You’ve seen the colorful “sleep drink” bottles lined up on the shelves of your local box store. Or maybe they’ve ambushed you on Amazon. They look like Red Bull, but in soothing colors. And they offer an interesting proposition, don’t they?
We certainly loved the idea of a sleep drink when we first heard about them. Swill a refreshing can just before bed, and 30 minutes later, lights out? That would have sounded amazing back when we were insomniacs.
But the more we considered it, and the more we looked into the many popular sleep drinks on the market, the more problems we encountered. A few have proven to be solid sleep aids. Others, however, are ludicrously misguided at best.
After looking at exactly one dozen different sleep drinks currently on the market, we found three major problems which should make any hard-training, battle-hardened warrior think twice.
1. Drinking fluids before bed lowers sleep quality
If you’ve already reached your mid-thirties, then you’re probably quite familiar with waking up in the middle of the night to pee. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, and it’s a natural part of aging.
When young, your hypothalamus produces more of a substance called “anti-diuretic hormone” (ADH) at night. That’s good. It interacts with your kidneys to keep the water content of your urine down, thus letting your body use that water for other functions (and preventing you from wetting the bed).
As we age, however, the secretion of ADH decreases so that it remains at roughly the same level during night and day. This diminished ADH production is the primary cause of adult “nocturia,” or waking up to pee at night, and it gets worse the older you get. Many elderly folks head to the bathroom two or three times a night.
So, this is somewhat natural, but it’s not exactly great when you need to recover from deadlifts and heavy squats.
The only real way to combat adult nocturia is to limit fluid intake for approximately two hours before bed. This isn’t a concern if you’re a teenager with plenty of ADH coursing through his body. They can drink a big glass of milk and snooze like statues all night. But for those of us in our 30s, 40s, or beyond, filling our bladders just before bed often guarantees we’ll be up and down to the toilet.
That’s why it’s a dismal idea to consume a sleep drink before bed. Many instruct you to swill an 8-ounce, 12-ounce, or even 14-ounce bottle 30 minutes before you lay down. Others provide a sugary powder you’re supposed to mix into water or, if you’re super hardcore, a protein shake.
Many of these sleep drinks will knock you out, because they contain huge doses of melatonin that are strong enough to sedate a bull (more on that shortly). But falling asleep and staying asleep are two different animals. If you actually care about waking up rested and feeling amazing tomorrow, then you probably want to avoid lying down in bed tonight with a bladder full of sugar water.
Pro Tip: Don’t drink any fluids within 90-120 minutes of your target sleep time. It’s not an absolute disaster if you have to, but what’s better than sleeping for 8-9 uninterrupted hours?
2. Overdosing melatonin knocks you out, but prevents healthy slow-wave sleep
If you’ve ever looked at the supplement facts on any number of popular sleep drinks, you’ll notice how few actually list the total melatonin content. Instead, they include it in their “Propriety Blend” formula, which they aren’t legally required to disclose.
Why would they do this? Because overdosing melatonin is a great way to make you FALL asleep, even though it actually inhibits the later, deeper, slow-wave stages of sleep when your body actually recuperates.
We’ve discussed this before. The optimal dose of exogenous melatonin is 0.3mg or less, far less than the disastrous 3mg or 5mg doses found in most OTC supplements. 0.3mg is enough to kickstart the natural sleep process, but not enough to inhibit deeper sleep stages. It’s also such a small amount that you won’t develop a tolerance, nor will it downregulate your natural melatonin production.
But if many popular sleep drinks don’t publish the total amount of melatonin in their formula, how can you know that they’re including too much?
Easy. Pay attention to the side effects.
Melatonin doses of 1mg or higher (though they’re often recommended by doctors who graduated bottom of their class in medical school), commonly result in:
- Daytime drowsiness
- Depression, irritable feelings
- Vivid dreams
It’s the drowsiness and dreams that give us the biggest clues. Drowsiness means that no matter how long you slept, or THINK you slept, your body wasn’t recuperating. It wasn’t reaching those deep stages of sleep.
Or it could mean that you’ve still got excess melatonin floating around in your bloodstream. That makes a lot of sense if you take 5mg, which is 15 times more than any healthy person needs. Imagine drinking 15X more alcohol than a healthy person needs. Doesn’t sound good for the brain, does it?
Same for the wacked-out dreams. Ever notice how when you get normal, healthy sleep, you only dream in the morning, just before waking up? You remember those dreams because you’re emerging from the shallowest stage of sleep. You don’t remember anything from deep sleep, do you? Of course not! That’s healthy sleep! You’re out cold! It’s great!
Yet that’s exactly what huge doses of melatonin do - they continually kick your brain back into shallow sleep. It doesn’t matter if you’re about to go into deep, recuperative, stage-4 NREM sleep, the excess melatonin kicks you back to the start, waking you up and causing you to remember the nutty dreams you’re having all night.
What does this have to do with sleep drinks?
Obviously, not all sleep drinks include huge doses of melatonin. Some have none at all. Others, however, feature customer reviews with comments like this:
It knocked me out in 20 minutes
Both wife and I had light headaches after drinking
Felt no difference except that I had to get up ALOT to use the bathroom
Initially it helped, but after about a week it seemed to lose its effect
When I wake up in the morning I feel foggy
Tastes good but gave me messed up dreams
So, when you’re trying out a new sleep drink, pay attention to how you feel. It might make you fall asleep, or even make you THINK that you’re getting good sleep. But if you’re waking up every hour or having oddball dreams, chances are you’re just drugging yourself with an overdose of melatonin.
Pro Tip: Check the “Supplement Facts” label. If it lists more than 0.3mg of melatonin, then something is wrong. If it hides melatonin in the “Proprietary Blend” box, and doesn’t tell you how much, then once again something is wrong. Oh, and if it only includes a tiny, tiny dose of magnesium, like 30-50mg (Hibernate has 400mg for comparison), then you can be doubly certain that whoever makes the product has no interest in helping you get real, healthy sleep.
As if you need another reason to avoid sugar, right?
Heart disease, body fat, becoming a limp-wristed ninny who clutches at his juice box - all good reasons to avoid refined sugar. Oh, you have a sweet tooth? Get over it. Because if nothing else frightens you, consuming excessive sugar screws with your sleep.
One 2016 study showed how diets higher in sugar cause delayed sleep onset and diminished time spent in slow-wave sleep. (It takes longer to fall asleep, and your deep sleep is shorter.)
Sugary foods activate your brain’s dopamine-driven reward circuitry (much the same as narcotics or alcohol), creating a vicious cycle of hunger cravings and hormone fluctuations associated with low-quality sleep.
Thus, you shouldn’t need much convincing to avoid the many popular sleep drinks with 15+g of sugar (nearly 1.5 tablespoons). Nor should you place much trust in beverages which say “NO SUGAR” on their label, but which include spoonfuls of the science-y sounding erythritol (also known as “sugar alcohol”).
Pro Tip: Again, check the “Supplement Facts” label. Look for one of the 56 alternate names for sugar that manufacturers are allowed to use. If you’re still contemplating a sugary beverage after that, then heed the advice of Dan John, America’s greatest strength coach:
Here's an idea: eat like an adult.
Stop eating fast food, stop eating kid's cereal, knock it off with all the sweets and comfort foods, and ease up on the snacking. And don't act like you don't know this: eat more vegetables and fruits.
Really, how difficult is this? Stop with the whining. Stop with the excuses. Act like an adult and stop eating like a television commercial. Grow up.
Listen, we’re not total jerks. There are a few decent sleep drinks out there. Our favorite is the old school Sleepytime Tea by Celestial Seasonings. If you’re not prone to waking up to pee at night, then Sleepytime Tea works beautifully when paired with Hibernate. (Though do try to finish it at least an hour before bed.)
If you do frequently wake up to pee, however…
And if you care about sugar consumption at all…
And if you’d really rather not have trippy dreams that mean you’re not recovering from your training…
Well, you need to be cautious about sleep drinks. They sound great in theory, but in practice, we haven’t found any that work better than our healthy alternative, Hibernate (which by the way will never make you wake up to pee).