Is there such a thing as a supplement that’s too good to be true? Creatine monohydrate is one of the most popular and effective sport supplements around, but most of the marketing is aimed at its (very legitimate) effects on skeletal muscle growth and strength gain.
There’s no doubt that it can improve your performance in the gym and on the track, but will it be the MVP when your brain has to run some sprints around a complex task? As it turns out, there’s some interesting science behind creatine’s effects on cognition, memory, and a whole lot more.
Here are four surprising brain-related benefits of creatine, backed by science for your consideration.
Creatine Brain Benefits
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Your Brain on Creatine
Before you dive into all the fun neuroscience of creatine, you should have a working understanding of it as both a supplement and a chemical compound. Here’s the basic rundown on how your body produces and metabolizes creatine, and why it matters.
Basic Functions and Sources of Creatine
Creatine plays important roles in rapid energy production and protection against oxidative stress. Though creatine is primarily used as a sport supplement targeting skeletal muscle, it’s also essential for brain function. (1)(2)
Fish, red meat, poultry, pork, and dietary supplements (such as creatine monohydrate, the most common version you’ll generally find) are all sources of creatine in the diet, but it can also be produced in several organs, including the brain.
Why Creatine Is Essential for Brain Function
During times of high energy demand, your brain cells rapidly deplete their stores of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and rely on the phosphocreatine system to replenish them quickly.
ATP is used for a number of tasks, including the maintenance of appropriate calcium, sodium, and potassium concentrations in and around the brain cells. These concentrations ensure that the mitochondria function properly, which prevents excess oxidative stress. They’re also required for neurons to secrete neurotransmitters involved in cell to cell communication within the body and brain. (1)(2)(3)(4)
Without adequate creatine, your brain can’t function properly, especially during times of high energy demand when many areas of the brain must synchronize communication to perform complex tasks.
Note though that this doesn’t make creatine a mandatory supplement; your body produces small amounts on its own to account for essential functions, and you get a bit more if you eat certain protein sources like red meats.
In many cases, creatine supplementation increases concentrations of creatine and phosphocreatine by 6 to 9 percent in the brains of adults and elderly individuals, improving certain cognitive abilities. So, whether you hit the iron regularly or not, creatine may be a viable daily supplement depending on your age bracket.
According to some literature, creatine improved memory in vegans and vegetarians, who appeared more sensitive to supplementation compared to omnivores. This could have been due to higher baseline levels of creatine in the brains of omnivores, but that remains speculative for now.
These effects haven’t been observed in sub-elite athletes, healthy adolescents, or elderly individuals engaged in resistance training, though, which suggests that some populations may already have reached their creatine storage capacity and won’t benefit from supplementation. (7)(8)(9)
Sleep deprivation, mental fatigue, and low oxygen environments alter the brain’s energy demands as well as its energy reserves. Sleep deprivation likely increases the energy needs of brain cells, while mental fatigue — a state of impaired performance induced by prolonged exertion — is theorized to be caused by depleted cellular energy reserves.
Without enough oxygen, your brain cells can’t produce enough ATP. Creatine supplementation could prevent the effects of these stressful states by increasing the brain’s cellular energy stores, (10)(11)(12) which may confer better cognitive capabilities.
Based on the current evidence, creatine supplementation can’t completely reverse the effects of sleep deprivation, fatigue, or a lack of oxygen, but it may preserve neuronal function, attention, working memory, and cognitive function for more complex tasks.
Sport-specific cognitive demands such as reaction time will continue to suffer if you’re sleep deprived or otherwise mentally fatigued. The available evidence doesn’t really indicate that supplementing with creatine can make up for a night of tossing and turning before game day (or an extra-heavy workout). (10)(11)(12)
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a leading cause of death in children and adolescents. TBIs interfere with calcium homeostasis in brain cells (or neurons), leading to mitochondrial dysfunction, which can cause neuronal cell death. Your cells need plenty of ATP to maintain calcium homeostasis and normal mitochondrial function, and recovering from a TBI thus increases the brain’s energy demands.
Creatine supplementation can increase energy stored in brain cells, potentially preventing ATP depletion and helping to support TBI recovery. (4)
Research on creatine supplementation for TBI is extremely sparse, but the current findings warrant more exploration. Long-term use (think three to six months) was associated with shorter post-traumatic amnesia and signs of enhanced recovery, including fewer headaches, less dizziness and fatigue, and better cognitive and communicative abilities. (4)(13)
Some research suggests that bipolar depression and major depressive disorder are linked to mitochondrial dysfunction and abnormal energy production in certain areas of the brain.
It’s possible that these changes lead to lower energy availability and less communication between brain cells, which could contribute to symptoms of depression. Mitochondrial dysfunction can also lead to more oxidative stress, which has also been linked to depression. (3)(14)(15)(16)
Because creatine can act as an antioxidant and contribute to energy reserves, researchers have explored its potential to enhance the effects of medications used to treat depression. Some results have been promising, including higher phosphocreatine levels in the brain and signs of enhanced communication between brain cells.
In adolescents with treatment-resistant depression, these changes didn’t translate to improvements in depressive symptoms. Women with major depressive disorder and individuals with bipolar disorder, however, did experience improvements in some symptoms after adding creatine to their prescription treatments.
Creatine Doesn’t Benefit the Brains of Healthy Adolescents
Though creatine supplementation might be beneficial for adolescents recovering from a TBI, it doesn’t appear to have any impact on the brains or cognitive abilities of healthy adolescents.
How to Supplement Creatine
Though it comes in multiple forms with varying levels of solubility, creatine monohydrate is generally considered to be the most effective option. (18)
When it comes to determining the right dose, there are several effective options:
- Take 3 to 5 grams each day, at any time, with or without food.
- Take 20 grams per day (in two 10-gram doses) for the first six days, then switch to 3 to 5 grams per day.
- Take 0.3 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day for the first six days, then switch to 0.1 gram per kilogram of bodyweight.
Starting with a higher dose (called a loading phase) could help you maximize your creatine stores about a month faster, but large amounts of creatine monohydrate might cause some intermittent gastrointestinal distress.
Loading your creatine doesn’t cause it to work any better long-term, so if you’re not in a hurry, your best bet is to stick to a stagnant daily 5-gram serving. You can take it first thing in the morning, as part of your pre-workout meal, or right before bed if you like.
Creatine for Cognition
From nootropics to meditation, the fitness industry is constantly prowling for the next big brain thing. Lifting weights can certainly do a lot for your mental acumen and peace of mind, but as it turns out, good old fashioned creatine might be of some use there as well.
Your brain requires creatine as part of its energy “reservoir”, and for the most part produces enough on its own (in addition to what you may get from your diet) to satisfy these demands.
That said, the scientific community does appear to endorse creatine supplementation as a cognitive booster, especially if you’re a bit long in the tooth. More research is needed, but what’s been published already is quite promising.
1. Merege-Filho, C. A. A., Otaduy, M. C. G., de Sá-Pinto, A. L., de Oliveira, M. O., de Souza Gonçalves, L., Hayashi, A. P. T., Roschel, H., Pereira, R. M. R., Silva, C. A., Brucki, S. M. D., da Costa Leite, C., & Gualano, B. (2017). Does brain creatine content rely on exogenous creatine in healthy youth? A proof-of-principle study. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism = Physiologie Appliquee, Nutrition et Metabolisme, 42(2), 128–134.
2. Rae, C., Digney, A. L., McEwan, S. R., & Bates, T. C. (2003). Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: A double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 270(1529), 2147–2150.
3. Toniolo, R. A., Fernandes, F. de B. F., Silva, M., Dias, R. da S., & Lafer, B. (2017). Cognitive effects of creatine monohydrate adjunctive therapy in patients with bipolar depression: Results from a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Journal of Affective Disorders, 224, 69–75.
4. Sakellaris, G., Kotsiou, M., Tamiolaki, M., Kalostos, G., Tsapaki, E., Spanaki, M., Spilioti, M., Charissis, G., & Evangeliou, A. (2006). Prevention of complications related to traumatic brain injury in children and adolescents with creatine administration: An open label randomized pilot study. Journal of Trauma – Injury, Infection and Critical Care, 61(2), 322–329.
5. Benton, D., & Donohoe, R. (2011). The influence of creatine supplementation on the cognitive functioning of vegetarians and omnivores. British Journal of Nutrition, 105(7), 1100–1105.
6. McMorris, T., Mielcarz, G., Harris, R. C., Swain, J. P., & Howard, A. (2007). Creatine supplementation and cognitive performance in elderly individuals. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 14(5), 517–528.
7. Alves, C. R. R., Merege Filho, C. A. A., Benatti, F. B., Brucki, S., Pereira, R. M. R., de Sá Pinto, A. L., Lima, F. R., Roschel, H., & Gualano, B. (2013). Creatine Supplementation Associated or Not with Strength Training upon Emotional and Cognitive Measures in Older Women: A Randomized Double-Blind Study. PLoS ONE, 8(10), 1–10.
8. Wilkinson, I. D., Mitchel, N., Breivik, S., Greenwood, P., Griffiths, P. D., Winter, E. M., & Van Beek, E. J. R. (2006). Effects of creatine supplementation on cerebral white matter in competitive sportsmen. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 16(1), 63–67.
9. Rawson, E. S., Lieberman, H. R., Walsh, T. M., Zuber, S. M., Harhart, J. M., & Matthews, T. C. (2008). Creatine supplementation does not improve cognitive function in young adults. Physiology and Behavior, 95(1–2), 130–134.
10. McMorris, T., Harris, R. C., Howard, A. N., Langridge, G., Hall, B., Corbett, J., Dicks, M., & Hodgson, C. (2007). Creatine supplementation, sleep deprivation, cortisol, melatonin and behavior. Physiology and Behavior, 90(1), 21–28.
11. Van Cutsem, J., Roelands, B., Pluym, B., Tassignon, B., Verschueren, J. O., De Pauw, K., & Meeusen, R. (2020). Can creatine combat the mental fatigue-associated decrease in visuomotor skills? Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 52(1), 120–130.
12. Turner, C. E., Byblow, W. D., & Gant, N. N. (2015). Creatine Supplementation Enhances Corticomotor Excitability and Cognitive Performance during Oxygen Deprivation. Journal of Neuroscience, 35(4), 1773–1780.
13. Sakellaris, G., Nasis, G., Kotsiou, M., Tamiolaki, M., Charissis, G., & Evangeliou, A. (2008). Prevention of traumatic headache, dizziness and fatigue with creatine administration. A pilot study. Acta Paediatrica, International Journal of Paediatrics, 97(1), 31–34.
14. Kondo, D. G., Forrest, L. N., Shi, X., Sung, Y. H., Hellem, T. L., Huber, R. S., & Renshaw, P. F. (2016). Creatine target engagement with brain bioenergetics: a dose-ranging phosphorus-31 magnetic resonance spectroscopy study of adolescent females with SSRI-resistant depression. Amino Acids, 48(8), 1941–1954.
15. Toniolo, R. A., Silva, M., Fernandes, F. de B. F., Amaral, J. A. de M. S., Dias, R. da S., & Lafer, B. (2018). A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, proof-of-concept trial of creatine monohydrate as adjunctive treatment for bipolar depression. Journal of Neural Transmission, 125(2), 247–257.
16. Yoon, S., Kim, J. E., Hwang, J., Kim, T. S., Kang, H. J., Namgung, E., Ban, S., Oh, S., Yang, J., Renshaw, P. F., & Lyoo, I. K. (2016). Effects of Creatine Monohydrate Augmentation on Brain Metabolic and Network Outcome Measures in Women With Major Depressive Disorder. Biological Psychiatry, 80(6), 439–447.
17. Lyoo, I. K., Yoon, S., Kim, T.-S., Hwang, J., Kim, J. E., Won, W., Bae, S., & Renshaw, P. F. (2012). A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trial of Oral Creatine Monohydrate Augmentation for Enhanced Response to a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor in Women With Major Depressive Disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 169(9), 937–945.
18. Antonio, J., Candow, D. G., Forbes, S. C., Gualano, B., Jagim, A. R., Kreider, R. B., Rawson, E. S., Smith-Ryan, A. E., VanDusseldorp, T. A., Willoughby, D. S., & Ziegenfuss, T. N. (2021). Common questions and misconceptions about creatine supplementation: what does the scientific evidence really show? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 18(1), 13.
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