Broadly, the ingestion of non-food chemicals by humans falls under one of three categories: health (either treatment or preventative), recreation, or performance enhancement. The last category causes most to think about scandals in sporting events or muscle-bound steroid users, but the use of drugs to enhance mental performance (now called nootropics) has a long, if quiet history.
Before becoming a Silicon Valley buzzword, nootropics were a class of drugs designed to help keep people at peak mental performance under stressful conditions. They were, to a man, stimulants, and were used back through at least World War II to improve fighting condition. More recently, the Air Force shifted to a non-stimulant “sleep preventative” called modafinil to keep their pilots awake on long missions. Modafinil is prescribed in the civilian market to combat narcolepsy, though many have started using it illegally for the same reasons one uses amphetamines and Ritalin illegally: either to study/work or to stay up through the night partying. Both modafinil and stimulants have a combination of gnarly side effects and possible addictive qualities keeping them from being a good idea for long-term self-administration for “cognitive enhancement”.
Ultimately, most of the new nootropic compounds which have cropped up since Reddit caught on to this do somewhere between nothing and nothing relevant. In terms of actual measurable cognitive enhancement, none of the fad compounds have been proven to do anything, and those with positive clinical results fail to stand up to the simplest and most proven of cognitive enhancers, caffeine. This has led to various experimentations with “stacks” of compounds in an attempt to maybe eke productivity out of some magical combination, despite the fact that there’s very little understood about the biochemical mechanism of any of these.
Well, except one. L-theanine is a compound extracted from green tea, which while it in isolation has no proven effect (though there are reports otherwise) has been pretty strongly observed to have a synergistic effect with caffeine. It’s (so they say) one of the reasons that green tea and tea in general tend to make you less jittery than coffee. L-theanine occurs naturally in foods and beverages, and shows no side effects in doses way higher than the effective one.
With curiosity and a little excess cash, I decided to give it a whirl.
I can confirm that on its own, L-theanine does absolutely nothing. This is not surprising, and about what I expected. Some reported feelings of relaxation or reduction in anxiety; despite the fact that I have had anxious episodes in the past I am not particularly anxious now, so it’s hard to say what a reduction in anxiety would feel like even if I had felt one. No matter.
I tested the synergistic effect of L-Theanine yesterday by having, by my admission, a stupid amount of coffee. Two Dunkin Donuts’ iced coffees and a double espresso from my work coffee maker, weaker than what you’d get at Starbucks but stronger than a normal cup of coffee. I’ve had less caffeine, sometimes much less caffeine, send me into an anxious episode that took several hours to get out of, basically enough time for the caffeine to leave my system. So doing this voluntarily given my track record was fucking dumb.
But I felt fine. I got the “crackle” in my head that has come to indicate I am heavily caffeinated, and a (much milder than usual) nervous stomach from drinking a lot of coffee with little food in my stomach. But no anxiety, no jitters, no attacks. I felt productive and alert, but without the heart pounding and stomach turning notes of a proto-anxiety attack. One test isn’t much, but it does appear to me that L-Theanine does something.
As someone who enjoys coffee and is very sensitive to it, I’m likely to continue with this experiment. A mild supplement which lessens caffeine side effects is great for me and will help keep me productive during my coffee-drinking hours. Knowing how sensitive I am to caffeine, it’s likely that a 2-3 cup a day coffee junkie may notice nothing if they were to try this. As such it’s hard to give a blanket recommendation for this, or even say it’s actually a “cognitive enhancer”. For me, though, and for anyone who is sensitive to stimulants, it could be a great boon.
For everyone else, keep reading Reddit, and please be careful about how you waste your money. Occam’s Razor is the watch word for most of this nootropic nonsense.