved flavors such as black cherry, pomegranate hibiscus, blood orange, and blackberry chai.
“New categories and platforms are correlated to things happening in society,” Witte says. He points to social media, in particular, as something that’s left people unsettled; Trump arguably exacerbated that unease, he says. In Witte’s view, the previous era was exemplified by Monster Energy Drink — a growth-at-all-costs mentality that was the hallmark of the go-go era of the first and second tech booms. By contrast, Recess is “a reflection of wellness, carbonated, but without sugar and calories,” Witte says. “This category is about creating products that help you deal with the world around you.”
The stress Witte talks about also has an effect on sleep, which is why the relaxation drink category also includes beverages with melatonin. Som Sleep — which contains a 357mg “proprietary blend” of l-theanine, GABA, and melatonin — isn’t really for me. None of the sleep drinks are; I don’t have problems dropping off. So I chug one in the middle of the afternoon. It does make me drowsy, but not so tired that I have to beg off work for a nap.
“I live off energy drinks,” says Abdul Khan, the co-founder and president of Som Sleep. “So my lightbulb was, why isn’t there a Red Bull for sleep?”’
Khan is capitalizing on the wellness movement also, I realize, though he’s doing it somewhat differently than Witte. A full night of sleep is actually a growth hack, a shortcut to the best version of yourself, Arianna Huffington insists. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop has a whole sleep section; it also sells books on sleeping, special pillows and sheets, and “Knock Me Out” chews. On Instagram, a man named Alex Shannon is a “sleep influencer,” who uploads gorgeous photos of himself semiconscious in very luxurious beds.
Clearly, sleep is big business. Pepsi’s Driftwell, for instance, slots into this market — part of the reason it comes in a dinky 7.5-ounce size is so you won’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to pee. (I am not making this up: “According to [Emily] Silver [vice president at Pepsi’s North American beverages unit], it’s the perfect size for hydrating before bedtime without requiring another trip to the bathroom,” CNBC reports.)
I ask about the proprietary blend — after all, dosing matters, particularly with melatonin. Som Sleep contains 3mg of melatonin, Khan tells me, but he refuses to give the rest of the breakdown. Like Recess’ Witte, Khan also comes from the tech industry; he was a VC at Crosslink Capital where he led investments in Pandora, Ancestry.com, and Omn. Som is his first physical product. After brewing it in Mason jars and sharing it with some athlete friends, he realized he was onto something when the athletes kept coming back for more.
Unlike all the other drinks I try, there’s an NSF certification on the back of the can. NSF audits supplements to determine whether they contain what they say they contain — and it also looks for substances that have been banned by athletic organizations. That makes sense since Som Sleep sells to more than 60 pro teams, including those in the NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL, according to Khan. Apparently, athletes really are just like us: dying to get a couple more hours of shut-eye.
Witte is right to point out that these beverages are products of our era; they may also be a response to a trend among younger people to drink less alcohol. After all, the original relaxation drink is booze, right?
These drinks are part of the “functional beverage” category, a way of grouping together non-boozy beverages with ingredients such as probiotics, vitamins, and so on. It’s a pretty broad category, one that includes sports drinks, energy drinks, and, of course, relaxation drinks. One marketing report pegs the functional beverage category as growing to $158 billion by 2023.
And both Khan and Witte tell me sales are up in the pandemic. According to Witte, Recess’ direct-to-consumer sales have increased fourfold since the beginning of the pandemic, mostly through subscriptions. Som Sleep sales have jumped 15 to 20 percent each month in both retail and online, Khan says. COVID-19 has increased stress and uncertainty for basically everyone. I’m not the only one who’s trying out new ways to unwind.
Six Recesses, 12 Som Sleeps, 12 Zenifies, and 12 Neuro Blisses later, I find that the relaxation drinks omit what may be their greatest appeal: they let the consumer bypass the inconvenient parts of relaxing. You can’t meditate and work simultaneously. And establishing proper sleep hygiene — the best cure for most insomnia — can take weeks of devoted work. Deleting Facebook (or Twitter or Instagram or TikTok) is probably the simplest way to remove the stressors of social media, but most of us can’t bring ourselves to do it. We can’t or won’t give up the things that stress us out, so we’ve settled for just wanting to be less stressed out by them. And if the stress keeps us up at night, well, there’s a drink for that, too.
In this sense, the relaxation drinks aren’t that different from the energy drinks that inspired them. They take the edge off so that you can keep grinding or let you sleep well so you hustle harder. You could say that’s counterproductive, but to me, it sounds like a recipe for repeat customers.