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I drank sleep-inducing water to try to cure my insomnia

Michele Sponagle is a prolific lifestyle journalist who has written extensively on a wide range of topics, from the art of revenge to the thrill of tracking polar bears in Canada's far north. When she's not writing, she's likely travelin...

Dream Water helped me actually sleep, but these drinks come with a big red flag

Some nights I lie awake playing Candy Crush Saga on my iPad because sleep has eluded me yet again. Getting to sleep is like a game that I can’t seem to win with any regularity. I blame my brain, which races through a things-to-do list with no end, and perimenopause, that awkward phase in a woman’s life when wacky hormone levels throw a monkey wrench into normal bodily functions.

I’ve tried many things to help me get a decent night’s sleep — everything from having sex to a phone app that plays the sound of a droning fan. The latest is a pumped-up water, formulated with ingredients that promise to relax me and bring me sweet, restorative sleep.

Thirty minutes before bedtime, I tossed back a 2.5-ounce shot of Dream Water in Snoozeberry, a blueberry-pomegranate flavor, introduced in 2012 and just recently launched in Canada. It tasted good — something that would be tempting to mix with vodka (but don’t).

It is formulated with a proprietary blend of gamma-aminobutyric acid, something brain neurotransmitters need to help the body relax; melatonin, a synthetic version of the hormone made by the pineal gland; and 5-HTP, which converts to serotonin in the brain. And fortunately, it has zero calories and no sugar. Other brands have both: Drank Extreme Relaxation has 220 calories and a whopping 54 grams of sugar, according to testing done by Consumer Reports.

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After drinking Dream Water, I fell asleep in about 40 minutes and awoke feeling refreshed, except for vague memories of some particularly bizarre dreams that night. I can’t say with any degree of certainty that this product had anything to do with my imagination running so amuck while I slept, but it got me wondering about what was in it.

Because relaxation waters are categorized as dietary supplements, their claims aren’t required to be evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and companies don’t have to reveal how much of each ingredient those products contain.

That’s troubling, according to Dr. Trevor Holly Cates, a naturopathic physician in private practice in Park City, Utah. “The idea of these products are appealing because it is a more natural approach; however, there are some concerns with them,” she says.

Cates would love to see sleep-inducing waters be more transparent with their formulations so consumers know exactly what they are getting. Too much or too little of key ingredients is problematic.

“The concern with a lot of these over-the-counter melatonin supplements and drinks is that you might be getting more melatonin than you need, and that can actually suppress your body’s own production of this hormone,” she explains.

In general, we produce 0.3 to 0.8 milligrams naturally at night, so the doses in supplements and some relaxation drinks, which can be as high as 3 to 5 milligrams, may provide too much melatonin. That overabundance can cause drowsiness.

When it comes to 5-HTP, another ingredient found in the sleep waters, it causes an increase in the level of serotonin, one of the body’s feel-good neurotransmitters. Although that might sound good, someone who is taking antidepressants in the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors category (the most commonly prescribed) should be wary. Too much serotonin can result in serotonin syndrome with symptoms such as headaches, muscle twitching and rapid heart rates. In severe cases, it can be life threatening.

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“My guess is that there is probably little to none of this ingredient in these supplements, especially since GABA and 5-HTP dissipate in water, but since companies are marketing these drinks as containing those ingredients, this can create some concerns for those taking anti-depressants,” Cates says.

When it comes to natural products, people tend to think more is better. They are natural, so they are good for me, right? The truth is, even all-natural, organic ingredients are not inert, and they can interact with other medications you’re taking.

“I’m a big fan of natural substances, so I hate to scare anyone from using them,” Cates says. “But you just have to be smart about it. I would really like to see companies provide detailed information about how much of an ingredient is in the product. That would be helpful for consumers.”

With Cole’s cautionary notes in mind, I went on to try Dream Water a couple more times and had good results. I woke up with drool on my pillow, which tells me I slept well. I’m loathe to rely on any one thing to help me sleep, so I won’t be drinking these supplements on a nightly basis. Still, I’m glad to have another weapon in my arsenal, available to me whenever a blissful night of sleep may be elusive.

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