What Are the Cognitive Benefits of Creatine?

By Phil White

As one of the most heavily researched supplements, it’s pretty common knowledge that creatine can help you improve your power and strength output and even enhance your endurance performance. But did you know that it can also give you a mental lift, help buffer stress, and enable you to thrive even when you’re exhausted? Let’s dive into the cognitive benefits of creatine.

What is Creatine’s Role in the Brain?

The majority of creatine in your body is stored in skeletal muscle as creatine kinase (CK-MM), from where it’s drawn on to provide energy in quick bursts as part of the ATP-PC system. That being said, creatine is also found in two other areas of the body in slightly different forms: as CK-MB in your heart (where there’s also some CK-MM, as your heart is a muscle as well as an organ) and in your brain in a unique isoform known as CK-BB.[1] According to multiple studies, the latter exists to provide energy to the central nervous system, maintain blood flow between different regions of the brain (aka cerebrovascular function), and protect the brain from trauma.  

When you’re stressed out or performing a lot of focused mental work, your brain burns through more oxygen and glucose than normal. According to a study by scientists at the University of Milan in Italy, such tasks also rapidly deplete your brain’s creatine stores.[2] This implies that the pool needs to be replenished, and supplementation is an effective way to do it. 

How Can Creatine Supplementation Improve My Mental Performance?

Researchers from the University of Sydney and Macquarie University in Australia investigated the effects of daily creatine supplementation on the cognitive output of 45 healthy young adults. They concluded that taking creatine consistently improved working memory and overall intelligence to a statistically significant degree.[3] The scientists stated that creatine improved brain power, increased brain energy capacity, and expedited recall. While the test subjects were vegetarians, the authors noted that even meat eaters would need to consume an unrealistic two kilograms (4.4 pounds) a day to ingest the same amount of creatine. This suggests that even if your diet contains good sources of creatine like grass-fed beef, you might still want to consider supplementing.

Another way that creatine might benefit your brain is by helping it buffer physical, mental, emotional, and environmental stressors. A February 2021 review asserted that creatine could “facilitate ATP homeostasis during periods of rapid or altered brain ATP turnover, such as during complex cognitive tasks, hypoxia, sleep deprivation, and some neurological conditions.”[4] A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience supports this statement.[5] Scientists found that when they took creatine, participants improved their overall cognitive performance while oxygen-deprived, implying that this supplement can help keep your mind sharp during demanding workouts and/or if you train at altitude.

Creatine also appears to improve performance when you’re tired. In an experiment conducted at the University of Chichester in England, sleep-deprived subjects performed better in a range of psychomotor and cognitive tasks when they supplemented with creatine.[6] So if you ever wake up feeling exhausted, creatine can help you get the most out of your day.

Creatine supplementation might be even more beneficial for females, as women typically store 70 to 80 percent less creatine than men. The authors of a review published in Nutrientswrote that, “Pre-clinical and clinical evidence indicates positive effects from creatine supplementation on mood and cognition, possibly by restoring brain energy levels and homeostasis. Creatine supplementation may be even more effective for females by supporting a pro-energetic environment in the brain.”[7]

Could Creatine Help Protect My Brain from the Effects of Illness and Aging?

In addition to supporting optimal brain function in young and middle-aged adults, creatine supplementation can also serve as a potent neuroprotector as you get older. A review released via Amino Acids noted that creatine can prevent excitotoxicity and counteract the effects of the amino acid beta-amyloid that is believed to contribute to Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain conditions. Though we need to be careful in extrapolating results from animal studies, the author also noted that creatine supplementation in rodents helped improve movement coordination and reduce motor pattern degeneration resulting from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). “Creatine, therefore, shows great promise in the treatment of a variety of neurodegenerative diseases,” he wrote. [8]

While there isn’t yet enough data to make a definite statement, creatine supplementation also shows promise in helping people recover from the cognitive and neuromuscular effects of COVID-19. A researcher from the University of Pécs in Hungary suggested that creatine can help people bounce back from post-viral fatigue syndrome (PVFS), which is common among people who have had COVID-19 and other coronavirus variants.[9]

What Dose Do I Need to Take to Make a Difference?

How much creatine you should take is a contentious topic that spans countless pages on Reddit and other forums. However, when it comes to creatine and cognition, there appears to be a line of best fit. “The level of creatine supplementation chosen was 5g per day as this is a level that has previously been shown to increase brain creatine levels,” Dr. Caroline Rae, who co-authored the Australian study mentioned earlier, told ScienceDaily. “This level is comparable to that taken to boost sports fitness.”[10]

While there is a case to be made for loading 20 grams of creatine daily for one to two weeks (with the total spread out in four or five doses), the research on its cognitive benefits have favored the daily five-gram intake that Rae suggested. Contrary to internet mythology, there’s no need to cycle off of creatine periodically, and you can take it on active rest days. Look for a high-quality creatine monohydrate option that’s third-party tested to ensure it’s free of contaminants and banned substances.

[1] “Creatine Kinase with Isoenzymes (Blood),” University of Rochester Medical Center, available online at https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=167&contentid=creatine_kinase_isoenzyme_serum.

[2] M Rango, A Castelli, and G Scarlato, “Energetics of 3.5 s Neural Activation in Humans: A 31P MR Spectroscopy Study,” Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, December 1997, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9402187/.

[3] Caroline Rae et al, “Oral Creatine Monohydrate Supplementation Improves Brain Performance: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Cross-Over Trial,” Proceedings B, August 13, 2003, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1691485/pdf/14561278.pdf.

 [4]Hamilton Roschel et al, “Creatine Supplementation and Brain Health,” Nutrients, February 2021, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7916590/.

[5] Clare E Turner, Winston D Byblow, and Nicholas Gant, “Creatine Supplementation Enhances Corticomotor Excitability and Cognitive Performance During Oxygen Deprivation,” The Journal of Neuroscience, January 28, 2015, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6795258/.

[6] T McMorris et al, “Effect of Creatine Supplementation and Sleep Deprivation, with Mild Exercise, on Cognitive and Psychomotor Performance, Mood State, and Plasma Concentrations of Catecholamines and Cortisol,” Psychopharmacology, March 2006, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16416332/.

[7] Abbie E Smith-Ryan et al, “Creatine Supplementation in Women’s Health: A Lifespan Perspective,” Nutrients, March 8, 2021, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33800439/.

[8] M Flint Beal, “Neuroprotective Effects of Creatine,” Amino Acids, May 2011, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21448659/.

[9] Sergej M Ostojic, “Diagnostic and Pharmacological Potency of Creatine in Post-Viral Fatigue Syndrome,” Nutrients, February 4, 2021, available online at https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/13/2/503/htm.

[10] “Boost Your Brain Power: Creatine, A Compound Found In Muscle Tissue, Found To Improve Working Memory And General Intelligence,” ScienceDaily, August 13, 2003, available online at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/08/030813070944.htm#.

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