Congrats on a big year for a lot of people: Olivia Rodrigo, who made everyone cry in a good way; Elon Musk, who despite all odds, persevered as the most annoying man alive; Joe Biden, who reached a self-care high by not giving any shits about us; Adele, who continued to be British. It’s been the biggest year, though, for the Sleepytime Bear. It’s been a year filled with bad rest for the rest of us, thanks to the uncertainty of wondering what the hell is happening at all times, and also from staying up until 4 a.m. researching which past 90 Day Fiancé cast members have viable influencing careers. But throughout it all, the cuddly Celestial Seasonings bedtime tea mascot has been thriving, probably because he spends most of his time with his eyes closed.
I’m happy for Mr. Sleepytime. He is an inspiration to all of us out there who avoid wearing pants and do not want our families to talk to us. He has gone through adversity (the Celestial Seasonings social media team’s decision to post a bizarre Sleepytime Bear “#thirsttrap” for whoever would want that?) and has emerged stronger (still asleep). My nightly routine would be incomplete if I didn’t get to nod off while holding a cup of Sleepytime and pretending to read a book. Having so many bedtime tea options makes you wish that there was a relaxation tea for waking hours, too. So what if I told you there was another Celestial Seasonings offering that’s relaxing but also legal to drink during the day? And what if I told you it also has catnip in it?
I first came to Tension Tamer during my monthly ritual of standing in the tea aisle for 45 minutes, overwhelmed by options. On this particular trip, I scanned the shelves for Sleepytime Extra. I didn’t find it, but I did wander to an offering I hadn’t tried before, promoted as a “soothing blend”: Tension Tamer. Like most Celestial Seasonings tea box art, it screams the artist’s purpose, which is “I wish this was drugs.” Tension Tamer’s box is adorned with a princess sitting on a dragon, a castle in the distance, in a way that makes us feel so glad that the dragon is, presumably, no longer a nuisance.
I came home, and made myself a cup to have during the afternoon. It would never live up to Sleepytime, I thought, but it was worth a try. I was wrong. The flavor was pleasantly earthy, pepperminty, and lemony. And that shit messed me up. One cup of Tension Tamer made me feel more relaxed than I’ve ever felt after having a cup of tea, to the point where it was almost scary. I felt like I was floating. Tension Tamer is perfect for when you want to be asleep, but you can’t because then everyone would be mad at you. I looked at the ingredients and was surprised to see catnip listed among them.
Because I’m a simple woman, I always thought catnip was invented by pet stores. But it’s actually a plant–Nepeta cataria–and while we know it from making cats euphoric, people have also used it. According to Drugs.com, documented use of catnip leaves and flowers in tea goes back to at least 1735.
Catnip is not, at least as far as my research has taken me, in most commercially sold herbal relaxation teas. It’s not even the first ingredient in Tension Tamer–it’s behind seven other ingredients, including eleuthero, peppermint, chamomile, and lemongrass. It’s not clear how much of an impact catnip has compared to the other ingredients. (Celestial Seasonings was not able to respond to my questions on the matter, because I guess the Sleepytime Bear sleepwalked into a ditch.)
But it is true that catnip can have a sedative effect on humans, as Cynthia Fazekas, tea master at Adagio Teas, explained to me. Fazekas says that Adagio uses valerian in its bedtime tea, 40 winks, to induce a similar effect. And if you want to make catnip tea at home, she suggests starting with two grams per mug of hot water and seeing how you feel–but she also stresses that she’s not a doctor.
“Testing it on a day without important things to do is advisable,” she says.
Fazekas strongly recommends that if you’re going to indulge in catnip, as with other herbs, you should do your research and possibly consult a doctor. For example, catnip can induce uterine contractions, which could be dangerous for anyone who’s pregnant, has pelvic inflammatory disease or menorrhagia. According to WebMD, the place where I got my medical degree, high doses of catnip can cause headaches and/or vomiting, and even trigger menstruation. It can have negative interactions if you’re taking lithium or sedative drugs like Klonopin or Ativan. The FDA has not evaluated catnip, perhaps because catnip for humans can go very wrong.
So it makes sense that the only mass-market catnip teas contain only a small amount of it. But still, I wondered about what plain catnip tea would be like. I did manage to find a catnip-only tea by a brand called Celebration Herbals at a health foods store. I brought it to brew at Thanksgiving, so that there would be multiple witnesses in case I threw up or died. It felt illicit, like this was supposed to be the good stuff. Not polluted by other Tension Tamer ingredients. No losers like “chamomile” and “lemongrass” in there. No, this is the stuff that’s fit for the high-minded tastes of cats everywhere. You’ve met a cat. They’re not easy to please. My boyfriend’s stepmom, Barb, and I both had a cup. I was nervous and excited, ready for my senses to be overpowered by an ingredient in cat toys.
It was fine. Barb thought it was fine, and found it to be “virtually indistinguishable” from chamomile. I thought it tasted straight up bad. It was earthy, but in a bad way–like if you stomped on a mint plant and then put it in the microwave, and then something went extra wrong and made it taste like hot snot. While it is fun to say “I’m drinking catnip,” the rest of it wasn’t ideal. In terms of how tired it made me, it felt comparable to Sleepytime, but the flavor made it feel more like a task than a calming bedtime routine. I was drowsy by the end, but it was also around when I’d normally go to sleep. I’m sorry for what I said about chamomile and lemongrass, and I think both of those are preferable to the taste of plain catnip.
I’m disappointed in myself for having such high hopes for catnip, but then again, I also tried eating dog biscuits in college because the bougie dog bakery said they were “okay” for “people to eat.” After trying the catnip-only tea, it’s hard to know which ingredients are doing it for me in Tension Tamer, or, if it’s all a placebo (and you know what, if placebos work, they work!!). All I know is that I’ve found a new tea that makes my brain feel like it’s cocooned in a fuzzy blanket, and at this point, what more can I ask for?