Once upon a time—July—I could sink easily and immediately into eight hours of sleep. I listened smugly as friends and co-workers complained of their Tylenol-PM addictions. Then I moved from a quiet, tucked-away corner of New York City—yes, such a place exists—to a street-level apartment not far from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. I developed an irrational fear of bedbugs, began fretting more about work, and passed a birthday that seemed to mark the expiration date for my once-reliable ability to fall asleep shortly after guzzling coffee. Traditional sleeping pills seemed too extreme, even the over-the-counter kind; I just needed to calm down a bit. So when I heard about a new category of drinks called "relaxation beverages"—essentially, the inverse of Red Bull—I decided to test out a few. I even saw some romance in the idea—after all, Rip van Winkle didn't drowse off after an Ambien or two. Medea didn't lug a really excellent SoundSpa relaxation machine with her when she and Jason were going after that golden fleece. Harry Potter didn't nosh on a tryptophan-heavy meal after he saw Lord Voldemort. A sleeping potion, as I began to think of these liquids, seemed the way to fix my problem with panache.
My experiment wasn't scientifically rigorous (pretty sure I laid the groundwork for that disclaimer the moment I dropped the phrase "sleeping potion"), but it was, at least, consistent. I tried each beverage once at the same time of night (about an hour before my 11:30 bedtime), got a similar amount of exercise each day, and set my alarm for the same time the next morning—the stuff of fairy tales.
First I tried a control, of sorts, the classic warm-milk-and-honey sleep aid. I hadn't sampled the combination in years—still delicious, though a little too sweet—and it sat heavily in my stomach. I did feel a little calmer, and ended up falling asleep not long after my head hit the pillow. But it wasn't a clean KO; I woke up around 1 a.m. for a 20-minute bout of fretting. Slightly better than usual, but not exactly the promised land.
Then I began the experiment in earnest. Some of you higher-minded Slate readers will be familiar with "purple drank," a homemade beverage of codeine-based cough syrup, sweet soda, and Jolly Ranchers that looms large in the mythology of Southern rap; bards sing its praises at every chance. Drank was conceived as a completely legal, risk-free version of the homemade beverage. It's marketed to the hip-hop sympathetic (its slogan: "Slow your roll"), and comes in a purple ombre tallboy can that's 220 calories' worth of relaxation. The soda is made mostly of corn syrup, with active ingredients valerian root, rose hip, and melatonin. Valerian, a common herbal remedy for anxiety and depression, is often listed as the key element in relaxation beverages. * It's generally thought to be safe, and while its efficacy hasn't been fully established, the American Academy of Family Physicians says it's probably more useful in moderating sleep if used regularly to help establish patterns rather than as a one-off.
Melatonin is a different story. I chatted with Charles Czeisler, director of the Division of Sleep at Harvard Medical School, who explained that melatonin is key to the natural sleep cycle—it's what cues your body to stay up or shut down. The amounts in popular relaxation beverages (1 milligram in the case of Drank) are many times greater than what occurs in biology. Not only will a melatonin injection interrupt and alter your body's natural cycle, but if you slow your roll (not Czeisler's precise words, I'll admit) at midday, you could easily get into an accident, since the soporific effect is quite strong. Czeisler also cautioned against the practice of putting melatonin in beverages: It tricks consumers into thinking they're using something fundamentally different from a sleeping pill, which isn't necessarily true. And since the drug division of the FDA doesn't regulate beverages, there's no ready way to know whether there's really 1 mg, 0 mg, or a dangerous amount of melatonin in your drink. Czeisler also mentioned a frightening study involving the sterilizing effects of melatonin on hamsters—the kind of stuff that keeps you up at night.
Still, when I drank Drank, I slept the happy sleep of the corn-syrup-coma'd, the melatonin-addled. Not only did I nod off almost immediately; I also missed my alarm by a whole hour the next morning. But even if Drank succeeded in getting me to conk out, I didn't exactly feel relaxed in the lead-up to bedtime—more like dulled and a little queasy. The gustatory experience wasn't exactly a pleasurable one, either. Drank was, frankly, foul—think even-sweeter-than-normal grape soda.
The nextbeverage I tried, iChill, is marketed as a zero-calorie "shot," and comes in a bottle that looks an awful lot like Five-Hour Energy's, only blue. I've racked my brain fruitlessly trying to think of a brand name that is more smarmily of our era than iChill, which conjures Steve Jobs and Jack Johnson hanging out on some Jersey beach together. I ended up taking iChill twice under more prosaic circumstances, once in the afternoon after a box of it arrived for me in my office and my cubicle-mates peer-pressured me into sampling it, and again before bedtime to "unwind from the grind," per its slogan.
Downing a shot of something stiffer would have been less debilitating to my work than that afternoon iChill; within an hour, I was utterly drained and ineffective. Coffee did nothing—it couldn't wake me up, or counteract iChill's disgusting "blissful berry flavor". At night, on the other hand, iChill had no discernible effect. Perhaps that makes sense: iChill contains a whopping 5 mg of melatonin, hundreds of times the natural dose, and as Dr. Czeisler pointed out, supplemental melatonin is far more likely to be effective if it's taken at a time when your body isn't already producing the substance—the afternoon—than at bedtime.