Nootropics, adaptogens, superfoods, biohacking – all buzz words that don’t add up to a whole lot if you can’t find a single peer-reviewed article or clinical study to support them. Is the new wave of greens supplement powders a new generation of snake oil – or worse – radium energy tonics??
Maybe. Not really. It depends.
Not all nootropics are created equal, which is why some are backed by a solid body of medical research, and others, not so much. And while saying, “Oh, this has been used medicinally for 1000 years” is cool, it’s the 21st century and we’re in the West – we want to know scientists in lab coats have guinea-pigged people about it. We want receipts.
MTE’s unique blend of adaptogens, nootropics and superfoods is 100% based on a psychotic amount of research on the part of our founders and formulators; you can find clinical evidence on every single ingredient in our greens powder, including how certain ingredients are better together. Check out our blog to see for yourself.
But this is bigger than us – what about other nootropics and other products? How are you supposed to know when you see an ingredient name whether or not it’s legit? Well, we skipped caffeine – because why – and then compiled this handy list of 5 powerhouse nootropics with real academic literature behind them:
L-theanine is a water-soluble amino acid found in green tea, along with the many other compounds that make green tea so healthy. But according to a recent review of the literature, l-theanine is likely the main reason, even amongst all those other good-for-you compounds.
L-theanine was first isolated by Japanese researchers in the ‘60s, with research on its nootropic effects beginning in earnest in the ‘70s. A couple compelling recent studies:
- 2019: In a randomized placebo-controlled trial on l-theanine supplementation for cognitive benefits, healthy adults were given either placebo or l-theanine supplements for 4 weeks. After 4 weeks, the l-theanine group demonstrated improved scores in cognitive function, verbal fluency and decision making. At the same time, they showed reduced scores in sleep latency, sleep disturbance, and use of sleep aids.
- 2021: In a randomized placebo-controlled trial on the effects of l-theanine on cognition in middle-aged and older adults, subjects were evaluated after a single dose of an l-theanine supplement. A single dose proved to improved reaction time to attention, and increased correct answers while reducing errors of omission in working memory tasks.
A 2019 review of the literature concluded that daily supplementation with l-theanine bears immediate cognitive benefits and long-term calming and stress reducing effects. Interestingly, the more nervous and stressed someone is, the more l-theanine seems to affect them.
What can’t saffron be used for? Paints, pastes, dyes, dishes, and now wellness supplements with nootropic stacks. We know saffron has been used medicinally for at least 5200 years, though its history with humans goes wayyy farther back. Today, we know what makes saffron such a health-boosting little plant: safranal, pricocrococin, crocin, and crocetin.
The modern research on saffron’s nootropic effects is usually done by isolating the safranal or one of the crocins to see exactly what it does on its own so we can understand how and why these compounds work together. Two recent studies:
- 2015: A rat study on the effects of administering saffron extracts to explore their restorative potential for cognitive processes found some pretty compelling things. Just 7 days of saffron supplements ameliorated memory and spatial learning impairments and restored hippocampal antioxidant and fat levels, meaning saffron supplementation protected and even improved hippocampal function under conditions of stress.
- 2020: In a randomized, placebo-controlled animal study exploring Affron®’s effects on mood and stress, subjects were given this high-quality saffron extract for 6 weeks. After the 6 week period, subjects displayed several behavioral markers that indicated significant improvements in perceived sadness, low mood and high stress.
Fun Fact: Rates of degenerative neurological disorders tend to be lower in Asian countries, and it may partially be due to the high consumption of saffron.
For a recent review of the clinical literature on saffron, check out this 2015 study. And for more on saffron’s history and the modern science behind it, check out our in-depth article on saffron’s nootropic abilities.
3. Bacopa monnieri
Bacopa monnieri, a traditional herb used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, has gained recent attention for its potential cognitive-enhancing properties. A large body of animal studies and human trials suggest it proves memory, focus and learning by reducing brain inflammation, promoting proper activity of the body's main learning and memory neurochemicals, and boosts nerve growth factor – protecting brain cells and spurring proliferation of new ones. Two compelling studies:
- 2008: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study explored the cognitive effects of a 90-day regimen of Bacopa monnieri supplements. Subjects treated with this nootropic displayed significant improvements in working memory, including spatial accuracy and visual information processing.
- 2010: A randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study looked at the effects of Bacopa monnieri supplements on 81 older adults. After 12 weeks of daily supplements, subjects showed significant improvements in learning, memory acquisition, delayed recall, total learning, and retroactive inference.
For an in-depth clinical review of the literature on Bacopa monnieri, read this 2012 study on its cognitive-enhancing benefits.
GABA is the body’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter (read: calm-down chemical). But it’s also an amino acid, and it’s also a nootropic. GABA works closely with glutamate: GABA calms overexcited neurons while glutamate stimulates underactive ones. This helps to balance signaling about mood, stress and energy levels.
GABA is accepted in mainstream medicine for these nootropic abilities – modern psychiatry agrees that low levels of GABA are associated with several mood and affect disorders, as well as some psychotic disorders. As such, it’s already often used as a pharmacological nootropic. The way GABA works, it creates a calm feeling that does not come with fog or fatigue, and it’s also known to help with chronic sleep challenges.
5. Lion’s Mane
Lion’s mane is a functional mushroom, meaning it has bioactive abilities that can be used medicinally. There’s clinical evidence galore for more than a few of lion’s mane’s health benefits, but we’ll focus on the nootropic ones. Research indicates this medicinal mushroom can improve chronic unease and emotional distress, brain health, gut health, nerve function, and way more. Two recent studies:
- 2017: In a mice study on the effects of lion’s mane on hippocampal health, healthy adult mice were given the nootropic. The results were pretty cool –they spent more time exploring new things and spending time outside of their cages, and showed improved problem-solving skills and recognition task performance. Physiologically, synaptic activity and connections increased while failure rates decreased.
- 2020: A pilot study on the effects of lion’s mane on hippocampal health used patients diagnosed with mild Alzheimer’s to test several physiological markers of cognitive health after 49 weeks of supplementation. At 49 weeks, subjects experienced increases in eye health and hippocampal health, improving the systems that deal with visual/spatial learning, cognition and memory. At the same time, the placebo group saw significant declines in these markers.
For more on this talented fungus, this article by Healthline is filled with academic sources on the various talents of lion’s mane.
So no – nootropics aren’t snake oil. In fact, natural nootropics (buzz word: nutraceuticals) are a main focus of a lot of medical research right now, and quite likely to become more mainstream in clinical medicine. And as we can see, these nootropics are best when you take them daily for long periods of time.
Looking for a daily greens powder supplement with some of these stalwart brain-boosting nootropics? Check out the nootropic and adaptogen stacks in MTE, you’re new go-to daily feel-good drink.