RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
OK, if you're amped up on too much caffeine, awake after working the night shift, or just a little anxious, there's a whole slew of new products aimed at you - new foods and beverages that are claiming to help people relax. Reporter Gretchen Cuda-Kroen takes a look at what these foods and what the experts think they do to us.
GRETCHEN CUDA-KROEN: Caffeine-laden drinks and herbal pick-me-ups now keep many of us going throughout the day and well into the night. But what happens when it's time to relax, unwind, and even go to sleep? More mature insomniacs may reach for a glass of wine or some chamomile tea. But that's not the choice of the teen to 25 crowd. For them the new rage is soft drinks.
Mr. ERIC SHOGREN (Relaxing Company): Relaxation drinks are kind of the initial backlash to the energy drink craze. If I'm nervous or if I've been having a bad day, I can just crack open a Mary Jane's instead.
CUDA-KROEN: That's Eric Shogren. He's the man behind the California-based Relaxing Company, maker of Mary Jane's relaxing soda. The soda is one of a handful of new herbal products aimed at the stressed-out consumer. The name, he says, is a playful nod toward marijuana, but the soda actually contains passion flower extract and kava-kava - two legal herbal products he says have been shown to relax people and reduce anxiety.
Mr. SHOGREN: Our products aren't meant to make people tired or sleepy, it just kind of takes the edge off a little bit. If you're nervous or stressed out, you know, it'll just kind of take that edge off.
CUDA-KROEN: Soft drinks, waters and even brownies containing herbal supplements like passion flower, kava, valerian root, rose hips, melatonin, and GABA, are hitting shelves across the country. These food products claim to be the perfect antidote to a hectic lifestyle, by causing relaxation or inducing sleep safely and naturally. And with cool names like iChill, Dream Water and Lazy Cakes, they're becoming increasingly popular.
But the research on most of these herbal supplements is spotty, explains Brent Bauer of the Mayo Clinic's Complementary and Integrative Medicine program. And even where there is good evidence that the herbs themselves do what the companies claim, once they've been baked or added to a soda, it's not clear what effect they have.
Dr. BRENT BAUER (Director, Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program, Mayo Clinic): So there is no question kava as a drink by itself can work - the question is can we take that information and then take a very small amount of that, put it in a drink and see the same benefits. And I think this is where the science gets a little thin.
CUDA-KROEN: The FDA doesn't regulate supplements so companies don't need to prove their claims with research, or even standardize their products - so it's impossible to say with certainty whether or not they work. But Bauer says if there is an effect, then there is also a risk. And because they're packaged like food, consumers are likely to treat them like food - not medicine.
Ziad Shaman of MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland says that's certainly the case for melatonin.
Dr. ZIAD SHAMAN (MetroHealth Medical Center): It is a drug - and I am repeating this - it is a drug. And just because it looks like a brownie doesn't mean it's just a brownie.
CUDA-KROEN: Shaman prescribes melatonin to patients in his sleep clinic, and says it can be very effective. But he also cautions that it can have a host of side effects and shouldn't be used while driving. And most experts say not to use these products with children without a doctor's approval. But melatonin and other herbal supplements have been available in pill form for decades, so why is adding them to food and drinks suddenly all the rage? Dr. Shaman says putting the herbs in sodas and brownies automatically targets them at teens and young adults, who are more likely to be up late and have poor sleeping habits. And Mayo's Brent Bauer says marketing them as natural alternatives to medicines adds to the appeal.
Dr. BAUER: I think there's always this societal interest in trying to find something where we can get it for free. You know, in other words, we want to find that nice herb that gives us an altered sense of reality but has no consequences, and so I think that's where some of this advertising is coming at.
CUDA-KROEN: Experts argue that although the drinks may be cool, when it comes to your health, good nutrition, exercise, proper sleep and stress management techniques are going to be more effective at helping you relax and will have longer lasting results than herbal supplements in any form.
And as for that cup of chamomile tea? Feel free to indulge. It's perfectly safe, though there's no scientific evidence it will make you sleepy either.
For NPR News, I'm Gretchen Cuda-Kroen in Cleveland.