This story reported on so-called “relaxation drinks” that contain melatonin, valerian, and other supplements that marketers say will help put you to sleep. While we hand it to the reporting team for ferreting out this interesting new trend and presenting a lively write-up, some simple additions would have made the article as informative as it was entertaining. A note about costs and some more detail on alternatives are two areas that come to mind.
The ability to get a good night’s sleep, while taken for granted by many, is something that a large number of Americans struggle with on a daily basis. There are reports that 40 to 70 million Americans, or about 20 percent of the population, suffer regularly from transient or chronic sleep problems. Sleep loss is associated with a host of negative effects, including reduced work productivity, decreased cognitive function, greater absenteeism, and an increased likelihood of accidents. Compared with healthy people, those with sleep problems are at increased risk for a variety of medical conditions and have a lower quality of life.
Many, if not most people, want a “quick fix” for their sleep troubles. They would prefer there were a pill that would put them to sleep instantly, keep them asleep all night, and allow them to wake on time without adverse effects. Needless to say, there isn’t such a pill. Similarly, we can’t expect this of supplements. Lifestyle and behavior changes are the best long-term solutions to poor sleep, and both physicians and the media need to bear this in mind when counseling patients and reporting on agents to improve sleep.
These beverages don’t come cheap, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the story, which had no information on costs. According to the blog for iChill, one of the drinks mentioned in the story, a 2 oz “shot” retails for $2.99 at 7-Eleven.
The story does not report in detail on any one study, but comments from a sleep expert tell readers what they need to know here. He remarks that melatonin (a constituent of many of the drinks) doesn’t seem to work much better than a placebo, and that we have no idea how well valerian root (another supplement found in some drinks) works compared with prescription sleep medicines because they haven’t been compared.
The story raises the general issue of safety, suggests that pregnant/nursing women and children should not take these drinks, and warns against mixing these drinks with alcohol. It also suggests that people with certain health conditions check with their doctor before taking any of these drinks. We think that’s thorough enough.
Readers overall will probably come away with correct bottom line conclusion on these drinks — which is that we simply don’t know if they work or not. However, the story really should have done a more thorough job of characterizing the state of the evidence on melatonin, the primary ingredient in many of the drinks mentioned and the most-studied natural remedy for insomnia. It quotes an expert source who says, reasonably enough, that melatonin taken orally hasn’t worked much better than a placebo in most studies. But then it counters this comment with mention of a study which found that melatonin “significantly improved sleep among a group of 43 elderly Italian insomniacs.” The impression we get is that this new study might somehow shift the balance of evidence in favor of melatonin, when in fact this single study is just one of dozens on the supplement and doesn’t appear to merit special discussion. The story would have been much better off citing the results of one of several systematic reviews that have comprehensively examined the evidence on melatonin, such as this report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Qualty.
The story did not exaggerate the impact of disordered sleep. In fact, some comment on the high prevalence of insomnia and its potential to create distress and potentially contribute to other health problems would have been appropriate.
The story quotes a physician sleep expert, a dietitian, and an employee of one of the beverage companies. There don’t appear to be any conflicts of interest that weren’t properly disclosed.
This is the most important shortcoming of the story. While prescription sleep aids are mentioned briefly, the story really should have delved deeper into discussion of the effectiveness of sleep medications. It also didn’t mention behavioral treatments for insomnia, which may be just as effective as drugs and produce a more enduring benefit. The public should understand that behavior change will nearly always trump a pill (or supplement, etc.) for long-term efficacy and health effects.
The story provided some good information on the regulatory differences between beverages and dietary supplements and how manufacturers who don’t follow the rules can run afoul of the FDA. As to the more basic question — where do I buy this stuff? — the story says the drinks are available in grocery and convenience stores and pharmacies.
The family of drinks described in the story are a new delivery vehicle for these potentially sleep-enhancing supplements. Most readers will be unfamiliar with these products.
This story wasn’t based on a news release.