The reasons I’m stressed out are your reasons, too: Too little time, and even less money. Deadlines. Relationships of all types. Aches and pains, insomnia. The general state of the world. It’s all a bit much, isn’t it?
I could use a drink. Not that kind of a drink. No, the drinks I’ve found myself chugging as if I were a college freshman on spring break don’t have any booze, but they do have adaptogenic mushroom powder. Or cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD. Or L-Theanine.
They might be called Neuro Bliss or Zenify, or have names that issue directives: Get Happy or Just Chill. (Funny, because typically, ordering someone to “Just chill” has the opposite effect.) There are candies and brownies, too, all marketed as calming or anxiety-alleviating, with detailed explanations of how the herbal supplements, amino acids or compounds within can put us at ease. In the era of functional foods — where we eat not just for pleasure, but also to balance our gut flora and reduce inflammation — we expect what we eat and drink to heal our bodies. Now, we want it to soothe our troubled minds, too.
You probably didn’t need a study to tell you Americans are stressed, but there are plenty. According to Gallup, about 8 in 10 of us are stressed out. The American Psychological Association’s 2018 annual stress study found millennials and Generation Z have the highest reported levels of stress. While work and money were top stressors, 69 percent of Americans said contemplating our nation’s future causes them stress, a significant increase from 2017. And stress takes its toll on our bodies: It can increase our risk of heart attacks, wreak havoc on our digestion, inhibit our sex drives and weaken our immune systems. No wonder stress-reducing food is a growing category. Mintel, the global research firm, included such foods in its 2018 trend predictions.
“We want simple solutions to complex problems,” said Drew Ramsey, psychiatrist and author of “Eat to Beat Depression.” “So the idea that your anxiety could be controlled by a formulated beverage with vitamins or minerals, or a CBD-infused coconut oil” may be appealing to people looking for a quick fix.
Instead of scarfing chips, the future of stress-eating might mean popping a couple of Good Day Chocolate’s Calm Supplement, infused with the amino acid L-Theanine and camomile flower. You could spike your coffee with Spirit Dust, a mix of goji berry powder, reishi mushroom extract and ashwagandha root to “expand peaceful awareness and align you with bliss.” Or pop some CBD gummy bears from Sunday Scaries, named after a meme about the dread of anticipating a week of work or school. Wash it down with Zenify, a carbonated drink that contains L-Theanine and the neurotransmitter GABA. Somewhere on the label for all of these products is the fine print: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.”
Here’s a funny story: I used to buy my dogs Happy Traveler treats, an “all-natural calming product” that went briefly viral for its package image of a dog and cat looking extremely stoned. My dogs would get them on car trips — until the day one dog pulled the bag off the counter and ate the entire thing. I called an emergency vet, convinced he was going to lapse into narcosis. Instead, they laughed and told me nothing would happen. The dog didn’t even take a particularly long nap. The treats were a lie.
I thought of those dog treats a lot as I sampled various stress-relieving products. Were my “calming treats,” as I jokingly called the candy and drinks, just sugar that made me feel better, like giving a crying toddler a lollipop?
It’s hard to keep track of all the ingredients reputed to alleviate stress, but they fall into roughly three categories. There are the herbal remedies: Mostly teas, with such ingredients as lemon balm, lavender, camomile, rooibos, St. John’s wort and ashwagandha, an herb used in ayurvedic medicine. Many of those ingredients have been a part of folk medicine for centuries, but studies on their efficacy have produced variable results.
Then, there are products that use L-Theanine, an amino acid found in green tea. Studies have found it increases levels of serotonin and dopamine, the brain chemicals that enable feelings of happiness and pleasure. It has also been shown to have an anti-stress effect by blocking “cortical neuron excitation.” But some of these studies were performed on animal subjects, or with human subjects but small samples.
L-Theanine is “The main driver of our calming effect,” said Andrew Goldman, a physician and co-founder of Good Day Chocolates, a line of functional sweets that purport to promote sleep, energy, relaxation and digestion. “Chocolate helps it absorb through your tongue.”
Zenify creator Adam Rosenfeld formulated his drink with L-Theanine and gamma-Aminobutyric acid, or GABA, another amino acid that has been found to inhibit anxiety.
“My friends started calling it the happy drink,” Rosenfeld said. “I kind of look at it as like a Coca-Cola for the new generation. Except it’s infused with nutraceuticals.” He says he drinks four to six cans of Zenify a day.
But those ingredients may soon be rivaled by another huge trend predicted for 2019: CBD. The compound comes from hemp, but it does not contain Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the marijuana compound that makes people feel high. A 2015 article in the journal Neurotherapeutics said CBD “has considerable potential as a treatment for multiple anxiety disorders,” though there has been limited research so far, and many more studies are needed. With the passage of the Farm Bill last month, CBD will come into wider use: When it’s derived from hemp and grown according to strict regulations, its use will be legal nationwide (cannabinoids that do not comply with these regulations will remain a Schedule 1 substance). Terpenes, another class of non-psychoactive compounds that can be derived from cannabis, are also touted as an ingredient in anti-stress products.
The first time Mike Sill, co-founder of Sunday Scaries, tried CBD, “We immediately just felt that cool, calm sense of relief. Sort of a mild euphoria.” He and his business partner wanted to build a CBD “lifestyle” brand geared toward their demographic: “Millennials can relate to it.”
These brands make mental-health relief seem easy — just one sip away. They position themselves as an alternative to anti-depressants, which Americans have had a love-hate relationship with ever since “Prozac Nation.” They’re cheaper than a therapist, and they don’t have a waiting list.
This trend is “consumer driven and it comes out of dissatisfaction with traditional pharmacology,” said Susana Galle, a psychologist, certified naturopath and clinical nutritionist who often recommends supplements for her patients. “The reason somebody has anxiety doesn’t have to do with one neurotransmitter. It has to do with the bacteria in your gut, it has to do with the relationship with your parents. It has to do with your thyroid, it has to do with your boss. You have to do a very comprehensive evaluation.”
But Ramsey thinks supplement brands overpromise.
“I get very concerned as a clinician when I see people spending hundreds of dollars with great conviction on supplements and functional foods that have zero evidence that they’re helpful, instead of spending their very precious time and energy on treatments that we know work,” Ramsey said. “Americans are in love with Big Supplement and enraged at Big Pharma.”
Here’s a stressful situation: We had borrowed a friend’s car to drive home for the holidays, when suddenly, every alert light on the dashboard lit up, including “check engine.” The shoulder was too narrow to pull over safely. The brakes failed right as we got to an exit. My husband pulled the parking brake and slid into the parking lot of a crumbling motel, stopping just shy of hitting its sign.
Waiting for the tow truck, I chewed on a few Rescue Pastilles, the homeopathic stress remedy that happened to be in my purse. The website elaborated on the herbal ingredients’ effect: Rock rose would give me “courage and presence of mind,” while cherry plum brought “balanced mind when losing control” (“Of a vehicle?” I wondered). But not too many, because, uh, “excessive consumption may induce mild laxative effects.”
I felt better shortly, but was it the active ingredients or merely the act of eating the candy — taking a deep breath, tasting something sweet, being conditioned to believe it would calm me down — that helped?
“There’s a huge placebo effect in all supplements,” Ramsey said. “It’s in your gut, and you start blinking and thinking: ‘Is it working? Is it working? Is it working?’ And you want to believe that it is. Simply that act is very stress-relieving.”
Everyone carries stress somewhere: Their throbbing temples, furrowed brows, balled-up fists, churning stomach. For me, it’s a constantly clenched jaw and tight, slightly hunched shoulders. When I unclenched and un-hunched, it felt like progress.
The herbal teas tasted nice, but the act of drinking a cup of tea is already relaxing. A packet of freeze-dried terpene brownies tasted awful and did nothing for me. Same with the CBD gummies, but the CBD tincture seemed to temporarily stop my teeth-grinding. But was it because administering drops under my tongue made me hyper-aware of my mouth? Is it working? Is it working? Is it working?
I was prepared to hate the drinks. They all had a similarly cloying fruit punch taste and silly packaging: Do not tell me to Just Chill. But that was the drink I chugged one stressful night, and it wasn’t long before I started to feel something. Maybe I could describe it as a brain tingle. A loosening of my muscles. I unclenched, unhunched and wondered: No, really, is it working?
The same thing happened with Zenify, and with Neuro Bliss. All three of the drinks had L-Theanine, or its synthetic twin, Suntheanine. It may not work for everyone — “You have to individualize” a person’s mix of neutraceuticals, said Galle — but somehow, it seemed to work for me.
If it’s the placebo effect and not the active ingredients, does it matter? I still felt better, after all. But there are risks: Not just wasting money, but delaying more effective treatment, like putting a Band-Aid on a fracture. “It trivializes mental health,” Ramsey said.
They might help people through a tough day, but they won’t target the root cause of their stress — and may delay them from making meaningful changes to address it. It’s a double-edged sword exemplified by one of Zenify’s customers, Google, where Rosenfeld says the drink is offered as an employee perk.
“If you reduce somebody’s anxiety and increase their serotonin and dopamine, they’re going to be more productive, they’re going to be happier at work, they’re going to be more likely to spend time in that environment,” Rosenfeld said. Which is probably why they’re stressed to begin with.
Is it working? The science is still out on that, but one thing is certain: You are.