Herbal relaxation drinks: we sort truth from hype about trendy brews marketed to stressed-out Hongkongers

Producers push the ‘all natural’ calming qualities of a range of herbal drinks, but experts say there is little science to back up the claims about their therapeutic effects

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 5:31am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 9:00am

Stressed out students and young professionals in Hong Kong are increasingly turning to herbal relaxation drinks that are said to help soothe body and mind but without a narcotic effect.

Drinks such as Tranquini Positively Relaxed, Slow Cow and Xoco Blue are part of a relatively new but fast-growing segment of the beverage market in Hong Kong, positioned as a healthy alternative to soft drinks and an antidote to our always-on, caffeine-fuelled lifestyles.

The drinks usually contain a combination of supplements, amino acids, melatonin and herbs and botanicals such as camomile, lavender, lemon balm extracts and natural theanine from green tea, valerian root, Gaba (gamma-aminobutyric acid, a neural inhibitor) and passiflora.

Julia Trofimova, chief innovations and corporate affairs officer at global lifestyle brand Tranquini, says the growing relaxation drinks sector is expected to exceed 1 billion (HK$8.23 billion) by 2020.

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But how effective are these drinks?

Karen Chong, a registered dietitian at Matilda International Hospital in Hong Kong, says there isn’t enough scientific evidence to prove their efficacy. Some consumers report a calming effect from the drinks, she says, but adds that this is a purely subjective response and can’t be measured.

One ingredient commonly used in these drinks does have a proven impact – magnesium. The only mineral regularly included, it is critical for relaxation and sleep. A classic sign of being low on magnesium is feeling tired but wired.

Other ingredients have a long history of use as calming agents. Passiflora, for example, a genus of mostly vines, was traditionally used by native Americans to treat anxiety and insomnia.

Like valerian, which has been used as a medicinal herb since at least the time of ancient Greece, it is believed to inhibit the central nervous system. Camomile, also used to treat insomnia, stress, and anxiety, is considered to be safe enough to give to children to ease stomach aches.

Kava, another traditional relaxing tonic from the South Pacific, is widely available as a supplement to reduce stress and anxiety.

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A study by the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Shizuoka in Japan found theanine, an amino acid contained in green tea leaves, reduces anxiety and blood pressure. However, dietitian Denise Fair, at Central Health Medical Practice in Hong Kong, says that, to be effective, in most cases a much larger quantity of theanine would be needed than a tea infusion would yield, although some people may be more sensitive and feel that it helps them.

Asked whether she would recommend relaxation drinks, Fair says: “Not particularly. But if a client was using it regularly, I would be OK with it so long as it doesn’t contain any added sugar or sweeteners. There certainly wouldn’t be any harm in taking it. I would caution some pregnant ladies against drinking it in abundance, but in moderation [one to two drinks per day] would be fine.

“I wouldn’t categorise them as a healthy product but they are not necessarily a bad or unhealthy product either.

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“The problem when it comes to ‘all natural’ or products that are listed as ‘nutriceuticals’ is they don’t have to undergo any testing, they’re not required to have Food and Drug Administration approval and therefore do not have to show their effectiveness.”

Such drinks can pack as much sugar as a can of soft drink (soda) while offering such small amounts of their herbal ingredients that you’re unlikely to feel a lasting effect, says Dr Sylvie Stacy, a resident

in preventive medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who has reviewed the safety and efficacy of this type of drink.

However, Trofimova says the ingredients Tranquini Positively Relaxed uses occur in nature and are scientifically proven to reduce stress and relieve anxiety without causing drowsiness.

Another entrant to the relaxation drinks market in Hong Kong is Xoco Blue, a mushroom hot chocolate dessert drink by Four Sigmatic containing cacao powder, coconut palm sugar, reishi dual extract, cinnamon, cardamom, and sugar substitute stevia. While reishi (also known as lingzhi) mushroom’s polysaccharides and triterpenes are included as calming agents, cinnamon and cardamom are there to balance blood sugar levels, aid the digestion and kill sweet cravings. Cacao is an effective mood enhancer and antioxidant.

Mikko Revonniemi, co-founder of Four Sigmatic, says relaxation drinks have been popular in Scandinavia and the US for more than a decade but have yet to take off in Hong Kong.

“These drinks aren’t very common in Hong Kong. Here, people want to push the envelope. From our sales data, I’d say those buying relaxation drinks are yoga and meditation-practising young hipsters who want to be ecological and healthy. Hongkongers are much more interested in the energy and brain-boosting products.”

Dietitian Chong advises consumers to check the sugar content of these drinks and be aware that some may cause drowsiness. And, she adds, don’t mix them with alcohol.