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12.01.10

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Phaedra
Photograph by Sara Sanger
CTRL-ALT-DEL: The writer, amazingly still making deadline after one too many.

Drink Up, Power Down

One girl's immersion in the mystifying existence of anti-energy drinks

By Aimee Drew


The overhead light is buzzing, and so are the inhabitants of the living room. Pencils, dice and character sheets are strewn everywhere. How long have my friends and I been playing this game of Dungeons and Dragons? Eight hours? Ten? A collection of slain Red Bulls, Rockstars and Monster drinks adds to the increasing body count of goblins, skeletons and giant spiders, and as the quest continues, the dungeon master cracks open yet another energy drink.

While this scene may seem a little desperate (and embarrassingly geeky), my friends are not alone in excessive energy-drink consumption. In the last decade, energy drinks have firmly wedged their way into our lives, with regular old caffeine and its regular old buzz taking a backseat to ingredients like taurine, acai and ginseng—and in the case of the original Sparks (RIP) and its next-generation spin-off, Four Loko (soon to be pulled from shelves nationwide), good ol' devil alcohol.

Though the majority of the market share of energy drinks consists of only a handful of varieties, the market experienced growth of 240 percent between 2004 and 2009. According to the Nutrition Business Journal, energy shot sales reached $560 million in 2008. That's a lot of tiny bottles.

I have not been immune to this trend. Cheaper and far easier to acquire than, say, methamphetamine, energy drinks are more than able to provide that extra, sometimes much-needed boost a girl needs. But what about the aftereffects, when stress is sky high and it's impossible to relax? Or those endless nights when the clock is ticking the hours away, but the brain is still going at warp speed?

Dear readers, a solution has emerged, fast making its way into the mainstream. Behold the anti-energy drink.

This budding microindustry isn't unlike its energetic predecessor, featuring eye-catching logos, bullet-style cans and names like iChill and Dream Water. And while these magic, somnolent potions may have different ingredients and ad campaigns from each other, they all make essentially the same claims: a feeling of relaxation, an increase in concentration, a reduction of stress and even a good night's sleep.

While their composition may vary slightly, the majority of relaxation drinks contain at least one of a select few ingredients. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (otherwise known as GABA, not to be confused with GHB) is a nerotransmitter that regulates nueroexcitability throughout the nervous system. 5-HTP, or 5-hydroxytryptophan, is a naturally occurring amino acid, sold over the counter as a sleep aid, antidepressant or appetite suppressant.

Valerian, a perennial with pink flowers, is used to treat insomnia—it's what the doctor in Fight Club recommends to Edward Norton's character to help him sleep at night—and kava roots possess mild sedative properties and are traditionally consumed by Pacific Island cultures. Finally, melatonin is a hormone that may aid sleep but is not to be messed with carelessly.

With so many ingredients and effects, I decided to get to the bottom of this anti-energy-drink thing. Were any of them truly effective? Relaxing? Stomachable? Determined to find out, I scouted as many as I could find, hopped on that crazy melatonin train and drank it all the way to the end of the line.

My inaugural drink in this experiment is a beverage called Neuro Sleep. Suspended in a sleek orange bottle, it looks more like a lava lamp than a consumable beverage. According to Neuro Sleep's website, the drink's specific combination of melatonin and magnesium "work together to aid in healthy sleep quality and normalize the circadian rhythm." Sounds scientific, right?

Feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland as I down the bottle, I'm expecting it to have that familiar vaguely chemical taste of the typical energy drink, a delicate bouquet of citrus and pomegranate with hints of children's Tylenol.

I am pleasantly surprised. Neuro Sleep's flavor harks back to the "orange-drink" memories of childhood, somewhere between Tang and Gatorade with a bit of a chalky aftertaste. My initial reaction after downing the bottle is a slight headache, though admittedly it's probably nothing more than a standard, run-of-the-mill brain freeze. After a while, what can only be described as a warm, fuzzy feeling kicks in, bringing a lazy smile to my face and even goose bumps to my arms.

Forty-five minutes later, after a hot shower, I am left with a feeling of relaxation but a trace of nausea and a headache that still won't subside. The end result isn't much different than the crash after a few beers or a large Long Island iced tea. While I'm undoubtedly experiencing a mildly relaxing experience, on the whole, it's also mildly disappointing.

Next on the list is Jones Gaba, from the makers of those delightful, brightly colored Jones sodas. Each 12-ounce can of Jones Gaba contains an entire 150 mg of the intimidatingly named gamma-aminobutyric acid. While not so much a sleep aid as a relaxation and concentration aid, Jones Gaba promises "focus and clarity" in each obnoxiously energy-drink-sized can.

This so-called juice-tea comes in four different flavors: lemon-honey, grapefruit, nectarine and Fuji apple, all of which sound at least slightly unappealing, especially considering I've never been a big fan of tea to begin with. But this isn't about a pleasant taste. That became my mantra, in fact: "It's about the effects," I chant, as I struggle to finish that 12-ounce can.

Upon first opening the can, the drink itself smells strongly and very apple-y, like a Jolly Rancher. The taste is more like watered-down apple juice with a distinctive tea-like flavor. Again, allow me to reiterate that I am not a big tea drinker. Tea makes me gag and always has. Jones Gaba is technically classified as a tea-juice, contains white tea, and, dear Lord, it is no exception.

It does manage to give me a fuzzyheaded feeling of relaxation, though, but not exactly what I would describe as "focus" or "clarity." And while it does make me want to take a nap, I decide to fight the urge to succumb to sleep and indulge in some creative pursuits instead. I have an art project that I've been neglecting for a while, and this seems like the perfect opportunity to work on it. After all, creativity and substance abuse go hand in hand, right?

Maybe not. Rather than bursting with inspiration, my project that is supposed to consist of illustrations of people and cats ends up with the people looking a little cubist (but not in the good, Picasso-esque way) and with one of the cats wearing shoes. Ugh. So much for heavy machinery. It seems I can't even operate a mechanical pencil under the influence of this stuff.

Dream Water ensures users that its ingredients will lull them to sleep and lead to a more refreshed state the next day. On the whole, I find the idea of a good night's sleep without feeling like a groggy zombie the next day very appealing. But for my Dream Water trial, I decide to try a bit of an unorthodox, wake-and-bake-style approach. Rather than drinking it right before bed, I drink it first thing in the morning and plan to spend the entire day fighting off its effects, like a character in a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. One, two, Dream Water's coming for you.

While still in my flannel nightgown and bathrobe, I throw back the 2.5-ounce shot of snoozeberry flavored Dream Water and wait for it to kick in. Snoozeberry, it turns out, is not merely a bastardization of Willy Wonka's "snozzberry" flavor, but a combination of blueberry and pomegranate. The scent is light and subtle, but the flavor is gag-inducingly sweet. The snoozeberries taste like snoozeberries.

The bottle's warning label cautions me not to drive, operate heavy machinery or do "other important tasks" while under the influence of Dream Water. Voting doesn't count as an important task, right? Under the influence or not, it's business as usual on Election Day, but as the elixir begins to take effect, it suddenly occurs to me that I haven't read up on any of the candidates or propositions and have no idea how to vote. It's then that I find myself, still in my nightgown, curled up on my bathroom floor, poring over a sample ballot and marveling at what a lovely name Meg Whitman really is.

Lucky for me, the polling place is only a few blocks from my house, so I'm able to zigzag down the sidewalk and do my civic duty. I am determined to vote for the right candidates, and am not swayed by my doped-up fascination with the name Meg Whitman (like some glorious combination of Leaves of Grass and Little Women).

After I get home from voting, I think I eat lunch, but I honestly have no idea. Around 4pm, my eyelids are getting too heavy to fight. I decide to take a quick power nap to wake up feeling "refreshed and energized." The next thing I know, the room is totally dark and I'm struggling to sit up and squint at the numbers on my alarm clock, which read 7:39pm. What the hell?

If I thought my experiences thus far were unpleasant, they were only teasers for the main event: Aimee vs. iChill. Monday night finds me staying up way past my bedtime and completely wired. Knowing I need to get to sleep so I can be up early the following morning, now seems like the perfect opportunity to put one of these drinks to the use for which it was actually meant.

According to iChill's website, it is the world's first relaxation shot—a dubious honor at best. Its unique blend of melatonin, valerian root and rose hips promises to "help calm the body and mind at the end of a stressful day." Perfect. Just what I need on this frazzled night. The flavor is called Blissful Berry, and while the scent is most certainly berry, the taste is what can only be described as horrific. It's sickly sweet berry, but also something else. Something that tastes the way bug spray smells. Just drinking the two-ounce bottle is difficult, like swallowing some terrible green cough syrup that burns the throat and makes the eyes water.

Like every other relaxation drink I've tried, iChill starts off by giving me a slight headache and a trace of nausea. Similar to my Neuro Sleep trial, I figure I'll take a shower and be fully ready for bed by the time the drink takes effect. But the shower actually makes the nausea worse, until I'm doubled over and praying to the relaxation-drink gods that I won't throw up. If that mix of berry and bug spray was bad going down, it would surely be worse coming back up. As luck would have it, I keep my composure and am able to stagger back to my bedroom where I spend the next half an hour lying in bed, listening to my pulse pounding in my ears, feeling the room spinning around me and wondering about the strange pain in my chest.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, I am miraculously able to fall asleep. Needless to say, this will be the first and last time the wretched substance known as iChill will pass through these lips.

The more of these drinks I sample, the worse they get, and the more I feel like I'm slowly poisoning myself. After trying several containing melatonin, I decide to switch things up and try one emphasizing kava. RZO looks deceptively like an ordinary energy drink: the black 10.5-ounce can is emblazoned with the name of the drink in bright, blue, graffiti-style letters, and a small disclaimer at the bottom of the can warns consumers not to drive or operate equipment while taking the product. I'm excited about this one, because according to its website, it's nothing but orange juice and kava root extract—kind of like a screwdriver, only better. Surely there'll be no awful chemical taste with this one.

Alas. While the taste isn't exactly chemical, it is most certainly awful. My first thought upon opening the can and sniffing the contents is that it has somehow gone bad. Does a canned drink have the ability to go bad? Even holding my nose, squeezing my eyes shut and just chugging isn't enough to make the liquid nightmare palatable. After getting through about half the can, I promise myself I'll finish it later and stash it in my fridge. Luckily, I never have the chance. Sometime within the next 24 hours, one of my poor, pitiable housemates drinks the last of my RZO. I take it as a sign. The anti-energy experiment has reached its end.

Even after all my research, I still cannot figure out why these products exist in the first place. Sure, relaxation and a good night's sleep are great, but do they really need to be marketed in liquid form? Are energy-drink junkies so far gone that they need to detox with a similar-looking bottle? Perhaps someone simply realized that with the success of energy drinks, an opposite product might result in some backlash profit. The free market abhors a vacuum, after all.

I'm beginning to suspect that any drink that promises a good night's sleep is just as ridiculous as a drink that promises an energy boost or weight loss or a cure for erectile dysfunction. Maybe it works, but probably it's too good to be true. The drinks I've tried have been effective, there's no doubt about that, but the unpleasant tastes and sometimes scary side effects simply aren't worth it.

As for me, I'll stick with an extra large helping of Tylenol PM.


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