If you’re an athlete who uses supplements, chances are you’ve heard about Creatine. This supplement is best known for the physical benefits demonstrated by hundreds of studies, such as greater maximum strength, improved power output, and faster recovery. But did you know that creatine supplementation may also help you sleep better?
While the majority of the research on creatine has focused on its efficacy as an ergogenic aid, there’s a growing body of evidence that demonstrates its potential to improve your sleep so you can bounce back better and quicker from interval and strength training, and even endurance sessions. It might also enable you to prevent declines in psychomotor skill expression and the lack of emotional control that can result from sleep deprivation.
In a perfect world, every athlete would have a consistent schedule in which they’d go to bed and wake up at the same time and get adequate rest between team practices, individual workouts, and competitions. Yet we know all too well this isn’t how it works – you can’t always get the kind of sleep quality or duration you need to be your best. And yet you must continue to perform at a high level.
According to a research team from University of Chichester in England, taking supplemental creatine enabled sleep-deprived participants to perform better on psychomotor and cognitive tests, to better regulate their emotional state, and to keep their levels of stress hormones low, even though they hadn’t slept for 24 hours. “Creatine supplementation had a positive effect on mood state and tasks that place a heavy stress on the prefrontal cortex,” the researchers, who published their findings in the journal Psychopharmacology, wrote.
While we need to be cautious about extrapolating too much from animal studies, a team of four neuroscientists who published their findings in the Journal of Sleep Research found that creatine reduces the amount of sleep rats needed. Four weeks of dosing the rodents with creatine monohydrate also reduced their sleep pressure – in layman’s terms, how quickly they got tired on any given day. The researchers concluded that creatine monohydrate supplementation shows, “potential in the treatment of sleep-related disorders.”
So what’s the mechanism for how creatine stabilizes your sleep-wake cycle? Let’s break it down. When you’re up and about during the day, adenosine triphosphate (ATP – which provides energy in cells during all physical and cognitive tasks) accumulates in the brain. So too does extracellular adenosine. As the levels of these two substances build up as daytime transitions into evening, ATP and adenosine start to trigger receptors in the brain that ready your body for sleep. This is known as your sleep drive.
On the opposite end of the scale is your wake drive, which is running in high gear at those times of day when you’re sufficiently rested or pumped up on caffeine. That’s why it’s unlikely you could go back to bed and sleep an hour after waking and drinking a venti latte, but might be able to drift off for a mid-afternoon siesta when your sleep pressure had built up sufficiently and your sleep drive became stronger than your wake drive.
Creatine supplementation increases the size of the phosphocreatine store pool in your brain. This enables you to buffer the alterations that take place in the see-saw between your wake drive and sleep drive that occurs as the day goes on. This buffering process is particularly valuable when you’re already tired from a lack of sleep quality and/or duration the night before, and then layer practice, weight training, and competition on top of this. Taking three to five milligrams of creatine daily won’t stop you from ever getting sleepy, but could offset the yawning, loss of energy, and decline in psychomotor skills that signal that your sleep drive is overtaking your wake drive.
The takeaway? Keep taking creatine for the training boost it provides (read this article for a quick guide), and when you’re tired or run down (or are anticipating being so due to your practice, travel, or game/race schedule), make sure you don’t skip your daily dose.