Out of the many workout supplements currently on the market, perhaps the best known are whey protein and creatine. Creatine, in particular, is a nutritional supplement that bodybuilders and weightlifters simply cannot do without. Ask any gym enthusiast, and they’ll sing its praises: creatine provides all the energy you need to power through an intense workout. This ultimately leads to bigger and stronger muscles than would otherwise be possible.
Creatine checks out on the physical front, and new research is underway to see how well it enhances cognitive functioning, as well. Before we delve into what has been discerned in research studies, and what is expected with creatine for brain health in the future, let’s first understand how creatine works.
Creatine: Under the Hood of the Popular Supplement
First things first: creatine is not some strange, arcane supplement that’s artificially created in laboratories for the benefit of weightlifters. In actuality, it is produced by the cells in your body. It’s an amino acid that is absolutely essential in the formation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in the kidneys and liver. Your body produces just a little bit of creatine, and it can be highly beneficial to derive some from external sources.
With that said, creatine occurs naturally in quite a few animal products. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, our own bodies produce a little bit of it and, when combined with what we derive from outside sources, we probably get about 66% of the amount of creatine that we truly need if we wanted to optimize our energy levels. The situation is notably worse if you are a vegan/vegetarian, since most creatine comes from dairy products and meats.
This is where creatine supplements can be a boon. The chief supplement as determined by the sheer multitude of medical research studies done on, is creatine monohydrate. Out of all the available options, this is the form that maximizes the availability of creatine to the body; it is not subject to the degradation often experienced by other forms of creatine when the temperature is elevated. When one breaks the numbers down, the human brain uses about 5% of the creatine that you create and imbibe; the other 95% is used and stored by your muscles.
The process of energy production in the body proceeds in two ways. In the first leg of the journey, ATP is reduced to ADP (adenosine diphosphate). Afterwards, the body searches for another phosphate to change ADP back into ATP; it requires creatine to bridge this gap and jumpstart the machine.
As for the exact mechanism involving creatine, it’s both our brain and muscles that store the necessary phosphocreatine. As you can tell by the name, this is a combination of phosphate in creatine. From the above paragraph, we can surmise (correctly, by the way) that the necessary phosphate to get ADP back into ATP is donated by phosphocreatine. The energy then flows through the body via the conduit known as mitochondria in the cells.
The mitochondria in ourselves is a bit of a workhorse; the amount of effort it has to use in shuttling out the energy from the ADP/ATP processes to the muscles and brain is dependent on the efficiency of the given pathways. This is where phosphocreatine comes into effect. If you don’t have enough of it, then the highway is not that efficient; whereas on the other hand, if you have a surplus of it than the mitochondria has to work a lot less hard and the results were show in the muscles and the brain.
Brain Food: Creatine
To get an idea of why the brain finds creatine usage profitable, remember that although the brain accounts for 2% of our total weight, it uses 1/5 of all the calories we eat. After all, the brain never gets a break – it’s running for the term of our natural lives. Many studies have been done which show that if the brain is not getting sufficient nutrition, then it simply won’t process and think as well as it otherwise would.
There have been explicit studies where subjects were placed under a significant cognitive load, as well as studies where there was sleep deprivation involved. Both of these show that the brain simply does not operate as efficiently or as effectively – poor nutrition affects the brain almost exactly like the previous afflictions.
It becomes clear then that making sure your brain has enough phosphocreatine to power its processes is enormously beneficial. Doing so also inevitably means that you’re putting your muscles in a better position to perform similarly. You should also be aware that creatine stores diminish in both our brain and muscles as we get older; sometimes this is due to disease, but other times it simply contributes to the drop-off in physical activity. Since it notices that you’re not engaging in exercise as much anymore, your body simply stops producing as much creatine.
Thus far, the pinnacle of research on the matter involved a trial with elderly participants; they were given a certain dosage of creatine and tested on cognitive activities. It’s important to note that these elderly were healthy; the study results showed that brain creatine levels in the aged group were similar to brain creatine levels in the brains of younger participants in a parallel study.
Future Research on the Matter
Because of how promising the research to date has been on the link between the brain in creatine, we can expect more instances of emerging research in the near future. As pertains to creatine monohydrate supplements given to study participants over a 2-4 week period, researchers noted a 5-15% increase in the concentration of creatine in the brain region. Some of the anticipated studies will aim to determine whether larger doses are necessary in the maintenance of the target creatine levels in the brain.
Because of the relative lack of creatine in the standard diet of a vegan/vegetarian, this group of people actually holds the most promise for studying the effects of supplemental creatine on the physique and the brain. In the studies that have been done thus far, the smaller groups of vegans/vegetarians did display superior performance in cognitive challenges when they received creatine monohydrate supplements, when compared with a placebo group of vegans/vegetarians. Some of the metrics on which they are performed for word recall, reaction time, pattern recognition and the ability to recite numbers backward.
Among the wealth of information provided by creatine studies includes improved accuracy in physical athletes such as football players and rugby players, as well as positive correlations between creatine supplementation and the performance of complicated tasks following a period of sleep deprivation. In all of the studies, the results were clear: when common sources of energy are in short supply, creatine supplementation can provide much-needed energy to brain cells for the restoration of cognitive abilities/performance.
Much like it does for your muscles, creatine appears capable of assuaging the deleterious effects of oxidative stress, repairing mitochondrial damage, and helping to repair membrane disruption post brain injury. Researchers are nonetheless caches in making pronounced statements regarding a definitive correlation between brain function and creatine supplementation.
In conclusion, it does seem as though creatine supplementation would primarily benefit people with already suboptimal levels in their system. Future research will focus on controlling multiple variables in the presence of creatine dosing strategies.