Need to take a chill pill? Beverage makers would rather you knock back a can of calm instead.
Relaxation drinks such as Quebec-based Slow Cow, which tout the opposite effect of energy drinks, are vying for space on convenience store shelves, advertised as "an acupuncture session" in a can or an elixir to "unwind from the grind."
"People are now seeking for good and healthy drinks," Slow Cow's director of communications Keith Whitlock said in an e-mail, explaining his product contains natural ingredients such as chamomile, hops, valerian and the amino acid L-theanine that purportedly help "improve concentration, memory and learning capacity" without causing drowsiness. "We want to ease everyone's world one can at a time."
In a market dominated by jacked-up brands such as Red Bull, Monster Energy and Rockstar, laid-back labels such as Slow Cow, Ex Chill and Mary Jane's Relaxing Soda are quickly forging a competitive niche.
Slow Cow, whose name and slumped cow logo suggest a wink at rival Red Bull, has sold more than 1.2 million cans across Canada since its launch a little more than a year ago. U.S. brands such as iChill and Drank are planning to enter the Canadian market as well. Drank's creator Peter Bianchi said he anticipated his product would be distributed in Canada within weeks.
Some health experts, however, are skeptical of these new drinks, voicing doubts of their efficacy and warning of potential heath risks.
Sold for $2 to $3 a can or in shot-sized bottles, many relaxation drinks include the hormone melatonin, valerian root and L-theanine, commonly found in tea, as active ingredients.
All are believed to encourage relaxation, reduce stress and improve the quality of sleep.
Mr. Bianchi said he drinks about three 16-ounce cans of Drank a day and compares the feeling to putting on a cozy pair of pyjamas and kicking back in his favourite leather recliner.
"You just have that nice comfortable feeling of home and being relaxed. That's what I equate the feeling to be," he said.
While some beverage makers initially anticipated their key market demographic would be teenagers and young adults, they soon found working parents and frazzled professionals were also snapping up the products.
"We definitely saw … a correlation as the economic crisis deepened, people's sleeping troubles increased," iChill marketing director Brian Oberkirch said.
At the same time, people are looking for more natural remedies to their insomnia and anxiety that still allow them to function well, he said.
Mr. Oberkirch compared taking iChill to unwind with having alcoholic beverages at cocktail hour. Only, he said, "alcohol – not only does it not help you sleep as well … the next day, you don't feel as well. You don't feel refreshed."
Mr. Oberkirch said iChill is not recommended for children younger than 13, nor should people exceed the recommended limit of two bottles a day. Users should also avoid driving because the product can make people sleepy, he said. Similarly, Mr. Whitlock said Slow Cow is not recommended for people operating heavy machinery and pregnant women. But otherwise, he said, "there are no caveats [to] drinking too much Slow Cow."
But the safety and usefulness of relaxation drinks is debated among health professionals.
According to Health Canada, this new category of beverages should be regulated as natural health products in Canada because of their ingredients and intent, but it noted Slow Cow, Drank and iChill have not yet been licensed for sale as such.
For confidentiality reasons, Health Canada would not say whether it was assessing these products for market authorization.
Naturopathic doctor Caleb Ng of South Surrey, B.C., said relaxation drinks are generally safer than stimulant drinks, which can trigger panic attacks or heart problems in some individuals.
The doses of natural remedies in most relaxation drinks are much lower than what naturopathic practitioners use, so they pose little health risk, Mr. Ng said.
While the effects would vary between individuals, Mr. Ng, said many people would likely feel some relaxation.
But Meghan Walker, a naturopathic doctor, co-founder and clinic director of Toronto's Integrative Health Institute, said she believed relaxation drinks may be more disappointing than soothing because the level of active ingredients in them is so low, they aren't likely to produce any therapeutic effect.
"I think it's a great marketing idea, and I think that's where it stops," she said. "None of the ingredients are going to be present in sufficient quantities to elicit the reaction they're claiming to be able to do."
Ms. Walker added that drinking more than the recommended amounts could be problematic for people who have underlying medical conditions. Melatonin, for instance, can interfere with antidepressants, she said, adding she would also not recommend the ingredient for children and people who suffer seizures or who take heart medication.
"There's this conception that because something is natural, it's safe, and that is a falsehood across the board," she said.
Registered nutritionist Brenda Arychuk of Edmonton also expressed concerns about how relaxation products are marketed, adding that people, especially young teenagers, are too reliant on Band-Aid remedies.
"I think it's giving people a quick fix versus 'okay, how do I improve my lifestyle,' " she said. "Whether you're promoting something as an energy drink or an anti-energy drink, you're not looking at the lifestyle and why you actually need those things. If you actually need something to slow you down, you need more than a drink to help you in that regard."
On the shelf
Contains: L-theanine, chamomile, passiflora, valerian, linden, hops, sodium and potassium.
The sell: The company says L-theanine improves concentration and memory while it boosts levels of the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine. Chamomile, passiflora, valerian and linden improve sleep, while hops have properties of a digestive system stimulant. It also describes sodium as "essential" for muscle contraction and "acknowledged to decrease the sensation of fatigue during exercise."
Contains: melatonin, valerian, rose hips and B vitamins.
The sell: The company calls its drink "the world's first relaxation shot." It says melatonin is a natural sleep aid used for insomnia, depression and seasonal affective disorder, and for reducing the time it takes to get over jet lag. The effect "feels like you don't have a worry in the world. You're content in this place at this time."
Contains: melatonin, valerian and rose hips.
The sell: The company says valerian root benefits people who suffer from anxiety, stress, chronic pain, menopause and symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. Rose hips, meanwhile, are a traditional remedy for diarrhea, nervousness, stress and urinary problems.
Special to The Globe and Mail