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Background

In an earlier post I mentioned nootropics, often referred to as smart drugs.  I’m not sure there is a hard and fast definition, but a generic definition might be “supplements that improve concentration, memory, focus mental energy and motivation.”  If a supplement can do all of that – sign me up.

How to Start

A search term like “best nootropic” returns lots of hits.  Beware of sites that appear to be non-biased reviews but are really pushing one particular brand.  The subreddit for this topic has a number of people asking questions and a number of experts that sound like “brain chemists”.  The term “my stack” means the combination of supplements one takes to achieve a desired level of performance.  Reading these posts feels like stepping into the deep end of a pool you thought was only 3 feet deep..

Do I Really Need a Stack

I’m already taking a several supplements for general body health, do I really want to add another handful of capsules to swallow every day.  Can’t I just find one that does it all?  For sure, there are products that combine many nootropic elements into a blend for people that want that approach (the one-a-day vitamin approach).

But, there is also an argument for honing down and only taking what you really need – the minimalist approach.

L-Theanine

I came across L-Theanine in the discussions.  It is a found in green and black tea; commonly used for stress relief, anxiety, improved concentration, focus and creativity. It falls into the general category of nootropics (smart drugs), but it is also classified as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) by the FDA.  This can be verified at an  FDA web site.

The media has covered the abuse of Adderall and Ritalin abuse by students and young adults (most commonly).  These are prescription drugs and that type of use is dangerous and I think it risks tarnishing this entire field of study.  I am staying strictly to over-the-counter and FDA recognized items.

I wanted to verify some of L-Theanine claims I read on the subreddit; I used the Cleveland Clinic as my source of FAQ.  Their data is very succinct.  On a scale that ranged from -2 to +3; they rated this supplement as a +2 (Moderate Evidence of Effectiveness – several well-designed studies in humans have shown positive benefit).

My Not So Scientific Study

This is my mostly unscientific test of the amino acid L-Theanine.  This isn’t really a valid test because I’m the only participant in the study.  However, I’m not trying to prove the efficacy of this supplement to a general population, I’m only concerned if it works on me.  For that reason, I believe this one-man study is valid.  It’s better than reading about a rigorously structured study that proves 90% of the general population receives benefit – then discovering I’m in the 10%.

Real Change or Placebo Effect

Just like any test of this sort, there is a risk that the benefit is derived from a placebo effect.  Many drug trials include a placebo as part of the methodology.  The pharmaceutical company needs to prove their drug can do a better job than the power of suggestion.  In my case, do I really care?  One could argue that a placebo effect can loose it’s effectiveness.  The same is true for some supplements that are working at the physiological level.

How do I Know it’s Working

For this part of the test, there needs to be something more empirical than “I think I’m feeling more creative or have better focus.”  I’ve used the program Lumosity for almost 3 years.  It is an online brain training program presented in the form of games.  I initially subscribed in an effort to improve cognition, focus, etc. Your score is tracked in 5 areas: Speed, Memory, Attention, Flexibility and Problem Solving. Over the course of a few months my score improved 3 fold.  I’m sure some of this improvement was simply familiarity with the games, but some was probably cognitive improvement as well.  Regardless, I have a non-subjective baseline to measure against.

Test Conditions

Methodology: Before taking L-Theanine, track my Lumosity scores for one week, playing daily at the same time of day.  Then start taking the supplement and continue tracking the scores.

Note, I did not take the supplement for several days to “let it get into my system”.  The Cleveland Clinic reference said it passes through the blood-brain barrier within 30 minutes, so why wait? (I’m also very impatient).  If I start to notice a marked improvement at the end of the week vs the first part of the week, I can always extend the test period.

Results

My average score for the 7 days with vs without L-Theanine were not statistically different; it was just 0.25%. However, I did notice one effect.  Within 2 days I noticed my caffeine highs / lows were less dramatic.  Normally, the first cup of coffee in the morning gives me a boost of energy, then an hour later it starts to wear off and I need another.  While taking the supplement the highs and lows were much less noticeable.

I read more about the effects of L-Theanine and discovered this is commonly documented.  This alone is a pretty good reason to continue using it.

My Stack

Taking one supplement does not constitute a “stack”.  However, during my research I noticed discussion of 5-HTP as a nootropic.  I have taken this for 2-3 years but didn’t really consider in a nootropic.  It is recommended for mood management.  When I take this supplement I generally have a “half-full” outlook on life.  [From the standardized test: is the glass half-full or half-empty].  When I stop taking 5-HTP, the glass is more likely to be half-empty.  This all relates to the serotonin levels.  Now that I realize I’m up to two supplements, is that a stack?  Perhaps, but a pretty weak one.

I’ll read more on this topic and test another supplment to see if it has magical results, but only if it falls in the FDA’s GRAS category.  If I find a good one, these blog posts will probably become much more coherent.

Note, I do not suggest anyone should be taking 5-HTP, L-Theanine or any supplement without consulting their doctor first.